Here we go again

Lawmakers go back to class on school funding

More than a quarter of Colorado’s 100 lawmakers are finding time in their frantic schedules for a deep look at one of the Capitol’s most head-hurting issues – how to pay for schools.

Rep. Millie Hamner says the formal effort by three committees is a way of “stepping back, regrouping” on a difficult subject. By educating a wide group of lawmakers, “Hopefully we’ll have some sense of buy-in about what needs to be done.” The Dillon Democrat is chair of the Joint Budget Committee and promoted the idea along with a budget panel colleague, GOP Rep. Bob Rankin of Carbondale.

But some people who follow school finance are at least somewhat skeptical of the effort and worry it might provide an opening for proposals to redistribute existing K-12 support rather than finding a way to increase school funding.

“Dividing inadequate revenue in different ways doesn’t look very appealing to us,” said Boulder Valley Superintendent Bruce Messinger. Specifically, some district leaders fear that the legislature may consider shifting state support among districts to increase funding for poorer districts.

The six-week effort kicked off Wednesday with a joint meeting of the JBC and the legislature’s two education committees. Combined, the three panels have 26 members.

School funding’s been studied more than once

There’s been no lack of school finance studies in recent years. A special legislative panel studied it in 2009, and an effort spearheaded by the Colorado Children’s Campaign took on the issue in 2012.

Two lawsuits that challenged aspects of the finance system, the Lobato and Dwyer cases, produced reams of documents and data about K-12 funding.

Both the Colorado Supreme Court rejected those challenges, and voters defeated proposed statewide tax increases to fund schools in 2011 and 2013.

So Colorado continues to allocate money to school districts according to a formula created in 1994 and a constitutional amendment passed in 2000. And school funding continues to be squeezed by the vagaries of the annual state budget process and by the negative factor. That’s the mathematical device the legislature uses to reduce school funding from what full application of the finance formula would provide.

The Supreme Court last fall ruled that the negative factor was constitutional, dashing the hopes of people who wanted a court-ordered solution to underfunding.

Funding equity a rising concern

The last couple of years have seen a new wrinkle to the debate – funding equity.

The current funding formula does provide districts additional funding based on numbers of at-risk students and to very small districts. Money also is allocated based on cost of living for staff, a factor that benefits all kinds of districts but not necessarily poor ones.

Critics feel the formula doesn’t provide enough extra money to districts with high percentages of poor students and English-language learners, the kinds of students that need more intensive instruction.

A law passed in 2013 would have provided more money to such districts, but it never went into effect because voters defeated the tax increase needed to pay for it.

Another piece of the equity puzzle are local property tax revenues called “mill levy overrides.” Those are additional taxes approved by a district’s voters.

Those revenues aren’t included in the state funding formula so are purely “extra” money for districts that have them.

Some lawmakers have noted that the statewide total of override revenues, about $826 million, is very close to the current state funding shortfall of $855 million. That’s the negative factor.

In a December briefing paper prepared for the JBC, staff analyst Craig Harper noted, “With the inclusion of override revenues, 58 school districts … were funded at or above pre-negative factor levels in FY 2014-15, some of which were well above that level. An additional 58 school districts offset at least a portion of the negative factor reduction with override revenues. Finally, 62 districts did not collect override moneys and absorbed the full 13.0 percent negative reduction in FY 2014-15.”

Override revenues are not evenly distributed and vary widely by district. Some districts don’t have them at all.

District leaders fear some lawmakers may be interested in placing a greater reliance on local revenues, perhaps going so far as to reduce a district’s state funding by the amount of its override revenues.

“Recalibrating the process would create a lot of tension,” Messinger said. Others agree such a change would trigger a serious political backlash from districts.

While some statehouse observers used the terms “rearranging the deck chairs” and “Groundhog Day” when asked about the study, others think it will hold educational value for lawmakers.

“It’s a great chance to start a conversation,” said Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver. The last time lawmakers took a truly in-depth look at school finance was 2013, when Johnston pushed through his proposed rewrite of the funding formula.

Normally, he noted, committees are preoccupied with debating and voting on bills and “don’t have time to absorb detailed content.”

Study kicking off with experts

This week’s first meeting of the three committees featured a briefing by Marguerite Roza, a school finance researcher and consultant from Georgetown University and the Center on Reinvesting Public Education. She focused on ways to improve school productivity and target financial resources more closely on student achievement. (See her presentation below.)

Interestingly, Roza didn’t mention key Colorado problems — the constitutional limits on raising taxes and on annual spending increases and the negative factor. Roza recommended shifting more funding to at-risk students. But the negative factor has reduced the amount of money available for such extra support.

The speaker at the Feb. 17 meeting is Andrew Reschovsky, a University of Wisconsin expert of property taxes. The committees hope to wrap up their business with a final meeting on April 13.

Learn more about school finance in Chalkbeat’s archive.

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: