Budget battles

Party lines sharply drawn on Common Core, PARCC

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Colorado
Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, argues for cutting funding for PARCC tests.

During a procedural roll-call vote early Thursday evening, all 17 Republican senators voted for a motion to pull $16.8 million in funding for the coming PARCC tests from the proposed 2014-15 state budget.

The motion failed, as all 18 Democratic senators voted against it. The vote was not on a bill, merely on an amendment to a small portion of the budget.

The vote came exactly a week after the House defeated a similar amendment during its consideration of the budget, House Bill 13-1336. But three House Republicans opposed the move to defund PARCC, including Cheri Gerou of Evergreen, Frank McNulty of Highlands Ranch and Carole Murray of Castle Rock.

The votes spotlight erosion of Republican support for key elements of the mainline education reform agenda. In past sessions many Republicans have supported major reform legislation such as school and district accountability and educator evaluation, programs that depend on statewide test results.

“It’s really a vote in support of or in opposition to the state proceeding with the Common Core,” said conservative Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud. “I don’t know of a more substantive decision we can make today.”

The vote was the culmination of a discussion that started earlier in the afternoon when Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, proposed two amendments to trim the $16.8 million from the budget. The two amendments consumed about 45 minutes of debate, and both were defeated on initial votes.

Both were doomed from the start, but that didn’t dampen Marble’s emotional rhetoric. She’s emerged this year as the Senate’s most strident critic of testing, the Common Core Standards and almost anything else associated with education reform.

She talks a lot about returning to the way education used to be, and on Thursday she said, “Going back to basics is not a bad thing.” Earlier she commented, “ ‘Dick and Jane’ wasn’t such a bad reading book after all.”

Lundberg picked up the theme, saying the Common Core “has a whole lot to do with indoctrination [in] a unified set of values.”

But Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, argued, “This amendment turns the clock backwards instead of moving us forward into the 21st century.”

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver and a central figure on education reform legislation, also spoke against defunding PARCC.

The roll-call vote came at the end of the debate, when attempts to overturn earlier votes are permitted under legislative rules.

“Voracious appetite” beats out fiscal caution

The simmering fight over campus construction projects boiled up again Thursday as the Senate debated the budget.

While ideology and partisan feeling play a role in the testing and K-12 discussions, opinions in the college construction debate are driven by local interests, and they cross party lines.

And the funny thing is the fight is largely over state revenue hasn’t yet been collected. The tussle is largely about a priority list of campus construction projects that, under the plan approved by the House, would receive up to $119 million in funding only if the 2013-14 budget year surplus ends up being larger than currently forecast by executive branch economists. (It’s complicated; see this story for the explanation.)

After the dust settled Thursday evening in the Senate, the price tag for wish list projects has risen to $129 million. And senators had decided a new science building at Fort Lewis College would be split between $10 million in certain funding and $10 million in surplus “wish list” funding and that a $20 million building at Western State Colorado University in Gunnison had been added to the surplus-funding wish list.

Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, fought hard against the pork-barrel spending spree, repeatedly referring to lawmakers’ “voracious appetite” for building projects. But his amendments to trim the cost of the wish list were defeated.

“There is a voracious appetite to fund projects,” he said. Rather, he suggested, lawmakers shouldn’t commit future revenues now but let the 2015 legislature decide how to spend any surplus from this year.

“Let the army of lobbyists for all the higher education institutions take care of that with next year’s Capital Development Committee,” he said. “I wish we could restrain ourselves.”

After losing a vote on one amendment, Steadman quipped, “The voracious appetite marches on.”

Steadman did get some support from Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs. “What we’re fighting over is phantom dollars for phantom projects,” he said.

The dispute over spending future revenues is partly a feud between the Capital Development Committee and the Joint Budget Committee, of which Steadman is vice chair.

Rep. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village and chair of capital development, objected to Steadman’s “voracious” comments. A former CU regent, Schwartz is known for her advocacy of higher education spending.

Use of to-be-collected surplus revenues for campus buildings would have the effect of capping at $31 million a 2013 law to transfer extra money to the State Education Fund, which is used to support various K-12 programs.

That was mentioned only once during Thursday’s debate. Majority Leader Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, said while he supports the college funding plan, “It also means less money going into the State Education Fund.” (K-12 interests have decided not to oppose the plan and focus instead on bigger education funding bills.)

Trying to steal from various Peters to pay Paul

One of Marble’s amendments would have shifted the $16.8 million of testing money into K-12 funding to reduce what everyone at the Capitol calls the “negative factor,” or the current $1 billion shortfall in school funding.

Republicans had drafted nine other negative-factor amendments that proposed to generate varying amounts of money by taking it from a grab bag of state programs.

Steadman kept pointing out that the negative factor can’t be affected by amendments to the budget bill but rather can only be changed through the annual School Finance Act, which is House Bill 14-1298 this year.

Republicans made their points on three of the amendments, all of which lost, and they withdrew the other six, to the relief of everyone in the chamber.

(Sen. David Balmer, D-Centennial, provided a little insight into the intensity of negative factor as an issue this year. “I’ve received almost 700 emails from parents in my district that the negative factor be reduced with no strings attached.”)

The Senate is expected to take the final roll-call vote on HB 14-1336 Friday. Then the Joint Budget Committee will have to reconcile differing House and Senate amendments and make sure the whole thing balances.

“I think we have some work yet to do,” Steadman said.

Testing reboot

ACT do-overs pay off for 40 percent of Tennessee high school seniors who tried

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Tennessee’s $2 million investment in helping high school seniors retake the ACT test appears to be paying off for a second year in a row.

Almost three-fourths of the class of 2018 took the national college entrance test last fall for a second time, doubling the participation rate in Tennessee’s ACT Senior Retake Day for public schools. State officials announced Wednesday that 40 percent of the do-overs resulted in a higher overall score.

Of the 52,000 students who participated in the initiative’s second year, 2,333 raised their average composite to a 21 or higher, making them eligible for HOPE Scholarship funds of up to $16,000 for tuition. That’s potentially $37 million in state-funded scholarships.

In addition, Tennessee students are expected to save almost $8 million in remedial course costs — and a lot of time — since more of them hit college-readiness benchmarks that allow direct enrollment into credit-bearing coursework.

But besides the benefits to students, the early results suggest that Tennessee is inching closer to raising its ACT average to the national average of 21 by 2020, one of four goals in Tennessee’s five-year strategic plan.

After years of mostly stagnant scores, the state finally cracked 20 last year when the class of 2017 scored an average of 20.1, buoyed in part by the senior retake strategy.

(The ACT testing organization will release its annual report of state-by-state scores in August, based on the most recent test taken. Tennessee will release its own report based on the highest score, which is what colleges use.)

Tennessee is one of 13 states that require its juniors to take the ACT or SAT and, in an effort to boost scores, became the first to pay for public school seniors to retake their ACTs in 2016. Only a third of that class took advantage of the opportunity, but enough students scored higher to make it worth expanding the voluntary program in its second year.

Last fall, the state worked with local districts to make it easier for seniors to participate. The retake happened during the school day in students’ own schools, instead of on a Saturday morning at an ACT testing site.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the expanded access has paid off tenfold. “Now, more Tennessee students are able to access scholarship funding, gain admission to colleges and universities, and earn credit for their work from day one,” she said.

Of the state’s four urban districts, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, which serves Davidson County, increased its average composite score the most (up .5 to 18.4), followed by Hamilton County (up .3 to 19.4), and Shelby County Schools, (up .2 to 17.1). Knox County Schools and the state-run Achievement School District, which operates high schools in Memphis, saw slight drops from their retakes and will retain their higher average scores taken earlier.

Statewide, 10 school systems logged a half point or more of growth from their junior test day to the senior retake:

  • Anderson County, up .6 to 19.3
  • Arlington City, up .6 to 22.5
  • Collierville City, up .6 to 24.3
  • Davidson County, up .5 to 18.4
  • Franklin County, up .6 to 20.1
  • Haywood County, up .5 to 17.5
  • Henderson County, up .5 to 21.2
  • Humboldt City, up .8 to 17.4
  • Maryville City, up .5 to 22.1
  • Williamson County, up .6 to 24.1

Tennessee set aside up to $2.5 million to pay for its 2017 Retake Day, and Gov. Bill Haslam is expected to fund the initiative in the upcoming year as well. The state already pays for the first ACT testing day statewide, which it’s done since 2009.

Correction: January 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to show that, while the state set aside $2.5 million for its ACT retake initiative, it spent only $2 million on the program this fiscal year.

Paying for school

Sweeping study proposes major changes to the way schools are funded in Michigan

Michigan needs to change the way it funds education so that schools get more money for students who need extra attention — such as those who live in poverty and those who don’t yet have a strong command of the English language.

That’s the top recommendation from a prominent group of educators, policymakers, and business leaders who have been studying Michigan’s school funding system for much of the past two years.

While many states use a complex formula that gives schools more money if they serve children facing extra challenges, Michigan has long used a system that distributes the same amount of money for virtually all students, regardless of their needs.

The state provides some extra funding for students with disabilities — but not nearly enough, according to a state study last year that found schools across Michigan are getting $700 million less a year than they need to serve those students.

The study released Wednesday recommends a major restructuring so that schools would be fully funded for special education programs and would get extra funds to provide resources to students who need extra help. With that money, schools could offer lower class sizes, add counselors and social workers, and give teachers more support, the report says.

The study was conducted by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates on behalf of the Michigan School Finance Research Collaborative.

The collaborative — including top business and education leaders across the state — came together in 2016 after an earlier “school adequacy study” was largely ignored by political leaders.

The earlier study, which was funded by the state legislature, recommended that the state significantly increase the amount of money it sends to schools per student.

The collaborative hopes this new more robust study, which clocks in at more than 300 data-packed pages, will have a greater impact.

Since this study used multiple methods to determine the right funding level for schools, it will be more difficult to ignore, the group hopes.

The study — paid for with $843,000 from major foundations and 18 county school districts — included interviews with hundreds of educators, including district and charters school teachers. Those interviews helped researchers determine how much money schools need to more effectively do their jobs.

The study examined geographic cost differences in different parts of the state, labor cost differences, and other factors and determined that schools need approximately $9,590 each for students who don’t have special needs, including funds that would come from the state and federal governments.

The study recommends that schools get 35 percent more for students living in poverty, between 50 and 70 percent more for students who are learning English, 70 percent more for students with mild disabilities and 115 percent more for students with moderate disabilities.

Among other recommendations in the  report is that charter schools receive the same per-student funding as districts. Currently, the state’s funding system pays some districts more per student than others based largely on historic funding levels as opposed to current needs. Some districts — including most charter schools — are currently getting around $7,600 per child from the state while others get thousands of dollars more

It’s difficult to compare how much funding schools are getting now with the proposed $9,590 per student because schools get a mix state and federal dollars and the $9,590 doesn’t include things like transportation dollars.

The report suggests that the state use a new approach to student transportation in which transportation dollars are distributed differently, taking into account differences between urban and rural school districts.

The report did not put a price tag on the cost of implementing the recommendations and did not spell out how Michigan could come up with the extra money. But members of the collaborative said they hope lawmakers will consider the report as they make policy changes. 

“The issue here is not about whether you live in Farmington or whether you live in Ingham County, it’s about every child ought to have the opportunity to be successful and that ought to be our goal in Michigan,” said Randy Liepa, the Superintendent of Wayne County’s intermediate school district. “I don’t think there will be significant pushback on that.”

The findings were released Wednesday morning, with press conferences planned in Lansing, Grand Rapids, and in the Detroit area.

Read the full report here: