Statehouse roundup

Spare change found for school funding bill

Longtime testing critic and former Rep. Judy Solano (left) made here case on the testing opt-out bill.

The House Education Committee Monday added some symbolic funding for at-risk students to the proposed 2015-16 school finance bill.

The measure, SB 15-267, is a disappointment to districts and many legislators because it does little to reduce Colorado’s school funding shortfall.

The bill would increase K-12 funding by $306 million to about $6.23 billion next school year. But most of that is driven by constitutionally required hikes to cover enrollment growth and inflation.

The only significant discretionary increase in the bill is $25 million that would be applied to the funding shortfall, the so-called negative factor. That shortfall currently is about $880 million. Average per-pupil funding would rise to $7,295 from this year’s $7,026.

Democrats fought unsuccessfully in the Senate to add more money to the bill, particularly for at-risk students, by tapping the State Education Fund, a dedicated K-12 account. Those efforts failed in the face of arguments that taking money from the education fund would put unacceptable pressure on the state General Fund in future years.

“What you see in front of you is about the best we can do this year,” sponsor Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, told the committee.

But Hamner and other lawmakers have managed to find a little more money. An amendment approved by House Education added $5 million to the bill for at-risk students, taken from the interest earned on yet-another dedicated state account. The money would be distributed to districts on a per-student basis. With about 370,000 at-risk students in Colorado, that works out to about $13.50 per kid.

Another amendment added to the bill’s “legislative declaration,” or introduction, states that the 2016 legislature will retroactively increase funding if local district revenues rise more than expected. (K-12 funding is a combination of local and state revenues used to add up to the total minimum annual amount required by the constitution. Typically, when local revenues rise the state contribution is reduced.)

Some projections estimate that local revenues will be $70 million higher in 2015-16 than previously forecast. The amendment is a promise – not necessarily ironclad – that the 2016 legislature won’t reduce the state share if the $70 million comes in, giving districts a net increase.

The bill was passed 10-1 and sent to the House Appropriations Committee.

Testing issues rehashed in opt-out bill testimony

House Education’s main act Monday was supposed to be Senate Bill 15-223, the measure intended to codify parents’ rights to opt their children out of state standardized tests.

The panel took more than three hours of testimony on the bill, much of it a rehash of opinions offered during hearings on other testing bills.

There were a few high-profile witness, including Democratic former House Speaker Terrance Carroll, who opposed the bill. Democratic former Rep. Judy Solano, a critic of testing before that became fashionable, and Democratic State Board of Education member Val Flores supported the bill.

As originally introduced, the bill would have required districts to allow parents to opt out of any standardized tests required by the state or local districts and banned imposing any “penalties” on students, teachers, principals or schools for low test participation.

How to define “penalty” emerged as a key question during Senate consideration, and amendments in that chamber narrowed the definition. One change clarified that the bill doesn’t apply to local tests. A second change specified that school and district accreditation ratings and educator evaluation levels aren’t defined as penalties. This means that test scores and student growth data derived from scores could continue to be used for accreditation and evaluation. (Get more information in this story and in this legislative summary on Senate changes in the bill.)

The amended bill passed the Senate 28-7, but Monday’s House education discussion suggested that even the amended bill may have problems in the House. Both Democratic and Republican members raised questions about possible loss of federal funds, erosion of the state’s accountability system and weakening of teacher evaluations.

Some committee members also noted the U.S. Department of Education’s stand on opting out (see this Chalkbeat Colorado story for the background).

Bill sponsor Rep. Steve Lebsock, D-Thornton, asked that House Education delay a vote on the bill. That may not be a good sign for the measure, given that lawmakers have to adjourn by May 6.

Last gasp for tuition tax credits bill

The committee finished up its nearly seven-hour meeting by voting 6-5 to kill Senate Bill 15-045, this session’s version of the perennial proposal to provide state income tax credits for the cost of private school tuition or private school scholarship contributions.

Over to you, senators

Both houses worked through long floor calendars Monday morning as they raced the clock toward adjournment on May 6. These education-related measures were passed by the House and are headed to Senate committees.

House Bill 15-1201 – Provides $10 million in grants to boards of cooperative educational services to help districts consolidate administrative services. Passed 48-16

House Bill 15-1324 – Creates a grant program to help districts to develop student learning objectives that can be used to track pupils’ progress and to evaluate teachers. 34-30

House Bill 15-1350 – Calls for a review of the standards for accreditation of alternative education campuses, which generally serve high school students who’ve previously dropped out or who lack large numbers of credits. 64-1

House Bill 15-1339 – Eases some of financial transparency requirements imposed on school districts by a 2014 law. 38-26

The House also voted 64-0 to pass Senate Bill 15-173, the bill that would impose a variety of security and privacy requirements on data companies that work with school districts. Some bill supporters think House amendments weakened the bill, so this one may end up in a House-Senate conference committee.

School Finance

Facing tax opposition, Indianapolis leaders may settle for less than schools need

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

One day before the Indianapolis Public Schools Board is expected to approve a ballot measure to ask taxpayers for more funding, district officials appealed to a small group of community members for support.

Fewer than 40 people, including district staff, gathered Monday night at the New Era Church to hear from leaders about the need for more school funding. School board members plan to vote Tuesday on whether to ask voters to approve a tax hike to fund operating expenses, such as teacher salaries, in the November election. But just how much money they will seek is unknown.

The crowd at New Era was largely supportive of plans to raise more money for district schools, and at moments people appeared wistful that the district had abandoned an early plan to seek nearly $1 billion over eight years, which one person described as a “dream.”

Martha Malinski, a parent at School 91 and a recent transplant from Minneapolis, said the city appears to have a “lack of investment” in education.

“Is the money that you are asking for enough?” she asked.

Whatever amount the district eventually seeks is likely to be dramatically scaled down from the first proposal. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has spent more than seven months grappling with the reality that many Indianapolis political leaders and taxpayers don’t have the stomach for the tax increase the district initially sought.

“We are trying to balance what’s too much in terms of tax burden with the need for our students,” said Ferebee, who also raised the possibility that the district might return to taxpayers for more money if the first referendum does not raise enough. “If we don’t invest in our young people now, what are the consequences and what do we have to pay later?”

After withdrawing their initial plan to seek nearly $1 billion over eight years, district officials spent months working with the Indy Chamber to analyze Indianapolis Public Schools finances and find areas to trim in an effort to reduce the potential tax increase. But the district and chamber are at odds over how aggressive the cuts should be.

Last week, the chamber released a voluminous list of cuts the group says could save the school system $477 million over eight years. They include reducing the number of teachers, eliminating busing for high schoolers, and closing schools. The chamber has paired those cuts with a proposal for a referendum to increase school funding by $100 million, which it says could raise teacher salaries by 16 percent.

District officials, however, say the timeline for the cuts proposed by the chamber is not realistic. The analysis mostly includes strategies suggested by the district, said Ferebee. But steps like redistricting and closing schools, for example, can take many months.

“Where we are apart is the pace, the cadence and how aggressive the approach is with realizing those savings,” he said.

Not everyone at the meeting was supportive of the administration. Tim Stark, a teacher from George Washington High School, asked the superintendent not to work with charter high school partners until the district’s traditional high schools are fully enrolled. But Stark said he is still supportive of increasing funding for the district. “It is really important for IPS to get the funds,” he said.

The chamber has no explicit authority over the tax increase but it has the political sway to play an influential role in whether it passes. As a result, Indianapolis Public Schools officials are working to come to an agreement that will get that chamber’s support.

A separate measure to fund building improvements was announced by the district in June and incorporated into the chamber plan. That tax increase would raise $52 million for building improvements, primarily focused on safety. That’s about one-quarter of the initial proposal.

Tennessee Votes 2018

Early voting begins Friday in Tennessee. Here’s where your candidates stand on education.

PHOTO: Creative Commons

Tennesseans begin voting on Friday in dozens of crucial elections that will culminate on Aug. 2.

Democrats and Republicans will decide who will be their party’s gubernatorial nominee. Those two individuals will face off in November to replace outgoing Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. Tennessee’s next governor will significantly shape public education, and voters have told pollsters that they are looking for an education-minded leader to follow Haslam.

In Memphis, voters will have a chance to influence schools in two elections, one for school board and the other for county commission, the top local funder for schools, which holds the purse strings for schools.

To help you make more informed decisions, Chalkbeat asked candidates in these four races critical questions about public education.

Here’s where Tennessee’s Democratic candidates for governor stand on education

Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley hope to become the state’s first Democratic governor in eight years.

Tennessee’s Republican candidates for governor answer the big questions on education

U.S. Rep. Diane Black, businessman Randy Boyd, Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, and businessman Bill Lee are campaigning to succeed fellow Republican Haslam as governor, but first they must defeat each other in the 2018 primary election.

Memphis school board candidates speak out on what they want to change

Fifteen people are vying for four seats on the Shelby County Schools board this year. That’s much higher stakes compared to two years ago when five seats were up for election with only one contested race.

Aspiring county leaders in charge of money for Memphis schools share their views

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners and county mayor are responsible for most school funding in Memphis. Chalkbeat sent a survey to candidates asking their thoughts on what that should look like.

Early voting runs Mondays through Saturdays until Saturday, July 28. Election Day is Thursday, Aug. 2.