Who Is In Charge

Higher ed budget back in play

Colorado will seek a waiver from federal stimulus rules that require a minimum level of state support for higher education, the Colorado Commission on Higher Education learned Thursday.

Approval of such a waiver would allow the legislature to reduce the amount of state funding that goes to colleges, but the intention is to cover the loss with stimulus dollars that haven’t yet been allocated, said David Skaggs, director of the Department of Higher Education.

“That’s certainly what everyone is intending,” Skaggs said.

Such a reduction of state support would give lawmakers a bit more wiggle room as they try to cover a $384 million shortfall in the 2009-10 budget.

While overall higher ed spending would be held level if the plan works, it would leave colleges and universities with a lower base of state support when the stimulus ends in 2011.

The commission Thursday also unanimously approved a resolution to convene a Sept. 21 higher ed “summit,” a meeting intended to kick off a 15-month project to create a new master plan for the state’s postsecondary system.

Higher education’s financial pinch is a key impetus behind the master plan, which is being pushed by Gov. Bill Ritter and Skaggs despite hesitation by some college presidents.

Recession-driven revenue declines forced the 2009 legislature to cover about $1.4 billion in shortfalls in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 budgets.

Higher education was in the crosshairs during that process, and one proposal called for cutting state support of colleges by $300 million in 2009-10.

That was averted by a plan under which state support of higher ed was cut back to 2005-06 levels (a deeper cut would have made Colorado ineligible for education stimulus funds). Then, $150 million of stimulus money was used to bring college support back to 2008-09 levels. The legislature has intended to use the same formula for 2010-11, meaning higher ed would be frozen at the same level for three budget years.

This year and next, higher is to receive about $555 million in state funds and $150 million from the stimulus. Cutting the $555 million and replacing the cut with stimulus funds would keep higher ed stable, but leave colleges with a big hole to fill when the stimulus ends. (Colleges receive additional funds from tuition and fees, federal grants and private donations.)

That plan (and a lot of other proposed state spending) is threatened by a continued decline in state revenues, highlighted in an updated state forecast released late last month.

State economists now estimate the state will have to cover an additional $384 million shortfall in 2009-10.

The Joint Budget Committee will start tackling the problem next fall and the full legislature in January, but Ritter already has asked state departments to come up with 10 percent cuts.

“We are very optimistic the waiver will be granted,” Skaggs said, adding he believes the federal Department of Education will act quickly. “We’re not going to be the only state in this predicament.”

Earlier, discussing the master plan, Skaggs said, “This is a hugely ambitious undertaking, and a lot of questions have been raised, especially by institution presidents.”

But, Skaggs added, “It is at least the governor’s view … that this is even more necessary than before” because the state will need to show “the people of the state will be getting for their money” if there’s a ballot proposal in 2011 to raises taxes for higher education or other state programs.

The commissioners spent a fair amount of time discussing how college presidents view the idea.

Commissioner Greg Stevinson asked more than once if the college presidents “are all on board on this?”

“It’s fair to say all the CEOs are not on board,” Skaggs said.

Nancy McCallin, president of the community college system, said, “I think there was a great deal of concern on a couple of fronts.” (McCallin hosted the meeting at the system’s Lowry headquarters.)

First, some presidents are concerned that a master plan might come up with new duties for higher ed but no funding, and second, presidents are focused on the current financial crisis.

As currently envisioned, the master plan process would examine student access and success, the role of higher ed in academic growth and innovation, how to improve institutional efficiency and productivity and adequate funding.

The work would be done by a steering committee of educators, policymakers and citizens, assisted by working groups that would focus on the subjects listed above. A final report would be adopted by CCHE in November 2010, with recommendations forwarded to the 2011 legislature.

The department already is doing some planning work with a grant from the Lumina Foundation but hopes to receive a $2 million, four-year continuation grant. Skaggs estimated the master plan could cost “several hundred thousand dollars to do it the right way, which means being out in the state” gathering a broad range of views.

But, the exact shape of the proposal “is still a work in progress” and will be tweaked up to the Sept. 21 summit, Skaggs stressed.

Do your homework

Skaggs memo about the master plan
Detailed draft proposal for the master plan process

Decision makers

5 things to know about Austan Goolsbee, the high-powered new addition to Chicago’s school board

PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
In 2013, Austan Goolsbee testified before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee on Capitol Hill about the nation's economic recovery

Chicago’s school board is once again complete after outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel chose a University of Chicago economist to fill a long-vacant seat.

Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, will round out the seven-member, mayor-appointed board that sets education policy in the city.

Here are five things to know about Goolsbee:

  1. Like Emanuel, he served in the Obama White House. Goolsbee was as a close adviser to President Barack Obama, eventually becoming chair of his Council of Economic Advisors. The Chicago Teachers Union see this tie as a liability. “Mr. Goolsbee comes into a board responsible for students and their schools being starved of resources for the last eight years by the man who appointed him,” the union said in a statement. “Those same neighborhoods continue to struggle from the consequences of a foreclosure crisis that the administration he served in Washington failed to address.”
  2. He has weighed in on education before. A prolific opinion writer, he has written favorably about the economic arguments for universal prekindergarten, a priority for the outgoing mayor, saying that expanding early childhood education is a bargain over the long term. In a 2015 survey of economists’ positions on public issues, Goolsbee expressed optimism about “value-added” measures that try to isolate the impact of individual teachers on student test scores — though he qualified the approach as having “lots of noise and unobservables.” Expressing uncertainty about vouchers, Goolsbee said he fears that letting parents use public funds to pay for private school tuition could harm public schools, which have fixed costs cannot easily be reduced when students leave them. (A tax-credit version of vouchers launched in Illinois last year but now faces an uncertain future under a new Democratic governor.)
  3. He’ll bring a focus on fiscal policy to a board that oversees a big and uncertain budget. A close economic adviser to President Obama and prolific commenter on matters of economic policy in the national media, he’s joining a board that oversees $8 billion in outstanding debt. Chicago has credited the passage of an equitable funding bill, in 2017, for helping stabilize its finances. But the district’s economic future is uncertain, especially as families continue to leave the city.
  4. His personal public school experience is limited. He attended an elite private high school in the suburbs of Boston where he grew up, and his children attended the University of Chicago’s Lab School both before and after the family’s time in Washington, D.C., he has said in interviews.
  5. He’s got a following, and a sense of humor. For proof, check out his Twitter feed, which has 80,000 followers, and his October appearance on the popular NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Plus, his official University of Chicago profile lists a special interest in improv comedy. That sets him apart from the rest of the school board members, who tend to keep a low public profile.  

How long Goolsbee serves could depend on what happens after Emanuel leaves office in early 2019. Chicago’s mayor has controlled the city school board since 1995, but Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term has heightened debate about whether the city’s schools have benefitted.

In 2011 and 2015, voters backed non-binding resolutions that would make the board democratically elected. Now, two of the leading candidates in the mayor’s race, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and state comptroller Susana Mendoza, have said they’d support an elected school board — reducing their own power over education if they become mayor.

How soon a change could happen is unclear, but state lawmakers who would have to sign off on such a change have an ally in Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, who has said he supports the call for an elected school board.

The issue was a point of debate at a Chalkbeat Chicago event this week at Malcolm X College. At the event, titled “Education for All? Chicago’s Next Mayor and the Future of Public Schools,” some panelists voiced concern that elections would be dominated by well-organized factions, such as the teachers union, that would have the ability to outspend other candidates.

Super Search

The pressing question at Denver’s final forum: How will Susana Cordova tackle inequity?

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Susana Cordova poses for a portrait in December 2018.

The challenges that Susana Cordova will face if she’s hired next week as superintendent of the Denver school district were laid bare at a public forum Tuesday night.

Standing in a high school cafeteria with a microphone in her hand, the deputy superintendent and sole finalist for the top job faced tough questions about why struggling schools have high numbers of inexperienced teachers, whether she would commit to removing all police officers from schools, and what she would do about what one student called the “charter-ization” of Denver Public Schools — that is, the district’s practice of replacing low-performing district-run schools, sometimes with charter schools.

The most heated and emotional exchanges, however, were about inequities: Why is the district not serving black, Latino, and Native American students as well as white students? Why do test score gaps exist between students from poor families and those from wealthier ones?

Onecia Garcia, a senior at East High School, the city’s largest school and one of its most diverse, told Cordova there is a noticeable gap at East between the kids whose parents have money to pay for tutors and SAT prep courses, and the kids whose parents don’t.

“I want to know what your plan is to get that gap in order,” Garcia said.

In response to Garcia’s question and others like it, Cordova acknowledged that institutional racism exists in Denver Public Schools and has contributed to those gaps. She said the district needs to do a better job informing families about opportunities such as free SAT help and concurrent enrollment classes that allow students to earn college credit while in high school.

Cordova, who grew up in Denver and climbed the district ranks from teacher to her current position of deputy superintendent, talked about making it mandatory for all teachers to undergo training on bias and being culturally responsive, instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova said one of her top priorities would be to take the myriad and disparate efforts the district has started over the years to address specific inequities and combine them into one comprehensive plan. She called it “an equity plan that is for all kids, but that also has the specifics for African-American kids, for Latino kids, for low-income kids.”

“It is important that we’re not introducing too many things that you can’t keep a focus,” she said. “I think that’s a valid criticism of the work that we’ve done: We’ve introduced too many things that have made it hard to understand what is the progress that we’re trying to get at.”

But after the forum, Garcia said she didn’t feel Cordova had fully answered the questions. Other students who attended said they felt the same way.

“She wasn’t willing to commit to anything,” said Jonathan Bateman, a freshman at George Washington High School, where the forum was held.

“She answered questions like a politician,” said Carlye Raabe, also a freshman at George Washington.

Cordova emphasized that if she’s hired as superintendent, she’ll approach the job differently than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, who stepped down in October after nearly 10 years of leading Denver Public Schools. Boasberg was often criticized for not listening to the community.

“I believe deeply in the power of relationships,” Cordova said. “I think it’s really important that we’re not just listening to people who think like I think or who sound like I sound, but who have different experiences, because Denver is an incredibly diverse place.”

The school board is expected to vote Monday on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.