Statehouse roundup

Parent time-off bill highlights partisan divide

Colorado House of Representatives

A bill that would guarantee parents time off for some school activities sparked a lively House floor debate before passing on a preliminary voice vote Friday.

The discussion focused on how to balance the right of parents to be involved in their children’s education with the right of employers to run their businesses.

House Bill 15-1221 prime sponsor Rep. John Buckner, D-Aurora, said he values parents more highly than business flexibility. “You have to make a decision about which of those values you hold.”

But Rep. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, cited the lack of any data that an existing parent time-off law has had any impact, calling it “an unproven program.”

Both the existing law, passed in 2009, and HB 15-1221 have significant limits and don’t provide parents free rein to take time off from work for any school activity. (The current law is set to expire later this year, so it will go out of effect unless HB 15-1221 is passed.)

The current law requires only businesses with 50 or more employees to give workers up to 18 hours a year in unpaid leave for parent-teacher conferences or meetings related to special education services, interventions, dropout prevention, attendance, truancy or disciplinary issues. The requirement didn’t apply to businesses with existing leave policies, employers can deny time off if it would disrupt business operations and the law contains no enforcement provisions or penalties for non-compliance.

In addition to extending the current law indefinitely, HB 15-1221 would add meetings with school counselors and “academic achievement ceremonies” to the list of activities for which parents can claim time off. It also would extend the law’s coverage to parents of preschool students and require school districts to inform parents about the time-off law.

Opponents of the bill argued that most businesses are flexible about giving parents time for school activities. But supporters say low-income and minority parents and low-wage workers need the law.

“This is really about families and children,” argued Rep. Rhonda Fields, another Aurora Democrat who also is a prime sponsor.

On the other side was Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio.

“This is just an overreach of government,” he said. “This should be between the employer and the employee.”

The Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry and the National Federation of Independent Business, two influential lobbying organizations, oppose the bill.

If HB 15-1221 gets final approval in the Democratic-majority House, it’s chances could be iffy in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Teacher tax break gets important committee approval

2015-Education-Bill-Tracker-plain

A measure that would give teachers a $250 state tax break for the cost of school supplies they buy was passed 12-1 Friday by the House Appropriations Committee, clearing it for House floor debate. House Bill 15-1104 had to be considered by appropriations because it could cause an estimated $355,522 in budget year 2015-16 and $711,640 in 2016-17.

Get more details on the measure and the issues behind it in this prior Chalkbeat Colorado story.

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: