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Pair of testing reduction bills pop up in Senate

Testing task force chair Dan Snowberger (left) briefs legislators on the group's work.

The first testing bills of 2015 have been introduced in the Senate, one that would make extensive trims to the current assessment system and the second of which would cut back social studies testing.

Senate Bill 15-073, sponsored by Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, would require the state to cut testing to the so-called federal minimums and to ask federal authorities for a waiver that would allow use of the ACT test as the only assessment in high school. While such a request was pending, the ACT test would temporarily be eliminated.

Senate Bill 15-056 is a repeat of Sen. Andy Kerr’s unsuccessful attempt to trim social studies from the closing days of the 2014 session.

The two were among a flurry of education bills introduced this week, including an extensive “parent’s bill of rights” proposed by Republicans, a Democratic bill to cap student loan interest rates, a proposal to change admissions policies at Metropolitan State University, and a plan to boost compensation of community college faculty.

The Merrifield and Kerr bills are the first of what are expected to be several proposed measures on assessments. Republicans are likely to weigh in on the issue and also propose pulling Colorado out of the Common Core State Standards. It’s widely assumed the legislature will take some action on testing but most likely through a compromise, bipartisan bill.

Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs / File photo
Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs / File photo

The Merrifield proposal to reduce testing to federal minimum requirements likely would eliminate science and social studies testing in the 12th grade, although the federal government does require a science test sometime during high school. It also would eliminate language arts and math tests in the 9th and 12th grades, tests Colorado gives now but that aren’t required under federal law.

Social studies tests, including those in lower grades, also are a Colorado-only policy. (See this Chalkbeat Colorado story for background on the implications of such testing cuts.)

The bill suggests temporarily eliminating the ACT test, now given to all 11th graders, but also would require the state to ask the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver that would allow the ACT to be the only test given to Colorado high school students. (The state currently gives language arts and math tests in 10th grade.)

Merrifield’s bill would retain the school readiness and READ Act assessments and evaluations used in grades K-3 but reduce the frequency in some cases.

“It’s a work in progress,” Merrifield said of his bill. “I’m willing to listen to other ideas, [but] I think the bill as drafted now is a huge step.” He added he’s “optimistic” the legislature will be able “to make some advances” on testing.

Senate Bill 15-056, the social studies measure introduced by Kerr, a Lakewood Democrat, would allow the state to give the new social studies tests only once every three years in every school. Only “a representative sample” of schools would administer the tests in any given year. Currently the tests are given to all 4th, 7th and 12th graders. Rollout of the tests last fall sparked boycotts by high school seniors in some districts.

The last-minute 2014 bill on social studies was killed in the House Education Committee. Kerr commented recently that passing the bill then would have saved some disruption last fall. The high school scores haven’t been compiled, but the 4th and 7th grade scores from tests last spring showed room for improvement (see story).

Lawmakers awaiting testing recommendations

Republican Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, chair of the Senate Education Committee, has promised that he won’t hold hearings on testing bills until after the advisory Standards and Assessments Task Force presents its recommendations to lawmakers on Jan. 28.

Durango Superintendent Dan Snowberger, who chaired the task force, briefed the House and Senate education committees on the group’s work Wednesday but, by pre-arrangement with Hill, didn’t discuss recommendations. (The group’s direction, based on its last meeting Monday, is fairly clear. See this story.)

Snowberger did say the diverse group generally agreed that “It does seem like we’ve reached the point where it feels like we’re over-assessing.”

Two Republican lawmakers used the occasion to ask about SchoolVault, an electronic tool developed by the Durango district to help teachers track student progress on locally designed classroom tests. Some testing critics have intimated that Snowberger somehow has a conflict of interest because of his involvement with School Vault and chairing the task force.

When Rep. Justin Everett, R-Littleton, tried to press the issue, Hill cut him off, saying, “Save that for a personal conversation afterwards.”

Fresh bills cover wide range of issues

Other new education bills introduced as of Wednesday include:

Get texts, bill details in the Education Bill Tracker

Senate Bill 15-068 -Caps the annual interest rate that a private lender may charge for a student loan to 2 percentage points above the rate charged by the federal government. The bill also makes student loan payments deductible on state income taxes. The measure has been assigned to Senate State Affairs, usually considered the kill committee. Prime sponsors: Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville; Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City.

Senate Bill 15-070 – Would eliminate state licensing of childcare centers that serve fewer then 10 children. The current cutoff is five children, although centers with five-10 children can apply for an exemption. Prime sponsors: Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud; Rep. Janek Joshi, R-Colorado Springs.

Senate Bill 15-072 – Reclassifies Metro State as a “moderately selective” institution. Metro currently is classified as “modified open admission,” which means students aged 20 or older only need a high school diploma or GED for admission. Metro officials didn’t request the change and say they are studying the bill. Prime sponsors: Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs’ Rep. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument.

Senate Bill 15-077 – Creates a comprehensive “parent’s bill of rights” covering disclosure and parent consent on such matters as school records, health care decisions, making audio or video recordings of children, curriculum, sex education and other matters. It contains various opt-out provisions but doesn’t appear to include a testing opt-out. Other bill provisions cover medical issues. The bill was assigned to Senate Education. Prime sponsors: Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton; Rep. Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock. (The two new legislators are father and son, respectively, and are among the legislature’s more conservative members.)

Senate Bill 15-080 – Expands participation in the defined contribution pension program offered by the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, most of whose members are in the defined benefit plan. Prime sponsor: Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs.

Senate Bill 15-094 – Represents this year’s attempt to improve pay and benefits for part-time community college faculty. Prior efforts have failed because of the considerable cost involved. Assigned to State Affairs. Prime sponsors: Sen. John Kefalas, D-Fort Kefalas; Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton.

New mayor

Illinois charter PAC ready to spend millions in Chicago elections

PHOTO: Creative Commons

A pro-charter Illinois PAC will expand its focus from statewide politics into Chicago’s upcoming mayoral and alderman elections, with a plan to infuse millions of dollars into contested races where education is at issue.

“The stakes couldn’t be higher for urban public education,” Andrew Broy, president of INCS Action, a political action committee that advocates for charter schools in Illinois, told Chalkbeat. “We expect to spend a seven-figure sum in each of these races.”

INCS Action is the political advocacy arm of the Illinois Network for Charters Schools, and in the past has advocated for lifting a cap on charters statewide and against a statewide charter moratorium.

The expansion of charter schools is a live-wire issue in Chicago, with some advocates arguing that the growth of charters, which are publicly funded but privately run, pushes out resources for neighborhood schools in low-income areas. Charter advocates, meanwhile, argue the charter school model offers a faster way to bring high-quality education to students in Chicago.

Chicago Public Schools has 121 charter schools, down 7 percent from two years ago when the teachers union negotiated a cap on charter enrollment.

The upcoming elections make up just one part of a the network’s larger legislative agenda, with three of its five legislative goals already in place, Broy said. They’ve established the state charter school commission, secured charter funding equity in Illinois, and created a 10-year renewal term for charter contracts, he said, adding, “we still need to secure state facility funding and lift the cap on charter schools nationwide.”

INCS Action has not yet named the candidates it will support, but said its criteria for endorsement include contested races featuring candidates with different positions on charter schools. “For aldermanic races, if we can impact 2,000 or 3,000 votes in a ward, that offers a lot of opportunity,” Broy said.

Aldermen can introduce city-level resolutions against charter openings or ban a charter’s expansion into their ward or, if they are supportive, offer tax-increment financing for charter school buildings or other investments.

The Chicago Teachers Union also runs a PAC, through which it has supported candidates at the state, mayoral and aldermanic levels. The union opposes charter expansion. 

Broy expects his group will support candidates by sending out mailers, canvassing and telephoning voters.

According to election finance data obtained by Illinois Sunshine, the INCS Action PAC has already contributed more than $65,000 to the campaigns of state-level candidates for congressional seats in Illinois since Sept. 11. The largest sums went to the campaigns of Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Burr Ridge, the House minority leader, and Rep. Monica Bristow, D-Alton.

In state-level races, INCS Action has been a heavy hitter since it started in 2013. This past spring, the organization said in a press release that 13 of the 15 primary candidates for Illinois’ state Senate and House of Representatives supported by the group won their primaries.

The next governor could play a big role in the future of charter schools in Illinois, and by extension in Chicago, but Broy says the committee has declined to endorse a candidate because of the amount of spending required to sway a candidate or the election. The committee gets more bang for its buck focusing on local races.

Incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner and challenger J.B. Pritzker have staked out opposing positions on the charter debate, with Rauner a supporter of charter schools, while his opponent says he’d place a moratorium on opening new charters.

Meanwhile, Broy said his political action committee will soon begin throwing money into campaigns he believes they can win. “In some races, we see a pathway to victory with our support.”

 

Heated Debate

Candidates clash over innovation schools and high school closures in IPS Board campaigns

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang / Chalkbeat
Candidates for the District 3 and District 5 seats on the Indianapolis Public Schools Board debated at a forum hosted Tuesday night by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Recorder, WFYI, and the Central Library.

In the races for three seats on the Indianapolis Public Schools Board, candidates are sharply split over whether the district is moving in the right direction.

The divisions were clear during a forum Tuesday night hosted by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Recorder, WFYI, and the Indianapolis Public Library. Some of the most heated discussions came over the district’s recent decision to close high schools and move to an all-choice high school model, and candidates also clashed over the district’s innovation partnerships with outside operators to run schools — including some where students have struggled the most.

“It’s just disruptive when you just keep changing and changing and changing,” said ceramics studio owner and IPS parent Joanna Krumel, who goes by Jodi, a challenger in the at-large race. “Especially when the district was doing a good job with the programs that they had.”

Retired IPS teacher Susan Collins, who is also running for the at-large seat lamented the closure of high schools that had long legacies in their neighborhoods: “Why do we let our good programs die?” she said.

But at-large incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan defended the district’s decisions, pushing back on the perception that schools have taken a turn for the worse.

“I don’t think we were doing well. I don’t think all was all right with IPS. I think we were patient for too long with strategies that weren’t moving the needle for kids,” said Sullivan, a former Democratic state lawmaker.

Read more: Sort through each school board district race and see candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

Candidates also debated the district’s low test scores, financial transparency, community engagement, and equity of access to highly sought-after magnet programs.

Often, their disagreements illustrated long-standing rifts between advocates and critics of school choice.

The at-large challengers denounced the district’s partnerships with charter schools, influential charter supporters such as The Mind Trust, and the Indy Chamber on finances and its referendum efforts.

“There is too much incursion by business interests in the education of our children,” Collins said.

Krumel said she didn’t support working so closely with charter schools, either: “I don’t think that charter schools are here to stay. At least I hope they’re not.”

But Sullivan called those “adult battles” over politics that distract from addressing the needs of children.

“I’m just very sad that we still have the same kinds of conversations that take our eyes off the prize of being able to offer every single kid in the city of Indianapolis a great opportunity,” Sullivan said. “I would like to have more conversations about where we’re going, what’s possible — and not a return to something that I don’t think were ever really glory days, especially not for too many of our students of color and students in poverty.”

In the race for the open seat in District 3, which represents the north side, one candidate supported innovation schools while two others expressed concerns.

“I see innovation schools, frankly, as the next generation of the district willing to take risks, to do what it takes to serve our students,” said Evan Hawkins, executive director of facilities and procurement for Marian University and an IPS parent. “Innovations schools are not the panacea, but innovation represents one of those options that the district has … [to] ensure that our schools stay locally controlled.”

But Sherry Shelton said she wanted to support ideas proven to work, and she didn’t believe the innovation schools showed enough positive results.

“I don’t think we should take a chance with our students,” said Shelton, director of information services for Pike Township schools. “I think we should stop the innovation schools, re-evaluate the program, tweak it, and if it’s something that we’re going to move forward with, that we develop a successful process to open those, evaluate, and keep them up to a certain standard.”

Michele Lorbieski, a trial attorney with Frost Brown Todd and an IPS parent, said the innovation schools cause disruption, and said they haven’t shown as much improvement as is often touted.

“I think we need to pump the brakes on these innovation schools,” she said. “We’re doing a pilot to figure out if our high school students should take the IndyGo bus, but we didn’t even pilot the innovation schools. So let’s make sure they’re effective before we keep going down this path at this pace we’re going.”

In the race for District 5, which represents the northwest side of the city, candidate Taria Slack outlined the challenges of teacher turnover that she has seen in the innovation schools that her three children attend.

“I think we need to stop replicating this program until we have better research on what’s really going on,” said Slack, a federal worker. “We need to make sure that our kids are hitting every last one of these benchmarks.”

But incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an IPS parent, said families and community members sometimes feel innovation schools are the best fit for their neighborhoods.

“Sometimes the innovation school option is the best option,” she said. “So I see charter schools and innovation schools as part of our educational landscape, part of our toolbox if you will, to look at what’s the best option for our children in a specific neighborhood.”

Watch the full forum: