A mad dash

Lawmakers leave big decisions for last

Each legislative session has its own rhythm, but one thing is true every year – the heavy lifting gets done in the session’s second half. That’s certainly the case for education bills this year.

School finance, the 800-pound gorilla of 2014, and virtually every other education bill of any interest are still far from decided.

Monday will be the 69th of the 120 calendar days the state constitution allows for each year’s session. Because lawmakers rarely convene on Saturdays and Sundays, that leaves 38 weekdays to work before the legislature must adjourn by midnight on May 7.

More than 60 education bills have been introduced so far this year, about two thirds of them in the House. But only five bills of note have gone to the governor, and another 10 have been killed.

A lot of bills have been passed by one committee – usually House or Senate education – and now are parked in one of the appropriations committees. Such spending bills – and measures proposing spending in other areas of state government – will be prioritized and culled by legislative leaders after the March 18 revenue forecasts give lawmakers a better idea how much money they have to play with in the 2014-15 budget.

Based on what survives that thinning, it looks like the Senate Education Committee could be pretty busy in late March and into April, give the larger number of education bills coming from the House than moving in the other direction.

The legislature does have a detailed list of deadlines for when bills are supposed to finish various steps in the process, but those often are waived, and there are separate, later deadlines for bills in the appropriations committees.

And still more bills may be on the way. Measures expected – or rumored – may involve teacher evaluation, early childhood, online education, college scholarships and teacher licensing.

For those of you keeping score at home, here’s the status of key education bills, starting with school finance and key policy measures, then listed alphabetically by topic.

School finance

More than half a dozen bills deal with this issue, and they involve not just school funding but also related matters such as enrollment counts, charter school facilities, spending transparency and kindergarten funding. The big measures are House Bill 14-1292, the Student Success Act, and House Bill 14-1298, the annual school finance act. This is complicated stuff – see this story for details of the debate.

The Building Excellent Schools Today construction program also is part of the finance discussion. Bills giving lawmakers greater oversight part of the problem and changing the calculation of local district matches already have gone to the governor. But broader questions about use of BEST revenues are still in play.

Other big issues

Testing is a simmering issue this year. House Bill 14-1202, which started as a district opt-out bill, has been converted into a proposed testing study and is in the House Appropriations inbox.

Two bills address the “data gap” that will be created after the state moves to the new CMAS tests in the spring of 2015. House Bill 14-1182 would give districts and the Department of Education flexibility in district and school accreditation during the testing transition. The bill has passed the House and Senate Education. Another measure, yet to be introduced, would provides some flexibility next year in the teacher evaluation system.

House Bill 14-1268, a controversial proposal to change some of the mutual consent provisions of the evaluation law, is awaiting its first hearing in House Education.

On the higher education front, Senate Bill 14-001, the proposed tuition cap and college and university budget increase, is pending in Senate Appropriations. The measure has wide support and is expected to advance. And House Bill 14-1319, a potentially contentious measure to change the higher education funding formula, was introduced Thursday.

The following sections list bills by number, with brief descriptions and status information.

Boards & districts

  • House Bill 14-1118 – Creation of a $2 million fund for grants to rural districts that offer Advanced Placement classes. In Appropriations
  • House Bill 14-1204 – Exemption of some small certain from certain state paperwork requirements. In Appropriations

Charters

  • House Bill 14-1291 – Allows charters to hire armed security guards. In House Education
  • House Bill 14-1314 – Gives charters a greater role in district mill levy override proposals. In House Education

Early childhood

  • House Bill 14-1039 – Requires integration of early childhood data with state K-12 data. In House Education
  • House Bill 14-1076 – Proposes a $12.5 million incentive program for quality improvements in preschools. In Appropriations

Higher education

  • House Bill 14-1124 – Makes certain Native American students eligible for resident tuition rates. In Appropriations
  • House Bill 14-1154 – Equalizes pay rates for full-time and part-time community college faculty at a cost of $86.2 million. In Appropriations
  • Senate Bill 14-114 – Allows CSU Global Campus to enroll freshman and sophomore students. In Appropriations

Parents

  • House Bill 14-1094 – Creates an August sales tax holiday on purchases of school supplies. Appropriations
  • House Bill 14-1156 – Expands eligibility for free school lunches. In Appropriations
  • House Bill 14-1288 – Requires parents to receive health information before opting out of immunizations required for school enrollment. Awaiting House floor debate
  • House Bill 14-1301 – Increases funding for Safe Routes to School program. In House Transportation

Students

  • House Bill 14-1102 – Increases by up to $6 million funding for gifted and talented student programs. In Appropriations
  • House Bill 14-1131 – Makes cyber bullying a misdemeanor. Passed House
  • House Bill 14-1276 – Provides grants for training students in CPR. In Appropriations
  • Senate Bill 14-002 – Moves Safe2Tell anonymous tips program to the Department of Law. In Appropriations
  • Senate Bill 14-150 – Expands the Colorado Counselor Corps program and increases funding by $5 million. In Appropriations

Teachers

  • House Bill 14-1175 – Requires CDE to conduct a study of minority teacher development, recruitment and retention. In Appropriations
  • Senate Bill 14-124 – Creates a $2 million program to train leaders for turnaround schools. In Appropriations

Past the post

The only important policy bill signed into law so far is Senate Bill 14-004, which allows community colleges to offer four-year bachelor of applied sciences degrees in technical and vocational fields. A similar bill died amid acrimony in 2013, and SB 14-004 is a classic example how easily a bill can sail through the legislature if compromises are reached before the session starts.

Two bills making mid-year K-12 funding adjustments also have been signed. Those measures were needed to account for enrollment changes and other factors.

Already dead

One job lawmakers are prompt about performing every year is killing bills, including ideological measures proposed by members of the minority party. And sometimes legislators ask for their own bills to be killed after figuring out the measures didn’t have support.

Bills that would have created a timeout on implementation of new standards and tests, allowed school staff to carry guns on campus, established a tax credit for private school tuition and paid bonuses to highly effective teachers who worked in low-performing schools all have been “postponed indefinitely,” which means exactly what it sounds like.

House Bill 14-1110, which would have set recording requirements for school board executive sessions, was killed Wednesday at the Senate sponsor’s request.

Measures proposing compensation for school board members, scholarships for early childhood educator training and tweaks to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association also have died.

This story doesn’t reference several technical bills related to education. See the Education Bill Tracker for a full list of this year’s education bills, links to texts and the latest status. The Tracker also shows all the bills that have been killed, when that happened and which committee did the deed.

the one to watch

Inside the three-candidate battle for northeast Denver’s school board seat

File photo of student at Marrama Elementary School in northeast Denver. (The Denver Post)

Of the Denver school board races on the November ballot, none packs more intrigue than the fight for District 4.

The three-person slate of candidates features an appointed incumbent who’s never run for office and supports the district’s current path, an outspoken recent high school graduate who sharply disagrees, and a former charter school educator with a more nuanced view and — in what on its surface may seem surprising — the endorsement of the teachers union.

The seat represents a large swath of northeast Denver with a wide range of income levels, including areas that are gentrifying quickly and others that have been home to some of the district’s most aggressive school improvement strategies.

The Nov. 7 election is high stakes. Four of the seven seats on the Denver school board are up for grabs. If candidates who disagree with Denver Public Schools’ direction win all four races, they’ll have the political power to change key policies in the state’s largest school district and one nationally recognized for its embrace of school choice and autonomy.

Tay Anderson is one of those candidates. The 19-year-old graduated from Denver’s Manual High School last year and is now a student at Metropolitan State University. On the campaign trail, he has doggedly criticized the district for what he describes as weak community engagement efforts and a move to “privatize” public education by approving more charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run (in Denver, by nonprofit operators).

He also has led the charge in attempting to tie the current school board and the incumbent candidates to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose stance on school choice — and especially private school vouchers, which DPS does not support — have made her a controversial figure.

    This is the first of a series of articles profiling this year’s Denver school board races. You can read about where candidates in all the DPS races stand on issues here, in Chalkbeat’s candidate questionnaire. Check out our coverage of the campaign’s first campaign finance reports here.

When DeVos came to Denver in July to give a speech to a group of conservative lawmakers from across the United States, Anderson organized a protest against her. In front of a crowd of hundreds, he called out the current Denver school board members.

“We can tell them, ‘Screw you. You’re fired in November!’” he said.

Anderson has a compelling personal story. The teenager struggled in high school before becoming a leader at Denver’s Manual High. He was student body president, chairman of the Colorado High School Democrats and a member of the Student Board of Education.

Anderson was also homeless for a time and has said his own challenges give him valuable insight into the lives of other Denver students living in difficult situations. About two-thirds of the district’s 92,000 students qualify for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty.

“I have had nobody in my corner when I was a homeless student and when I was in and out of foster care,” Anderson said at a recent televised candidate debate. “And now it is my turn to turn to our students and say, ‘I am going to be your champion.’”

His candidacy has attracted more local and national press attention than is usual for a school board race. But while Anderson has said his young age would bring a fresh perspective to the board, his opponents have questioned whether he has the experience to serve.

“It’s one thing to swing a hammer at a frustration, but it’s another to know where to swing it,” said candidate Jennifer Bacon, one of Anderson’s two opponents.

Anderson is running against Bacon, 35, and incumbent Rachele Espiritu, 48. Espiritu was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board in May 2016. The appointment process was long and marked by controversy. The first appointee, MiDian Holmes, stepped aside after details about a misdemeanor child abuse conviction and her mischaracterization of it came to light.

Both Espiritu and Bacon were among the finalists for the position. But Bacon withdrew, explaining at the time it was “in consideration of my need for growth and readiness for this position, as well as my interests in supporting the board.”

Asked recently to elaborate, Bacon said she withdrew because she sensed she wasn’t going to be appointed. She said she, too, had an arrest in her background: for stealing a necklace from Macy’s when she was in college. Bacon said the charge was dropped and she was not convicted. (No charges showed up in a background check done by Chalkbeat.)

Bacon, who attended college in Louisiana, said the arrest was a turning point at a time when she was struggling to find her purpose. She went on to join the Teach for America corps, teaching for a year in New Orleans and a year in Miami.

After teaching, she went to law school and then moved in 2010 to Denver, where she worked first as a dean for the city’s largest charter school network, DSST, and then in alumni affairs for Teach for America. She is now a regional director with Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit organization that trains educators to advocate for policy changes.

Bacon said she wondered whether her positions on key issues also made her an unlikely appointee. For instance, she has said she’s not opposed to charter schools but believes Denver has reached its threshold and should focus on shoring up its traditional schools.

“People ask me if I’m pro-charter,” Bacon said in an interview. “I’m pro-community.”

Since Espiritu was appointed, she has largely voted in line with the rest of the school board. But she chafes at the idea that the board is monolithic or a rubber stamp for the administration. Much back-and-forth occurs before a decision, she said in an interview, and each board member brings a unique background and set of life experiences to the table.

Espiritu often says on the campaign trail that she’s the only immigrant to serve on the board in the last century. She was born in the Philippines and came to the United States as a toddler. She holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Colorado Boulder and helped found a small business called Change Matrix that assists organizations with planning, putting into place and monitoring change. She and her family moved to Denver in 2012.

Espiritu has two sons. Her oldest goes to DSST: Stapleton High, a charter school. Her youngest goes to William (Bill) Roberts School, a K-8 district-run school. She has said that in choosing schools for her children, she focused on quality and not on type.

As a member of the board, Espiritu has paid particular attention to efforts to improve student mental health. She recently encouraged DPS to become a “trauma-informed school district.”

“I want us to be a district that addresses student and educator trauma in a proactive or preventative way that’s culturally sensitive and systematic in fashion,” she said at a September board meeting. “…We need to shift our thinking from asking what is wrong with a child to what happened with a child.”

Parts of northeast Denver have struggled academically. The region is home to the district’s biggest-ever school turnaround effort, as well as two of three schools the board voted unanimously last year to close due to poor performance.

The candidates’ disparate views on school closure offer a window into what differentiates them. Espiritu voted for the closures, though she noted at a subsequent board meeting that doing so was “a painful process … and such a difficult decision.”

Anderson has said he opposes closing any more traditional, district-run schools. Bacon, meanwhile, has said that while she doesn’t believe in “trapping kids in failing schools,” ideas about how to turn things around should originate with affected families.

Two local groups that traditionally endorse candidates and contribute large sums of money struggled this year with who to support in District 4. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association endorsed Bacon, but a progressive caucus of the union chose to separately support Anderson. The pro-reform group Stand for Children did not endorse any candidate, explaining that both Bacon and Espiritu surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Of the three candidates, Espiritu had raised the most money — $73,847 — as of Oct. 11, when the first campaign finance filing period ended. Bacon had raised $59,302, including $10,000 from the teachers union, while Anderson had raised $16,331.

Espiritu and Bacon have also benefitted from the support of independent expenditure committees. A union-funded group called Brighter Futures for Denver spent $139,000 on Bacon. Two other groups, Students for Education Reform and Raising Colorado, which is associated with Democrats for Education Reform, spent a total of $73,229 on Espiritu.

Sorting the Students

As Nashville heads to court over sharing student information with the state, here’s why Memphis probably won’t

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Nashville's Davidson County Chancery Court building where the state filed against Metro Nashville Public Schools over sharing contact information with charter schools.

Tennessee’s two largest school districts are often in lockstep on key issues. But in a recent tiff with the state about sharing student information with charter schools, the two districts are poised to part ways.

Leaders of Nashville’s school district have repeatedly defied an order from Tennessee’s education commissioner to share student addresses, phone numbers, and other information with the state’s controversial turnaround district, as required by a new state law. The state filed a lawsuit this week in response.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Memphis district have spoken out about the rule — but are preparing to comply. The district has given parents until Sunday, Oct. 22 to opt out of sharing their contact information with charter schools.

Instead of outright rejecting McQueen’s deadline last month like Nashville did, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson sought a compromise and the district has indicated contact information after the opt out window could be shared.

“… we respectfully request you extend your deadline until October 23, 2017 to allow our families the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding their rights and to give our board an opportunity to vote on the release of the data,” Hopson said in a letter to McQueen.

The state education department says it is holding off filing a similar suit against that district, for now. The Memphis district “is still deciding whether to comply, whereas Metro [Nashville] has made its decision already,” state spokeswoman Sara Gast said. “Given that, it is appropriate to file here and then review Shelby’s decision to decide if litigation is necessary.”

Shelby County Schools declined to share how many parents have chosen to opt out so far, but said it plans to share information with its board about the effort next week.

The fight has ignited long-simmering tensions around enrollment and the state’s influence in local schools, and comes on the heels of Metro Nashville Public Schools board voting to join Shelby County Schools in its landmark funding lawsuit against the state.

Memphis leaders have also said that the issue at hand is student privacy, though a robocall to Memphis parents indicated that the main goal of the opt-out process was not to lose students to charter schools.

Memphis’ compromise stance will be good news to groups like parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift, which says it has gathered about 1,200 parent signatures urging Shelby County Schools to release the contact information.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The legal questions at stake are the first challenge to a slight, but significant, amendment to federal rules

The Nashville school board cited two reasons for defying the state’s order in late August: One is U.S. Department of Education rule that allows districts to have discretion on who gets student directory information. The second was that when state lawmakers crafted the law that requires school districts to share student information, they did not intend for that information to be used for recruitment.

According to Frank LoMonte, a First Amendment lawyer and director of The Brechner Center at the University of Florida, said the lawsuit could have national implications.

“What we’re about to see is the first test of whether the U.S. Department of Education amended rules in 2011 are enforceable or not,” he said. What it comes down to, he said, is if a federal rule can give local districts the permission to violate state law.

The Nashville board’s second justification reflects concerns from State Rep. John Forgety, who chairs a key House education committee. He says the state is misinterpreting the law he helped create.

The state said in a statement that Commissioner Candice McQueen is seeking to confirm her interpretation of the new state law, “ensuring that families can be informed of all public education opportunities available to them.”

Below is a copy of the state’s court filing: