bill of goods?

Colorado officials are not happy with how the new federal education law is playing out. Here’s why.


That was the word used time and again by Colorado Department of Education officials and State Board of Education members Thursday to describe proposed regulations for the nation’s new education laws.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, signed into law in December, was initially lauded as the end of what many considered burdensome federal mandates. But since the U.S. Department of Education released its proposed rules for how the law would be applied, the tone across the county has shifted.

In the board room Thursday there were plenty of eye rolls, sighs and head slaps as department officials picked apart the regulations on academic standards, teaching quality and testing.

“They’re going out and saying they’re respecting states. I would argue they’re not,” said Patrick Chapman, CDE’s director of federal programs, referring to federal education department officials. “They’re saying the rules are creating more flexibility. I would argue they’re not.”

Department officials told the board they believed about a quarter of the proposed regulations put new limits on states. Another quarter were not authorized by law. And “most concerning” is that 12 percent of the regulations contained statements that conflicted with the law.

The department’s aim Thursday was to brief board members on decisions they will need to help make as the state prepares a plan to address the changes in federal law, and allow the board an opportunity to weigh in as the work gets underway.

Board members, especially those who champion more control at the district-level, echoed the sentiment over and over.

“The rules seem so distant from what the intent of the law was,” said Joyce Rankin, a Republican from Carbondale.

CDE plans to continue to review the rules and submit a formal response to the federal government later this month. The U.S. Department of Education declined to comment Thursday evening on state officials’ concerns.

Complaining about federal overreach aside, here are four other things you need to know from Thursday’s study session:

While some policy shifts might be necessary, CDE officials said that Colorado’s current education laws do not need to change.

To be in compliance with ESSA, no new legislation would need to be written and no existing laws would need to be amended, officials said. That means Colorado’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards and teacher evaluation laws could go untouched.

Both were put into place in a bid to win large grants from the Obama administration, and have subsequently become political lightning rods.

ESSA would allow Colorado to dump the Common Core, as some hope, but only if the state can prove its new standards are rigorous. And while the standards are set to be reviewed in 2018 under state law, many school districts and advocacy groups have reported to CDE that a major policy shift such as new standards would be unwelcome.

Some state board members flirted with the idea of rejecting federal dollars to avoid what they consider unnecessary regulation.

State board members Val Flores, a Denver Democrat, and Deb Scheffel, a Parker Republican, suggested more than once that the state should conduct a cost-benefits analysis on the money it receives from the federal government.

“Wouldn’t it be better if we just said no to the accountability? Not that we’re not going to have accountability. But just say no to those funds,” Flores said, adding she felt Colorado would save money if it discontinued its annual testing system.

Other board members and department employees corrected Flores’s math saying the state could lose hundreds of millions of dollars if it stopped testing its students.

Flores joked that the state could sell cookies.

One of the state’s most important decisions will be over how to determine school quality.

The state faces many decisions over how its school and district accountability system will change under ESSA.

The new law requires states add a new factor — not based on test scores — to its school rating system.

Alyssa Pearson, the department’s interim associate commissioner for accountability and assessment, said it could be the state’s most important decision.

Possibilities include taking into account parent surveys in elementary school, suspensions rates in middle school and absenteeism in high school. Any new data gathered must be disaggregated by categories such as student race, income and special education status. That could prove difficult because while some of that data is collected now, not all of it is disaggregated.

“This one will be a lot of fun,” said board vice chair Angelika Schroeder, “because we’ll have 100 different suggestions.”

There was little discussion about the committees that will help write the plan.

As Chalkbeat reported Wednesday, the State Board is expected to make appointments to a committee that will be responsible for drafting the plan.

Those appointments will include a parent, business leader and taxpayer.

The committee’s first meeting is tentatively slated for the first week of August, officials said.

The board did not discuss who would be on the committee.

Interim Education Commissioner Katy Anthes will be emailing school districts with an update on the department’s work on ESSA soon, department spokeswoman Dana Smith said in an email. That message will include what the department knows about the committee, she said.

budget season

New budget gives CPS CEO Janice Jackson opportunity to play offense

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson announced the district's $1 billion capital plan at Lázaro Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village.

Running Chicago’s schools might be the toughest tour of duty in town for a public sector CEO. There have been eight chiefs in a decade – to be fair, two were interims – who have wrangled with mounting debt, aging buildings, and high percentages of students who live in poverty.

Then there’ve been recurring scandals, corruption, and ethics violations. Since she was officially named to the top job in January, CEO Janice Jackson has had to clean up a series of her predecessors’ lapses, from a special education crisis that revealed families were counseled out of services to a sexual abuse investigation that spotlighted a decade of system failures at every level to protect students.

But with budget season underway, the former principal finally gets the chance to go on the offensive. The first operations budget of her tenure is a $5.98 billion plan that contains some good news for a change: 5 percent more money, courtesy of the state revamp of the school funding formula and a bump from local tax revenues. CPS plans to funnel $60 million more to schools than it did last school year, for a total of $3.1 billion. Put another way, it plans to spend $4,397 per student as a base rate — a 2 percent increase from the year prior.

CPS’ total budget comes out to $7.58 billion once you factor in long-term debt and an ambitious $1 billion capital plan that is the focus of a trio of public hearings Thursday night. When it comes to debt, the district owes $8.2 billion as of June 30, or nearly $3,000 per every Chicago resident.

“The district, without a doubt, is on firmer footing than it was 18 months ago, but they’re not out of woods yet,” said Bobby Otter, budget director for the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “When you look at the overall picture (the $7.58 budget), they’re still running a deficit. This is now the seventh year in a row they are running a deficit, and the amount of debt the district has, combined with the lack of reserves, leaves them with little flexibility.”

Earlier this week, standing in front of an audience of executives at a City Club of Chicago luncheon, Jackson acknowledged that it had been an “eventful” seven months and said she was ready to focus on strategies for moving the district forward. “I won’t be waiting for next shoe to drop or wasting time and resources waiting for next problem. I want to design a system to educate and protect children.”

“I’m not in crisis mode,” she added.

Here’s what that looks like in her first year when you just consider the numbers. The biggest line items of any operating budget are salaries, benefits and pensions: Taken all together, they consume 66 percent of CPS’ planned spending for the 2018-2019 school year. Rounding out much of the rest are contracts with vendors ($542.6 million, or 9 percent), such as the controversial janitorial deals with Aramark and SodexoMAGIC; charter expenditures ($749 million, or 13 percent); and spending on transportation, textbooks, equipment, and the like (12 percent).

A closer look at how some of those items are allocated offers a window into Jackson’s vision. The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the plan July 25.

Investing in choice

Earlier this month, the district announced a nearly $1 billion capital plan, funded by bonds, that would support new schools, technology upgrades, and annexes at some of the district’s most popular campuses. The operating budget, meanwhile, accounts for the people and programs driving those projects. It proposes nearly doubling the staff, from 10 to 17, in the office that manages charters, contract programs, and the creation of new schools. It reestablishes a chief portfolio officer who reports directly to the CEO. And it adds expands access to International Baccalaureate programs and Early College STEM offerings. In a letter at the beginning of the 2019 Budget Book, Jackson said such expansions “move the district closer to our goal of having 50 percent of students earn at least one college or career credential before graduating high school.” 

Advocating for students

The budget seeds at least two new departments: a four-person Office of Equity charged with diversifying the teacher pipeline, among other roles, and a 20-person Title IX office that would investigate student abuse cases, including claims of student-on-student harassment.

Leaning into high schools

Fitting for a budget designed by a former high school principal – Jackson was running a high school before age 30 – the plan leans in to high schools, establishing $2 million to fund four new networks to oversee them. (That brings the total number of networks to 17; networks are mini-administrative departments that track school progress, assist with budgeting, and ensure policy and procedures are followed.) And it earmarks $75 million across three years for new science labs at neighborhood high schools. What’s more, it supports 10 additional career counselors to help campuses wrestle with a graduation mandate – set forth by Mayor Rahm Emanuel – that seniors have a post-secondary plan to graduate starting with the Class of 2020.

Throwing a lifeline to small schools

The budget also sets forth a $10 million “Small Schools Fund” to help schools with low enrollment retain teachers and offer after-school programs. It also earmarks an additional $5 million to help schools facing precipitous changes in enrollment, which can in turn lead to dramatic budget drops.   

Supporting modest staff increases

After a round of layoffs were announced in June, the budget plan adds at least 200 teachers. But the district would not provide a clear accounting of whom to Chalkbeat by publication time. Earlier this week, it announced plans to fund additional school social workers (160) and special education case managers (94).

The district plans to add positions for the upcoming 2018-2019 year.

As Chicago Teachers Union organizer and Cook County Commissioner candidate Brandon Johnson pointed out in an impromptu press conference earlier this week in front of district HQ, the budget is still “woefully short” on school psychologists, nurses, and counselors. And it doesn’t address the calls from parents to restore librarians and instructors in such subjects as art, music, physical education — positions that have experienced dramatic cuts since 2011. “What is proposed today still leaves us short of when (Mayor Emanuel) took office,” Johnson said. “The needs of our students must be met.”

Principal Elias Estrada, who oversees two North Side schools, Alcott Elementary and Alcott High School, said he was still figuring out how the additional staffing would work. He’s getting another social worker – but he oversees two campuses that sit three miles apart, so he figures he’ll have to divide the person’s time between campuses. Estrada asked the board at Monday’s budget hearing to help him understand the criteria it uses to determine which schools get extra staff or additional programs, like IB. “I need a counselor, a clerk, and an assistant principal,” he said; currently those positions also are shared between the elementary and the high school.

After the meeting, he said that schools might have gotten slightly bigger budgets this year, but the increase was consumed by rising salaries and he wasn’t able to add any positions. What’s more, his building needs repairs, but it didn’t get picked for any of the facilities upgrades in the $1 billion capital plan that accompanied the budget.

“What is the process?” he asked. “The need is everywhere.”

At two public hearings on Monday, fewer than a dozen speakers signed up to ask questions of the board, central office administrators, or Jackson.

To see if your school is getting one of the newly announced positions or any funding from the capital plan, type it in the search box below.

choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.