Statehouse roundup

House backs down in school finance fight; Indian mascots bill killed

Monique Lefthandbull (right) and daughters Lacey (center) and Lucille testified for the American Indian mascots bill.

Updated April 30, 10:40 a.m. – The House Thursday backed away from a confrontation with the Senate over the 2015-16 school-funding bill by stripping a controversial amendment from the measure.

The amendment, added on the House floor Thursday, would have resurrected a two-year legislative study of the school finance system. The Senate earlier killed a separate bill that contained the proposal.

Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, proposed backing off Wednesday’s amendment. While saying she supports the study, she added, “We also have to be the adults in the room. The school finance bill passing in the Senate is really important.” Leaving the amendment in the bill “really does put the bill at risk.”

The House voted 38-26 to strip the amendment and then passed the finance act 45-19.

Text of Wednesday story follows

The House set up a possible confrontation with the Senate Wednesday over the 2015-16 school-funding bill and the issue of whether the legislature should do a study of K-12 finance.

Capitol action also was marked by the defeat of some education-related measures, including the American Indian mascots bill.

Action was delayed on key bills involving testing and student data privacy, putting further pressure on the calendar as the legislature faces a May 6 adjournment deadline.

The school funding measure, Senate Bill 15-267, is pretty straightforward, although it’s disappointing to many legislators because it provides increases only for inflation and enrollment growth. It also includes a $25 million pay-down on the state’s K-12 funding shortfall and $5 million in extra money for at-risk students. (See this story for more details.)

Concern about school funding provided the impetus for another measure, House Bill 15-1334. That bill would have created a two-year legislature study committee to review the school finance system and develop reform proposals for the 2016 and 2017 legislative sessions.

That bill was killed 4-3 Tuesday by the Senate Appropriations Committee, even though it had been passed by the House 47-16 and was ratified 18-0 by a House-Senate review panel. (The appropriations committee doesn’t usually kill bills of its own volition, but it isn’t known which Senate leader may have suggested the bill be killed.)

After members from both parties vented about the inadequacy of the school funding bill, Rep. Tom Dore, R-Elizabeth, proposed an amendment that basically inserts the House’s study committee bill into the main finance bill. His colleagues liked the idea and passed the change on a voice vote, with no audible ‘no’ votes.

Finance bill sponsor Rep. Millie Hamner was taken aback by Dore’s move. “Oh my goodness. This really is an interesting dilemma,” she said. “The amendment really is a good idea.”

The Dillon Democrat also was a prime sponsor of the bill to create a study committee. But she may face some delicate negotiations because as sponsor of the main finance bill she’s committed to helping produce a “clean” measure. Sponsors in both chambers had agreed to resist big changes or additions to the school funding measure.

Separate bill includes a sweetener for rural districts

Another finance related measure, House Bill 15-1321, passed the Senate Education Committee on a 5-4 vote Wednesday. The bill gives small rural districts flexibility in complying with some state education regulations.

More important, the bill is kind of a companion school finance act for small districts. It would provide $10 million for per-pupil distribution to rural districts with fewer than 1,000 students – amounting to about $280 per child. There’s been a lot of district pressure on the legislature this year to provide some financial relief for rural districts. (See this story for background.)

Another measure, House Bill 15-1201, would provide an additional $10 million over two years to help small districts develop ways to consolidate administrative services. There’s some speculation at the Capitol that one or both of the bills may have some funding removed if lawmakers need cash for other bills in the session’s waning days.

Bill advances to authorize sale of bonds for pension system

The House Finance Committee Wednesday voted 10-1 to approve House Bill 15-1388, the late-breaking and complex plan for the state to sell bonds to help reduce the unfunded liabilities of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, which covers teachers, many state government workers and some higher education employees.

Proceeds from bond sales would be deposited in PERA’s state and schools trust funds, both beefing them up and giving the pension system more money to invest.

The bill was introduced only late Tuesday, and it was taken up by the finance committee without being listed on the panel’s calendar. (That’s within the rules during a session’s closing days.)

The bill drew support from heavyweight witnesses like state Treasurer Walker Stapleton, a longtime PERA critic; state budget director Henry Sobanet, and Kelly Brough, CEO of the Greater Denver Chamber of Commerce.

Committee members raised questions about both the plan’s safety and why it surfaced so late in the session.

Sponsor Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, said the bill came so late because it took time to reach agreement among all the interest groups involved in the issue.

Stapleton said, “I believe this has the potential to be a valuable tool to reduce PERA’s unfunded liability.”

Before bonds could be sold, the governor and treasurer would have to sign off on the plan and then seek court review of the plan’s legality.

“There is risk to this, but no doubt,” Pabon said in summing up after a hearing of more than 2 ½ hours. “But it’s a calculated risk.”

Senate State Affairs thins the ranks of ed bills

The state affairs committees in both houses traditionally are used as the “kill committees” to defeat bills that majority leadership doesn’t like. It’s usually taken as a bad sign when a bill is routed to State Affairs even if it logically should go to, say, education.

The Senate panel mostly lived up to its reputation Wednesday, but it did pass one education-related bill.

On a 2-1 vote the panel approved House Bill 15-1317. This is the so-called “pay for success” bill. The measure would allow the state to create arrangements under which foundations and investors could fund social services like early childhood programs and be repaid from savings in other programs, such as reduced remediation or special education. (Get background.)

Here’s what was killed:

House Bill 15-1165 – The bill would have required schools obtain permission from a state committee to use American Indian mascots and logos. (Get background.) 3-2 to postpone indefinitely

House Bill 15-1251 – This was a seemingly technical measure that would have reduced payments made by the Denver Public Schools to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association. Adjustment of the payments was required by the law that merged the DPS pension system into PERA five years ago, so there may legal issues if the legislature doesn’t make the adjustment. Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg testified for the bill, saying it would free up money that could be better used in classrooms. (Get details on the bill in this legislative staff summary.) 3-2 to postpone indefinitely

House Bill 15-1326 – This bill would have prohibited state colleges and universities from discriminating against applicants who earned high school diplomas from districts that have low ratings or aren’t accredited by the state. The measure was pushed by lawmakers whose legislative districts include low-performing school districts that face state intervention, including loss of accreditation, in 2016. (Get background.) 2-1 to postpone indefinitely

Track the legislature’s final days

Several other education-related measures advanced Wednesday. But with so many bills in play, we can’t report every vote in our daily roundups. Use our Down to the Wire Bill Tracker to check the status of the most important two-dozen bills being considered at the end of the session.

For lower-profile measures, use the full Education Bill Tracker, which includes all 116 bills introduced this year.

funding dance

Indiana to tap reserves to free up $140M for teacher pay, Holcomb promises

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Governor-Elect Eric Holcomb speaks to Republican supporters at an Election night event.

Indiana plans to free up $140 million over two years for schools with the goal of increasing teacher pay, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb pledged Tuesday night in his State of the State address.

The state will tap into its $2 billion in reserves to pay down a pension liability for schools, Holcomb said, reducing schools’ expenses so more money could go to educators.

“Just like paying off your mortgage frees up money in your personal budget, this state investment will save all local schools $140 million over the biennium with continued savings thereafter,” Holcomb said.

He said he hoped schools would use the savings to increase teacher salaries. Lawmakers said after the speech that they would look for ways to make sure local districts direct more dollars to teachers.

The freed-up funding would equate to relatively small raises for Indiana’s roughly 70,000 public school teachers. In a bill seeking designated funds for teacher pay, Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, estimated it would cost $315 million to raise educators’ salaries by 5 percent over two years.

The move to find the money to increase teacher pay comes after education leaders raised concerns over not having earmarked dollars. Holcomb previously suggested that schools use their overall funding, proposed to increase by 2 percent each year, for teachers’ salaries. Other Republican lawmakers have also proposed increasing teacher pay by reducing school budgets in other areas.

Still, the $140 million would come from reduced expenses, not a new influx of state dollars. Lawmakers would still have to approve the move.

“Personally, I think it’s a wise use of surplus,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis.

Against a backdrop of an ongoing teacher strike in Los Angeles and large-scale teacher demonstrations in places such as West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona, Indiana has made addressing teacher pay a top priority in this year’s legislative session. Indiana ranks 18th highest in the nation for teachers salaries adjusted for cost of living, according to an analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics and Council of Community and Economic Research — leading some to fear teachers will flee to higher-paying states.

But while the issue has easily won bipartisan support and united unlikely allies, it has proved more difficult to find a solution — namely, the money — that satisfies educators and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

“It’s too early to pick a number,” Bosma said, though both Republican and Democratic leaders agreed after the speech that the $140 million — while a “creative” approach — wasn’t enough.

“We can do that this year,” said Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson. “We can find a way to give an increase in teacher pay this year. We don’t have to kick the can down the road. We don’t have to say, oh, let’s turn it back over to the local school districts and let them find the money.”

But a meaningful solution could take time: Holcomb also announced Tuesday night the formation of a commission to study teacher compensation and search for ways to improve salaries, with the goal of proposing action in 2021. Business leader Michael L. Smith, an investment fund co-founder and retired Anthem executive, will lead the commission.

“Teachers deserve compensation that reflects one of the most honorable, critical and challenging occupations in the state,” tweeted Lawrence Township teacher Tamara Markey, Indiana’s Teacher of the Year, who was among community leaders invited by House Republicans to provide social media commentary on the speech.

Holcomb’s State of the State speech also emphasized workforce development, including preparing high school students for careers. He introduced Mary Roberson, superintendent of Perry Central Community Schools, to tout the district’s partnerships with local manufacturers to give students hands-on training.

“A strong economy depends on a world-class workforce,” Holcomb said. “That workforce depends on a great education. A great education depends on great teachers.”

protest prep

Los Angeles teachers went on strike Monday. Here’s what you need to know.

Teachers, retired teachers and parents show their support for UTLA in front of Venice High School in Venice, Calif., on Jan. 10, 2019. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The nation’s second-largest school district will be upended Monday as Los Angeles teachers are set to go on strike.

Teachers and their union say they are fighting for higher pay, lower class sizes, and more support for district schools. The district says it agrees with many of the union’s demands, but can’t pay for them given its fiscal realities.

The United Teachers of Los Angeles rejected a final offer from the district Friday afternoon, which included steeper class size reductions and more nurses and counselors for schools. There was no bargaining over the weekend.

What will happen at Los Angeles schools on Monday?

Schools will remain open — with other staff, emergency substitutes, and parent volunteers supervising kids. Teachers will be outside picketing. Inside, the L.A. Times reports that “schools have been preparing to keep students together in large spaces and use online education when they can.”

Is this a continuation of the #RedForEd wave of teacher protest?

Yes and no. Schools staying open marks one crucial difference from what happened when teachers went on strike in West Virginia last year, closing schools for nearly two weeks. That was the start of a wave of teacher activism focused on school funding and teacher pay, reaching Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona.

The L.A. Times has a helpful look at why this strike is both similar to and different from the ones across the country last year. Unlike in those red states, it notes, California teachers can’t be portrayed as “victims of Republican machinations” because the state government is reliably Democratic:

An us-versus-them construct, however, does not translate readily to California, where unions are among the state’s most powerful special interests.

And L.A. teachers must face off against a district whose leaders echo their union’s demand for increased state and federal funding for schools.

The union leader also is trying to put forward a complex argument on funding. While [UTLA president Alex] Caputo-Pearl argues that the state needs to do much more, he also says that L.A. Unified is hoarding a fortune — and that district leadership is choosing to starve its schools.

What are the union and the district really fighting about?

The L.A. Times broke down the essential disagreement over funding in a separate story this weekend. In short: Although the district currently has a substantial surplus, the district’s analyses, as well as one from L.A. County, suggest it will soon turn into a deficit. The union claims the district is “hoarding” money, while the district says it’s simply being prudent. At the same time, a proposed budget from the state’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, could bring an infusion of new resources. Reporter Howard Blume ends it here:

Beutner says the union’s demands would cost $3 billion. That’s debatable, partly because the union has not responded to the district with specifics on how much smaller it is asking for classes to be. The union’s position, so far, is to demand the elimination of a contract clause that gives the district broad authority over class sizes. …

Everyone wants smaller class sizes — teachers, parents, students. But meaningful class-size reduction is one of the most expensive reforms in education.

What about charter schools?

Unlike in most places that saw teacher strikes last year, Los Angeles is set to see charter schools play a big role in striking teachers’ rhetoric.

The union has gone on the attack against charters, which serve about one in five Los Angeles public school students and are mostly non-unionized. UTLA recently called for stopping any new charters from opening, pinning the district’s financial struggles on their growth.

The union also believes that the district wants to implement a “portfolio model” of managing schools, a controversial idea that often brings about charter school growth and holds district and charter schools accountable for their results in similar ways. (The district says it has no such plans.)

These union–charter battles have deeply shaped the district’s politics. The last set of school board elections were the most expensive in American history, with charter supporters spending nearly $10 million and unions putting in over $5 million.

But the union’s contract demands only briefly touch on charters. Charters, though, are the focus of many district educators’ anger over not having the resources they say they need and, in the unions’ telling, amount to privatization of public education.

Some of L.A.’s charter schools share buildings with district schools, making some confrontation possible on Monday.

The head of the state charter association wrote an open letter to Caputo-Pearl before the strike. “Please be kind to both our District and charter community,” wrote Myrna Castrejón on Friday. “Students, parents, and school staff aren’t crossing picket lines to make political statements.” (The union’s strike guidelines tells members not to “get involved in confrontations or debates,” threaten people who cross the picket line, or block entrances for kids. “It’s okay to make adults wait a little while to get in [to schools], though,” UTLA says.)

As to the substantive debate, each side can point to research backing up one of their key points. Academic analyses from other states, as well as a union-backed report from Los Angeles, show that districts really do lose resources as charters grow, at least in the short term. At the same time, studies show Los Angeles charter students do better on state tests than similar students in district schools.

What does this mean for teacher unions nationwide?

As the strike kicks off, other teachers unions will be paying attention — wearing red in solidarity or watching for cues as they inch toward strikes of their own. In Denver, for one, the teachers union is entering its last week of negotiations. And as CALmatters noted on Jan. 11:

Issues at the forefront of the LAUSD dispute, such as rising pension costs, declining enrollment and the charged debate over charter schools, are also brewing in other school districts across the state.

The looming strike in Los Angeles has made ripples in local unions across California. Teachers in the Oakland Unified School District, for example, are nearing a potential strike and plan to rally Saturday similar to a demonstration UTLA held in downtown Los Angeles in mid-December.

What will the political ramifications of the strike be?

That’s not at all clear, and likely depends on the length of the strike and the public response. But there is a special election around the corner to fill the seventh seat on the closely divided LAUSD board. Expect the strike and its fallout to play a big role in the race.

A few prominent elected officials have also weighed in supporting teachers, including U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and California Rep. Ro Khanna — though most national Democrats have been silent.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is mulling a run for president, has tried to broker an agreement between the two sides, to no avail. A strike would complicate a campaign kickoff.

“Launching a presidential bid while thousands of chanting, sign-toting teachers take to the streets would seem to be a non-starter,” the L.A. Times wrote. “A strike could force Garcetti to push back any presidential announcement, as better-known rivals enter the race, soak up media attention and begin fundraising.”