State Board elections

Testing issue follows candidates on campaign trail

Ask candidates running for the State Board of Education this year what voters want to talk about and you generally get a quick answer – testing.

The four candidates for two contested seats all expect that the question of how much and what kind of standardized tests should be given will be a major issue for the new board and legislature that take office in 2015. The candidates have differing but nuanced views on the issue, but most of them are open to considering changes in the state’s assessment system.

Chalkbeat Colorado interviewed each of the four about testing and other key education issues. See summaries of their responses below, but first here’s a brief look at who’s running.

The candidates

District 3 – Republican incumbent Marcia Neal of Grand Junction faces Democrat Henry Roman of Pueblo in this sprawling district that covers most of western Colorado and stretches east to Pueblo.

Neal is a former social studies teacher and Mesa 51 school board member who sometimes is a swing vote on the state board. She’s been a strong advocate of increasing the size of the school trust lands permanent fund, which earns revenues from state lands. Roman is a former Pueblo 60 superintendent, has worked recently as a charter school consultant and is making his first run for elected office.

District 7 – Democratic incumbent Jane Goff of Arvada is a former Jefferson County foreign language teacher and administrator who also served as president of the Jefferson County Education Association. She’s being challenged by Republican Laura Boggs of Lakewood, a former Jeffco school board member who was a one-woman conservative minority before the board changed hands in the 2013 election.

Issues in District 3

Testing

Marcia Neal
Marcia Neal

“I think there are a lot of concerns around the PARCC tests,” Neal said. “It’s sort of this gigantic issue.” She says Colorado faces “a real dilemma” in what to do about its testing system.

“So far I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of balancing” testing and classroom instruction, she said She hopes the task force that’s studying the issue can suggest and good balance on testing changes.

Roman said, “Right now I think we need to stay with” current plans for full PARCC testing next spring. He likes online testing because it promises quicker results for teachers to use. And he said he’s open to considering changes such as sampling, where every student is not tested every year, and reducing state tests to federal minimums. “We’ve burdened our teachers with too much testing.”

Academic standards

Neal voted against Colorado adoption of the Common Core State Standards in 2010 but said, “I’m very supportive of high academic standards.”

Roman said the state should stick with the current Colorado Academic Standards, which include the Common Core for language arts and math. “These happen to be the ones that are in place, and I support them” but is open to changes in the future.

School finance

Henry Roman
Henry Roman

“I know we need more money,” Neal said, but she believes there isn’t a direct relationship between funding levels and student achievement. She’s opposed to raising school funding without detailed plans for how more money would be used.

“I think we need to address the negative factor,” Roman said, referring to the formula used by the legislature to set total district funding every year. “We need to find a way to get back the funding schools should have been receiving.”

School choice

“I’m very much in favor of choice,” Neal said, but she doubts tuition tax credits or vouchers are in the state’s future, saying, “I don’t think that’s something the courts are ready to do.”

“I’m not in support of vouchers,” Roman said. “I think our current school choice options are excellent,” adding that he feel’s it’s important that charters “accept all students and that their performance is as good or better” than traditional schools.

What voters are saying

Neal said, “90 percent of the time it’s, ‘Where do you stand on Common Core?’ It dominates the conversation.”

Roman said, “What I’m hearing a lot of is there’s too much testing, and for the most part there’s too much emphasis on the core academic subjects to the exclusion of other subjects.” He added, “I’m also hearing about lack of equitable funding.”

The State Board’s role

Asked about the board’s role relative to the governor and the legislature, Neal said, “It does have a role to play, but it doesn’t make policy decisions, and it probably shouldn’t. … People tend to ignore us and then when something happens they want us to fix it, and we can’t.”

Roman said, “I see it as a body that takes what the legislature has passed and puts it into policy and procedure.”

Both candidates are concerned about the volume of education legislation – “There’s no limit to what the state legislature passes,” Roman said. “I’ve gotten to that I sort of dread the legislative session,” Neal commented.

The Jeffco controversy

Neal said the situation has “gotten pretty muddled” with the combination of two issues, curriculum review and teacher-board differences over salaries. She said, “I understand the history concern” about AP U.S. History and said that as a teacher “I always tried to go down the middle.”

“A class should reflect history as objectively as possible,” Roman said, adding that he supports the new AP class.

Issues in District 7

Testing

Jane Goff
Jane Goff

“I think it’s a dilemma for everybody,” Goff says of K-12 testing. “I’m not hearing very much at all of let’s throw the whole thing out,” and said she’s willing to look at changes in the system, including reducing state tests back to federal minimums. But, she added, “Accountability is the hard part, the sticky wicket.” She supports current plans to use the PARCC tests.

Boggs discusses testing in the context of her strong support for local control, criticizing what she calls “a one-size-fits-all system” and saying “districts need to have flexibility” in testing – “while absolutely still holding the system accountable.”

Academic standards

Goff said she “absolutely” supports the current Colorado Academic Standards, thinks changing them now would be disruptive for districts. “The challenge is getting people to understand what it’s all about.”

Boggs thinks “We need a robust conversation about what the actual standards need to be. … Parents and community members need confidence in our standards, and there’s clearly not that now.”

School finance

Laura Boggs
Laura Boggs

Goff said, “I’m not a tax fan” and that voters need better explanation of how new revenues would be spent. Referring to Amendment 66, the defeated 2013 K-12 tax increase, she said, “I don’t think people really understood how that could benefit their school district and the state as a whole.” While she supports reduction of the negative factor, she added, “I can’t see any great benefit in restoring more money to schools is that hurts, say, health programs.”

Boggs faults legislators for not spending more money on K-12 during the 2014 session, given a large balance in the State Education Fund. She sees general voter support for local school tax measures (as opposed to defeat on A66) as evidence that citizens “want local control back.”

School choice

Goff said she’s comfortable with the quality of state charter school law and feels progress has been made with online schools but that continued work is needed to improve student achievement at online schools and some charters. She said she generally opposes vouchers and tuition tax credits but would be willing to consider such mechanisms for some special education students.

Boggs calls herself “a huge supporter” of choice and charter schools but has concerns about vouchers and tax credits. “A great public education system is a great equalizer, so I’m not really wild about proposals that take money out of the public school system.” She also said a statewide tax credit law could be “a little dicey because you are infringing on local control.”

What the voters are saying

“Number 1 right now is testing. That’s hot, it’s very hot,” Goff said. “It’s probably right up there with what’s going on in Jeffco.”

Boggs said, “The voters are telling me that our child are over-tested … the teachers are telling me that they don’t have the flexibility. … a one-size-fits-all education system is not something they’re interested in.”

The State Board’s role

Goff acknowledges that the board often is subordinate to the governor and legislature but thinks SBE members should take a more visible role on education issues and should show “more leadership.”

Boggs said the board should “get more energized in the conversation” about largely flat student achievement levels but stressed again “my passion is for the local control piece” of education.

The Jeffco controversy

Jefferson County is a big part of the 7th District, and both Goff and Boggs have close personal tied to the district.

Chalkbeat asked the candidates how controversies over the board could affect their race.

“Right now education is so hot and people are so passionate about it,” Goff said, adding that it’s hard to tell how that might translate into the state board race. “I think it’s still early to tell.”

Boggs was critical of the new AP U.S. history program but also of the original wording of the Jeffco board’s curriculum review resolution. She said the impact in the broader electorate is hard judge. “I’m probably not the best person to ask about that,” she added, given that primarily talks to people who are involved with education.

Board campaigns are quiet

State Board candidates usually campaign in the shadow of statewide and congressional candidates, with their big television ad budgets, and of the better-funded legislative hopefuls, who can blanket their districts with yard signs, literature drops and phone calls.

The 3rd District has 29 counties – many mountainous and thinly populated – and is especially challenging for SBE candidates.

“It’s very difficult,” said Neal. “I have not traveled as much as I’d like to.” She sends literature and yard signs to county GOP offices for distribution, and she’s planning newspaper and maybe radio ads in Pueblo and Durango, two population centers where she’s not as well known as in the Grand Valley. “I do what I have with the money I have and the time I’ve got.”

Roman said he’s been traveling extensively on the Western Slope in order to raise his profile there, attending candidate forums, coffees, Democratic events and “a lot of parades.”

Neal has raised about $11,500, while Roman’s campaign war chest was nearly $17,000 at the end of September.

In the 7th District Goff has been attending candidate forums and Democratic events, getting yard signs placed and literature distributed and is sending postcards to targeted Adams and Jefferson county neighborhoods. She’s also advertising in weekly community newspapers.

Boggs said, “I’m going to everything I’m invited to,” but that mailings aren’t planned “unless there’s a whole lot of money coming in that I don’t know about.”

Goff has a wide fund-raising edge with about $23,000 compared to Boggs’ $3,800.

Other districts, other members

Valentina Flores
Valentina Flores

The board’s 1st District seat, which primarily covers Denver, is also on the ballot this election. Retired educator Valentina Flores, who defeated a reform candidate in the June Democratic primary, is the only candidate on the ballot. (Learn more about her background and views in this earlier Chalkbeat Colorado story.) Flores will replace Democrat Elaine Gantz Berman, who chose not to run again.

Board chair Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument, is running unopposed for a seat in the state House. Once he’s elected a GOP vacancy committee will choose a replacement for his District 5 board seat.

Three board members are in the middle of terms and not on the ballot: Republican Pam Mazanec of Larkspur (4th District), Republican Debora Scheffel of Parker (6th) and Democrat Angelika Schroeder of Boulder (2nd).

About the State Board of Education

Here are key facts about the board:

  • Seven members elected on a partisan basis
  • Board districts are the same as congressional districts
  • Term limits: Two six-year terms
  • Current board is four Republicans, three Democrats
  • Members are unpaid
  • Board generally meets monthly
  • Constitutional duty: “General supervision of the public schools”
  • Specific duties: Hiring education commissioner, issuing regulations to implement state education laws; revoking teacher licenses; granting waivers to education laws; approving teacher prep programs; adjudicating district-charter disputes; certifying multi-district online programs; overseeing reports, task forces and various other groups; adoption of state content standards and tests; deciding conversion plans for failed schools and districts; distribution of grants, among others
  • Board website

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.