Ready to rumble

Will Colorado lawmakers rekindle the bipartisan spirit to take on these education issues?

State Reps. Millie Hammer and Barbara McLachlan, both Democrats, speak during the 2017 special session. (Denver Post File photo)

When state lawmakers ended their regular business in May, leaders under the gold dome congratulated themselves for finding a long list of bipartisan compromises — including deals on some of the most prickly education issues.

Education debates over charter school funding, a diploma credential for students who speak two languages and high school testing that had befuddled lawmakers for years were settled with bipartisan support.

But after Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, called legislators back to work to fix a glitch in one of those hard-fought compromises, talk of bipartisanship went straight out the window.

Now, on the eve of Hickenlooper’s last regular session as governor — he’s term-limited — it’s uncertain whether leaders in the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House can rekindle the bipartisan spirit during an election year and accomplish anything on a number of policy fronts.

While education lobbyists and other Capitol observers are wary major victories can be achieved, some of education’s most influential lawmakers are sounding a bipartisan tone.

“I’ve loved working with Brittany,” said state Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, referring to state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat who chairs the House Education Committee. “It’s an honor to work with someone who challenges my thinking. And yet we always come together to make sure kids have the very best possible education.”

Pettersen echoed Hill’s bipartisan sentiment.

“I know things get complicated during an election year,” she said. “But I’m really proud of the work we’ve done and I hope to do it again.”

Here’s a rundown of what should loom large on the education front this legislative session, which opens Wednesday:

Pension reform is going to take up a lot time and headspace, but a resolution is far from certain.

The state’s pension system, known as PERA, is in a precarious situation. While it’s nowhere near the crisis level it was seven years ago, the system’s funding levels have declined. PERA oversees retirement benefits to 566,000 current and former public employees — and many are school district employees.

There are a number of different proposals floating around the legislature. One is from the PERA governing board, another from the governor, one from state treasurer and Republican gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton, and another from legislative staff.

If lawmakers do act this session — and that’s a big “if” — they’re likely to want to put their own mark any reforms.

“I can’t imagine anything gets done this session,” said Hill, who is also the vice chair of the Senate Finance Committee, which would likely play a large role in shaping any reform package.

Hill suggested that more time is needed to study the issue and craft the best reform package possible — not the quickest.

Some Senate Democrats are hopeful a compromise can be reached, but are also inclined to take time on overhauling PERA.

“I do think a compromise can be had, but it’s going to take us all session to get it,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat. “I’m worried if we try to rush something through, it could get too political and it won’t be a good bipartisan solution like we did a few years ago.”

School funding is likely to see a boon — barring any unforeseen surprises.

Unlike last year when school budget writers were bracing for another round of cuts, things are looking pretty rosy on the school funding front. In November, the governor requested an additional $343 per student. That number is likely to go up given that the state has even more revenue than was expected in November and lawmakers love bragging about how much more money they send to schools than the governor requests.

However, state Rep. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat and chair of the legislature’s budget committee, sounded a cautious note.

“Clearly we’re in a much better place,” she said. “But we still have a lot of unknowns.”

Those unknowns include how state lawmakers plan to improve the state’s roads and highways — a huge piece of unfinished business from the 2017 session — and whether Congress will continue to fund the children’s health care program.

“There is going to be a lot of pressure on the state budget to deal with the shortcomings of Congress in regards to that program,” she said.

Don’t expect a massive rewrite of the state’s school funding formula — yet.

One of last year’s bipartisan accomplishments was the formation of a legislative committee to study — and ultimately change — the way Colorado funds its schools. The committee is scheduled to end its first round of meetings Tuesday — with little to show for it.

But that’s by design, several committee members said.

“The common understanding of the challenge is becoming more well-defined,” said state Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican who co-sponsored the bill that created the committee. “I’m pleased we’re making headway. And for the chance to drag our finance model into the 21st Century, I’m willing to be patient.”

One possible bill that could emerge from the committee’s work is a change to how the state counts its students. Right now, schools receive funding based on how many students are present for school on a specific day in October. Lawmakers could come up with a new system that better tracks student attendance and mobility to send a more precise amount of money to schools.

While some lawmakers are content with taking their time to develop a new formula to fund schools, a group of superintendents is preparing to charge ahead with its proposal.

The group, led in part by Walt Cooper, superintendent of the Cheyenne Mountain School District in Colorado Springs, has been working with state Rep. Dave Young, a Democrat from Greeley, to put the proposal into a bill.

Among the changes the superintendents seek: fully fund kindergarten students and increase funding for students who qualify for federally subsidized lunches.

However, Cooper said the superintendents and Young have not decided whether to introduce the bill.

“We’ll know by January if it sees the light of day,” Cooper said.

A major update to the state’s school accountability law is unlikely. But one lawmaker wants to give struggling schools another option.

Last year Lundeen and state Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, were working behind the scenes to update the state’s school accountability system. The state education department and leaders of struggling schools had identified where the 2009 law was ambiguous and needed clarification. But the two lawmakers could not get the bill into fighting shape.

“We continue to talk about this,” Lundeen said. “But I don’t know if we’ll have a bill.”

Meanwhile, Zenzinger, the Arvada Democrat, said she will introduce a bill that will give the State Board of Education an additional option for schools that don’t improve test scores within five years.

Currently, the board can order a school to be closed, converted to a charter school, develop an “innovation plan” that would free the school from some local and state policies, or hand over all or some managerial duties to a private third party. Zenzinger wants to include a “community schools model” to the mix.

The model, which is growing in popularity thanks in part to an endorsement by national teachers unions, transforms schools into hubs for community organizations to provide so-called “wraparound services” — such as English language classes for parents, medical care, and additional resources for families.

The idea behind the model is that learning can improve by first tackling poverty and other challenges facing students and their families.

“It’s going to offer more resources and a different approach,” Zenzinger said.

Here are a few other storylines and bills to watch for:

  • Taking on the teacher shortage is a top priority for House Democrats on the education committee. And they could have up to $10 million if the budget committee approves Hickenlooper’s request. But they don’t have any specific bills yet. Expect Republicans to push back on any policy that doesn’t alter the status quo — especially on teacher licensing.
  • This could be the year lawmakers send more money to the state’s kindergarten classrooms. State Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican and vice chair of the Senate Education Committee, is carrying a bill that would nearly fully fund kindergarten without spending any more tax dollars. That’s because his bill would reduce some funding for upperclassmen in high school.
  • Look for a big push to expand concurrent enrollment, which allows high school students to earn college credit at state universities and colleges, from Lundeen and Garnett. If the bill passes, it would be the third year in a row the bipartisan duo score major education legislation. (See data privacy, the committee studying school funding.) However, there’s also concern coming from the budget committee staff that some schools are abusing the “early colleges” model to score extra funding for students and not delivering on the promise of an associate’s degree within six years.
  • Just when you thought the debate over early childhood literacy was over, it’s back. Hamner, the Dillon Democrat, was one of the original sponsors of the READ Act, a bill that reformed how the state catches reading disabilities in its youngest students. She wants to double down on parts of the policy that are working and scrap what isn’t. Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican and member of the State Board of Education, also has expressed interest in pushing legislation that aims to boost early literacy. Durham and Hamner have been on opposing sides on a similar issue before. Can the two work together? Hamner says she hopes so.
  • One of last session’s biggest surprises was the death of a bipartisan bill that would have prohibited the state’s public schools from suspending its youngest students in most cases. The bill would have put Colorado on the forefront of school discipline reform, but it was killed over objections by some of the state’s rural schools. Look for the bill to come back but perhaps with different sponsors in the Senate.

Future of Schools

Indiana lawmakers are bringing back a plan to expand takeover for Gary and Muncie schools

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

It’s official: Lawmakers are planning to re-introduce a controversial plan to expand state takeover of the Gary and Muncie school districts when they come back May 14 for a one-day special session.

Indiana Republican leaders said they believe the plan, which would give control of Muncie schools to Ball State University and strip power from the Gary school board, creates opportunities for both districts to get on the right track after years of poor decision-making around finances.

“Two state entities year after year ignored requests from the legislature to get their fiscal health in order,” said Senate President David Long. “We understand there’s going to be some politics associated with it.”

But Indiana Democrats strongly oppose the takeovers, and House Minority Leader Terry Goodin, a Democrat from Austin, said bringing back the “heinous” takeover plan is too complicated to be dealt with in one day. Democrats had cheered when the bill unceremoniously died last month after lawmakers ran out of time during the regular session and lambasted Republican for calling for an extension to revisit it.

“This is not a thing that can be idly approved without full consideration,” Goodin said. “Because you are talking about the latest step to take the education of our children out of the hands of local school boards and parents and placing it under the control of Big Brother.”

But lawmakers’ push to expand district takeovers come as the state’s education officials are stepping back from taking control of individual schools. In this case, as with last year’s unprecedented bill that took over Gary schools, finances appear to be the driving motivation behind lawmakers’ actions, not academics. Typically, state takeover of schools has come as a consequence for years of failing state letter grades.

Gary schools have struggled for decades to deal with declining enrollment, poor financial management and poor academic performance. Although the Muncie district hasn’t seen the same kind of academic problems, it has been sharply criticized for mishandling a $10 million bond issue.

“All I had to hear is that a $10 million capital bond was used for operating expenses,” House Speaker Brian Bosma said, since those funds are intended to make improvements to buildings. “Fiscal irresponsibility is paramount, but also fiscal irresponsibility translates to educational irresponsibility as well.”

Bosma said that Ball State and Gary officials were on board with resurrecting House Bill 1315. Another part of the bill would develop an early warning system to identify districts in financial trouble.

The provisions in the bill would only apply to public school districts, but other types of schools, including online charter schools and private schools accepting taxpayer-funded vouchers, have had recent financial situations that have raised serious questions and even led to closure.

Bosma said those schools have their own fiscal accountability systems in place, but recent attempts to close gaps in state charter law and have private schools with voucher students submit annual reports to the state have gone mostly nowhere.

Both Bosma and Long said their plan to reconsider five bills during the special session, including House Bill 1315, had passed muster withGov. Eric Holcomb. But district takeover was not mentioned in Friday’s statement from Holcomb, nor did he say it was one of the urgent issues lawmakers should take up when he spoke to reporters in mid-March.

Instead, he reiterated his support for getting a $12 million loan from the state’s Common School Fund for Muncie schools and directing $10 million over the next two years to the state’s Secured School Fund. The money would allow districts to request dollars for new and improved school safety equipment and building improvements.

match day

On high school match day, two-thirds of Newark eighth graders want magnet schools — but far fewer will get them

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Keyon Lambert waited a long time for April 20th to arrive — the day when he and hundreds of other Newark students are discovering which high schools they’ve been matched with.

Long before this day, Keyon, an eighth-grader at Brick Avon Academy in the South Ward, spent hours poring over the test scores, class offerings, and graduation rates of the city’s high schools. As he awaited the results this week, he explained why he had invested so much time and thought into his application.

“If I went to a bad high school and got distracted — time flies by,” he said. “Senior year, I [might not] even know what I want to be, what college I want to go to. I probably miss out on a whole bunch of stuff. I’d probably be a dope by then.”

“But if I go to a good school,” he added, “I’ll be able to get my education and focus on the other things. Nothing, basically, will distract me.”

Newark students can apply to as many as eight high schools — traditional, magnet, or charter — through the district’s universal online application, and to the county-run vocational schools through a separate application. While the city has long offered competitive magnet schools alongside its traditional “comprehensive” high schools, the online system has made it easier for students to apply to multiple schools.

Still, each student only gets one match. And, as Keyon understood, some options are better than others. That leads many students to compete for the limited seats at the most selective schools, whose enrollments often do not match the overall demographic makeup of the district — a trend the school board has been probing.

Chalkbeat spoke to more than a dozen eighth-graders this week as high-school match day approached to understand their decisions. We’ll be checking back with some of them after they receive their matches Friday.

“There’s going to be a lot of tears,” said Jahida Gilbert, another Brick Avon eighth-grader, earlier this week.

The district’s six magnet high schools, which admit students based on their academic records or artistic talent, are by far the most popular option — and the most exclusive. Last year, more than two-thirds of incoming ninth-graders ranked a magnet school first on their applications, according to a new report on the city’s enrollment system. But just 31 percent of students across all grades who rank magnets first are actually admitted, and only 24 percent of Newark high schoolers wind up attending one of the coveted schools.

At the other end of the spectrum are the district’s eight comprehensive high schools. Unlike magnets, they cannot weed out students with low scores or poor attendance — they must admit anyone they have room for, or use a random lottery if they are oversubscribed. Partly as a result, they tend to serve far more students with disabilities, have many more students who are chronically absent, and post much lower test scores.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Brianna Padilla and Ahad Hall, eighth-graders at Hawthorne Avenue School.

About 10 percent of Newark students opt into one of the four technical-vocational schools run by Essex County, where they can join peers from other towns and study trades ranging from culinary arts to engineering while also earning a high-school diploma. Like the magnets, the “vo-tech” schools screen applicants. They look at students’ grades, test scores, disciplinary and attendance records, and the results of an entrance essay and interview.

Keyon ruled out the comprehensive high schools. But he did go for an interview at a vocational school, where the interviewer tried to assess Keyon’s personality by asking whether he’d rather be a lion or a bear. “I picked a lion because you could set a good example for others,” he explained.

He also explored a third category — charter high schools. Publicly funded but independently operated, those schools cannot screen applicants. However, several are affiliated with lower-grade charter schools that act as feeder schools, leaving few spots for other incoming ninth-graders. The charter high school Keyon applied to, Great Oaks Legacy, which includes pre-kindergarten to 12th-grade, reported having no available seats for students entering ninth-grade last year.

During his search, Keyon consulted his parents, who told him: “Be mature and pick the wise decision,” he said. Finally, he decided to apply to the vocational school (Essex County Newark Tech), along with two magnet schools (Science Park and American History) and two charter schools (KIPP Newark Collegiate Academy, in addition to Great Oaks Legacy).

Noon on April 20 was this year’s appointed hour, when families could start viewing their children’s matches — for elementary as well as high schools — on the enrollment website. The district also sends letters to students’ homes and gives copies to schools to hand out. Last school year, 41 percent of incoming ninth-graders were matched to their first choice, while 70 percent got one of their top three picks.

Brick Avon’s principal, Charity Haygood, said students shouldn’t despair if they don’t get into one of the most competitive schools. Some high-achieving students flourish at the city’s comprehensive schools, which also boast impressive sports teams and arts programs.

Still, Haygood is troubled by the knowledge that some of her students will be shut out of the selective schools where they applied. She hates to think that a less-than-stellar report card one year or a poor showing on the state tests — perhaps because of an upheaval at home — can determine the course of a student’s high-school career, and maybe well beyond that.

“The idea that we — at the age of 12 or 13 — tell a child their destiny. How dare we?” she said. “That’s devastating.”

Out of about 14,400 students who attended a public high school in Newark this school year, 45 percent go to one of the district’s traditional high schools and 24 percent attend a magnet school. Another 21 percent are enrolled in one of the city’s seven charter schools with high-school grades.

While each high school has its strengths and weaknesses, academic performance varies sharply across sectors, with the magnet sector on average outscoring the charter sector on state exams — and both sectors outperforming the comprehensive schools. One factor that impacts their performance is the share of students with disabilities they serve.

Among comprehensive high schools, 22 percent of incoming ninth-graders require special-education services, compared to 13 percent in magnet schools and 15 percent in charter schools, according to the new report on the city’s enrollment system by the Center for Public Research and Leadership at Columbia University and MarGrady Research.

One exception is People’s Preparatory Charter School, where 33 percent of ninth-graders have disabilities, according to founder and co-director Jessica Rooney.

“Our whole job is to make sure that we’re decreasing or eliminating barriers to a high-quality education,” she said.

Haneefah Webster with her daughter, Samiyah, an eighth-grader at George Washington Carver School.

To help families sort through all the options each year, the district publishes a 115-page guidebook, hosts two school fairs each year, and created an informational video on the website where families can apply to most district or charter schools using a single application. (The vo-tech schools use a separate system.)

Students also lean heavily on their teachers and guidance counselors to make sense of all the options. At Sussex Avenue School in the Central Ward, seventh-grade teacher Amanda Grossi prints out the guidebook and goes through it page-by-page with students, helping them interpret the schools’ academic data and acceptance rates. She brings in former students to talk about the process and where they landed, and hosts a family night where parents can fill out the application.

While Grossi tries to help students make informed decisions, she worries about hardworking but middling students who fall into the “big divide” between magnet and comprehensive schools — and who, for all the dizzying options, have limited choices.

“There’s really no in-between,” she said.

For many parents, the solution is to push their children toward the magnets. Haneefah Webster encouraged her daughter, Samiyah, an eighth-grader at George Washington Carver School, to apply to Bard Early College High School, a magnet where students can earn two-year college degrees by graduation.

When she was her daughter’s age, Webster attended one of Newark’s traditional high schools, where she said she was a “math genius” and a “super honor roll student.” But when she entered a public college to study accounting, she soon found huge gaps in the math education she’d received. Before long, she switched her major to literature.

“That’s why I picked Bard” for Samiyah, she said. “So when she gets to college, she won’t have that struggle.”

Below are some of the eighth-graders we spoke with:

Valencia McDonald
Age: 13
Current school: Sussex Avenue
Top choice: Bard Early College High School (magnet school)
Advice to next year’s eighth-graders: “Go to a school that you like, especially if they have a club day you want to go to — so you can enjoy your time there, and also learn.”

Jahida Gilbert
Age: 14
Current school: Brick Avon Academy
Top choice: Science Park High School (magnet school)
Advice: “Go beyond where you want to go — not what level your teachers say you’re at. [But] also, don’t choose too high, to where all the ones you choose you don’t get accepted so then you have to wait until they put you in one. Be reasonable with your grades — but try to go big too.”

Brianna Padilla
Age: 13
Current school: Hawthorne Avenue
Top choice: Essex County Newark Tech (vocational-technical school)
Advice: “Don’t let no one doubt you, whatever high school you want to go to. If you feel you want to go there, then go there.”

Jordan King
Age: 15
Current school: Hawthorne Avenue
Top choice: Science Park High School (magnet)
Observation: “The one thing I hate is the waiting part. Life is all about waiting.”