Constitutional Matters

Hickenlooper: We need voters’ help to fully fund schools

DENVER, CO - January 11: Governor John Hickenlooper delivering the Colorado State of the State address at the Colorado State Capitol. January 11, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post)

In his final State of the State address, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper called for more money for education but said it would take voters’ help to do that.

In an interview after the speech, Hickenlooper said he wasn’t calling for a ballot measure with a new tax for schools so much as he was pointing out Colorado violates its own constitution every year.

Even with increased funding for schools in recent budgets and the governor’s 2018-19 budget proposal, “we remain roughly three quarters of a billion dollars behind the funding Colorado voters placed in our constitution nearly two decades ago,” he said in his speech. “We need to be honest with ourselves and with our voters. This number isn’t going down much without their help.”

The Democratic governor was referring to Amendment 23, a constitutional amendment passed in 2000 that requires education spending to increase by population and inflation (it was inflation plus 1 percent from 2001 through 2011). However, the legislature has not funded education at that level since the Great Recession. The shortfall is known as the “negative factor” or more recently the “budget stabilization factor.”

Hickenlooper said in the interview afterward he and his staff “busted our necks” to get the shortfall down below $1 billion, but it’s still more than $700 million.

“That’s a big number,” he said. “We’re $770 million a year lower than what the voters told us to we should do. Were they just ignorant?”

Colorado voters have turned down several requests to raise taxes to put more money into K-12 education.

“I wasn’t specifically saying we have to go to the voters per se, but I thought it was worth noticing,” Hickenlooper said.

In this context, constitutional compliance could also look like voter authorization to spend less on schools.

“Maybe the solution is to go to the voters and ask them to reduce Amendment 23 to something more manageable,” Hickenlooper said. “Maybe it’s to have a transportation plan that also accommodates increased spending in education. I’m not sure what that looks like.”

“Maybe at some point – I don’t think it will be this year – we put an initiative on the ballot that says we want to take excess revenues every year and commit them to Amendment 23.”

Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights imposes a cap on how much revenue the state can collect each year, but with voter permission, the state could keep additional money and put it toward education.

That’s what’s proposed in a bill from state Sen. Andy Kerr, a Lakewood Democrat, that Republicans sent straight to a kill committee Wednesday.

Hickenlooper included a plan for funding K-12 education among his top priorities for the next year, and he linked it to plans to fund transportation and the state’s water plan. Those priorities, which he called a “common sense agenda,” are:

  • Solving the unfunded liability in the state pension system, which many public school employees participate in;
  • Passing legislation to cap orphan oil and gas wells;
  • Halting the opioid epidemic;
  • Enacting funding plans for K-12 education, infrastructure and the state water plan;
  • Passing legislation and authorizing money for a full buildout of rural broadband;
  • Addressing the negative impact of the Gallagher Amendment on rural communities.

Here’s what Hickenlooper had to say about K-12 education funding in his speech:

Today, in almost every part of Colorado, zip code still determines your educational outcome, and that determines your economic outcome. This needs to change.

We re-convened the Education Leadership Council, with your help, to build a long-term vision and path forward. It’s nonpartisan and comprehensive, with a focus on the building blocks of a child’s success from early childhood to workforce and beyond.

We’re pumping an additional $100 million above enrollment and inflation into our schools this year, and adding $10 million to address teacher shortages in rural areas.

We also proposed repeating this year’s $30 million to rural schools next year.

Even with these increases, we remain roughly three-quarters of a billion dollars behind the funding Colorado voters placed in our constitution nearly two decades ago.

We need to be honest with ourselves and with our voters. This number isn’t going down much without their help. And if we are being really blunt, it hurts rural Colorado more than the Front Range.

Hickenlooper also called for additional focus on being prepared for work and highlighted his apprenticeship programs.

We need to transition from a degree-based education system to one that also includes skill-based training.

Experts tell us almost 60 percent of our kids in America today will not get a 4-year degree, and that number is true in Colorado as well.

Careers and professions by the dozens will be swept away in the coming decades by automation and artificial intelligence.

But new industries will emerge at an equally frantic rate. We will need not just engineers but huge numbers of technicians and analysts with new sets of skills. We need to get more kids learning skills that matter. We need to do it yesterday.

That’s why we’re working with the state board of education to expose more students to coding in middle and high school years. Why not give those schools with a foreign language requirement the choice to offer coding as an alternative language?

But let’s not fall into the trap of instituting a bunch of coding classes and thinking we’ve solved the problem. We need flexible solutions that can adapt to what employers need tomorrow, not just what they need today.

This means training and apprenticeships.

Working closely with business and education leaders, in a public-private partnership, Colorado is igniting an apprenticeship renaissance with Careerwise, and it’s a model being copied around the country.

You can read his full speech here.

NEW MOMENT

Tennessee’s struggling state-run district just hired the ‘LeBron James’ of school turnaround work

PHOTO: Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal
Sharon Griffin was the first chief of schools for Shelby County Schools. Starting in May, she will be the next leader of Tennessee's state-run district.

In hiring a Memphis native to save its most vulnerable schools, Tennessee is hedging its bets that she can finally get the job done.

Sharon Griffin’s new job is to fix the state’s struggling Achievement School District and use her experience to strengthen the relationships with local districts across the state.

But can she right the ship and make everyone happy?

“I know through my experience and the relationships I’ve built that we cannot only focus and prioritize our work, but strengthen the relationship [between local districts and the state] so all of our schools can be great places of learning,” Griffin said during a conference call this week.

Tennessee’s achievement district started out as the cornerstone of the state’s strategy to improve low performing schools in 2012. It promised to vault the state’s 5 percent of lowest-achieving schools to the top 25 percent within five years. But the district hasn’t produced large academic gains. It’s struggling to attract students and retain high-quality teachers. And local districts don’t like it because the state moved in and took over schools without input.

But as Tennessee works to make its state the national model of school achievement, naming a revered, longtime home-grown leader as point person for school turnaround is seen by many as a jolt of badly needed energy, and a savvy move in a state education system divided into many factions.

“I think it is a game-changer,” said Rep. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, who has championed legislation to refine the achievement district. “The ASD badly needs a strong leader…. She definitely could be the bridge to bring us over troubled water in Tennessee.”


Read more about what Griffin’s hire means for the school district she is leaving behind. 


Education Commissioner Candice McQueen stressed during the call that Griffin’s appointment does not mean state-run schools will return to local control, even as she acknowledged that the district is at a turning point. It’s now the state’s tool of last resort.

“Whether that is transitioning a school back into the district when it is ready or whether it’s to intervene and move a school into the Achievement School District,” McQueen said. “This particular moment is about a person who can lead all of the state interventions as well as the specificity of the ASD.”

For Bobby White, the founder and CEO of a Memphis charter organization in the achievement district, the appointment signals a new chapter ahead. Griffin will directly oversee the district’s 30 charter schools in her new role.

He has been around for the highs and lows of Tennessee’s six-year experiment in state-run turnaround work.

“It feels like we got LeBron James, you know?” said White, who runs Frayser Community Schools. “It feels like she will have a vision and take us where we have been needing to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Frayser Community Schools CEO Bobby White has seen the highs and lows of the turnaround district.

Part of that vision will be finding new ways for charter schools and local districts to work together. In her roles as assistant commissioner of School Turnaround and chief of the Achievement School District, Griffin will oversee more than just the state-run district. She will have a hand in turnaround efforts across the state, such as a new partnership zone in Chattanooga. In the partnership zone, state and local leaders will work together to create mini-districts that are freed from many local rules.

Griffin stressed earlier this week that building relationships and fostering collaboration are among her top strengths — efforts that the state has failed in as local districts have sparred with state-runs schools over enrollment, facilities, and sharing student contact information.

“We have a level playing field now,” Griffin said. “I want to be clear, it’s not us against them. It’s a chance to learn not only from what ASD has been able to do alongside charter schools, but a chance to learn from each other as we move forward.”

Marcus Robinson, a former Indianapolis charter leader, said Griffin’s dynamic personality will be enough to get the job done.

“Dr. Griffin is magnetic,” said Robinson, who has helped raise money for Memphis schools through the Memphis Education Fund.

“She is the type of person who disarms people because she’s so authentic and genuine,” he said. “But she’s also experienced and wise and she knows school turnaround work.”

Griffin leaves behind a 25-year award-winning career with Shelby County Schools, the local district in Memphis. She has been a teacher and principal. She spearheaded the district’s turnaround work, and now serves as chief of schools. She will start her new role in May and will stay based in Memphis — something community members have long asked for.

Student at Frayser Achievement Academy.
PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
A student walks through the hall of Frayser Achievement Elementary School, a state-run school.

Steve Lockwood has watched the state’s reform play out in his Memphis neighborhood of Frayser, whose schools were home to some of the first state takeovers.

When the state first started running schools in Frayser, it was with the promise that the academics and culture would improve, said Lockwood, who runs the Frayser Community Development Corporation.

“The ASD has struggled to deliver on their mission,” Lockwood said. “But the last few months have been modestly encouraging. The ASD has seemed willing to admit mistakes and shortcomings.”

Lockwood said he sees Griffin’s appointment as a commitment by the state to bettering relationships in Memphis — and added that he was surprised she signed up.

“It’s a tribute to the ASD that they have enough juice left to attract someone like Dr. Griffin,” Lockwood said.

Senior reporter Marta Aldrich contributed to this report.

unforced error

Mayor de Blasio says education department has culture of frivolous harassment complaints

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

A “hyper-complaint dynamic” within the city’s education department explains why so few of the harassment claims made against the agency are substantiated, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday.

“It’s pretty well known inside the education world of some people bringing complaints of one type or another for reasons that may not have to do with the specific issue — and this is not just about sexual harassment,” de Blasio said at a press conference.

“We have to investigate everything but it is a known fact that unfortunately there has been a bit of a hyper-complaint dynamic sometimes for the wrong reasons.”

The mayor’s comments come less than a week after the city released statistics that show nearly 500 education department employees filed sexual harassment complaints over the past four years — but just seven of the complaints were substantiated, according to the New York Times. That means only 2 percent of complaints were found to have merit — compared with nearly 17 percent at other agencies citywide.

During a question and answer session with reporters, de Blasio repeatedly said the education department has a cultural problem when it comes to reporting misconduct.

“I can’t parse out for you who was sincere and who was insincere and what type of offense,” de Blasio said. “I can’t get there. I can tell you the fact it’s unfortunately a part of the culture of an agency that is changing that we need to address.”

De Blasio quickly tried to walk back some of his comments on Twitter.

The mayor’s comments come as activists worldwide have raised awareness about sexual harassment, sparking the #MeToo movement. One element of that conversation has been the  importance of taking harassment claims seriously instead of dismissing them. More than three-quarters of the city’s teachers are women, according to the Independent Budget Office.

De Blasio’s responses drew sharp criticism from Michael Mulgrew, president of the city’s teachers union. “Our teachers have a tough enough job that they don’t have time to make frivolous claims,” he said in a statement.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who was accused of gender discrimination when he was a top school district official in San Francisco, said the education department has increased the number of investigators who look into such complaints.