Who Is In Charge

Debate takes shape over CCHE role on tuition

Should the Colorado Commission on Higher Education have a say in state college tuition increases before or after they’re imposed on students?

Two answers have been posed to that question, one by the Higher Education Strategic Planning Steering Committee and another by the 12 executives of the state’s colleges, universities and systems.

Campus montage
From left, the campuses of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, the University of Colorado-Boulder and the Auraria Higher Education Center.

The steering committee was appointed late last year by Gov. Bill Ritter to develop a new master plan for state colleges and universities. But, because of the budget threats facing the state system, the steering committee Friday also made the short-term recommendation about tuition, suggesting that colleges that want to raise tuition more than 9 percent a yearwould have to seek CCHE approval.

The institution CEOs responded Friday to that proposal, instead suggesting that individual school and system boards be empowered to approve tuition hikes of greater than 9 percent, with the CCHE authorized to step in if it chose “and work with the governing board to modify the tuition increases” in individual cases.

The commission, meeting Friday afternoon at Red Rocks Community College, passed a resolution endorsing the steering committee proposal. But, the commissioners added an extra paragraph to the resolution noting that the steering committee, the governor and the legislature also should consider the CEOs’ proposal

The commission’s vote, and the CEOs’ proposal, are only one step in the process. Ritter, who has been a proponent of keeping tuition affordable but recently has indicated he’s open to discussing the issue, has yet to weigh in on what he’ll suggests to the legislature. Whatever tuition plan emerges is expected to become part of Senate Bill 10-003, a higher ed flexibility proposal that has been on hold during the ongoing tuition discussion. And that bill will be subject to lobbying, debate and amendment as it moves through the legislature.

The governor said recently that he hopes to make a recommendation to the legislature before the end of this month.

Rico Munn, director of the Department of Higher Education, Friday alluded to the fact that the discussion is moving beyond the commission and the steering committee. The governor and lawmakers “will do what they do. … “All the issues will kind of be out there for them to do with as they choose.”

Here are the high points of the steering committee’s proposed tuition plan:

  • Colleges would submit four-year financial and accountability plans to CCHE that would include tuition and financial flexibility for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years.
  • The commission would consider and approve plans before the start of the 2011-12 budget cycle, which will begin next fall before the 2010 legislature convenes.
  • Any tuition increases larger than 9 percent would be contingent on an institution “demonstrating measures to protect affordability and accessibility for Colorado’s low and middle income students and families.” Institutions would have to consider all forms of financial aid and also work to minimize student debt.
  • CCHE could authorize plans for two years and would have to give fresh consideration to an institution’s request for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years.
  • Because only some institutions can practically raise tuition by significant amounts, the state should take a “system-wide” approach to allocating state tax revenues among institutions and “avoid suspending campus operations or closing institutions.”
  • Institutions that seek financial and operational flexibility would have to clearly demonstrate the savings, efficiencies or service improvements that would be generated by that flexibility.

Additional key points of the CEOs’ proposal include:

  • Passage of a state law that would allow institutions to approve any tuition increases they want up to 9 percent.
  • Ending the current practice of requiring a portion of tuition revenue be devoted to financial aid for the lowest-income students. Many in higher education feel that recent increases in federal Pell Grants well protect the lowest-income students and that institutions need greater flexibility in providing financial aid to lower-middle and middle-income students.
  • Financial flexibility for colleges, such as more freedom from state accounting rules, should be handled separately from any controls on tuition.

For the last several years the legislature has used a footnote in the annual budget bill to set ceilings on how much state colleges and universities could increase tuition each year. The percentages have varied year to year; the ceiling for this year was 9 percent, and the same figure is proposed for next year.

The state’s budget woes have forced the legislature to reduce tax support of colleges and universities, which also happened during the last recession. Higher ed overall revenue has been maintained only with tuition increases and federal stimulus funds. The federal money runs out after the 2010-11 budget year, setting higher ed for 2011-12 cuts of perhaps $100 million or more. That’s the immediate crisis state leaders are struggling with.

It’s important to remember that the debate over tuition generally is focused on costs for resident undergraduate students. Institutions for several years have had the power to do what they will with graduate tuition and rates for out-of-state undergrads. That policy is expected to continue.

Archive of EdNews stories on the strategic planning process and higher education

checking in

How do you turn around a district? Six months into her tenure, Sharon Griffin works to line up the basics.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
When Sharon Griffin became the latest leader of the Achievement School District in June, she said one of her biggest priorities would reconnecting the state-run district with the community it serves most — Memphis.

In a crowded room at a community center in a north Memphis neighborhood, the leader of Tennessee’s turnaround district takes a microphone and addresses the parents and students gathered.

“I’m here because we care deeply about your students, and we know we can do better for them,” Sharon Griffin told the crowd. “We have to do that together.”

This would be one of more than three dozen community events in Memphis that Griffin would speak at during her first six months on the job. The gatherings have ranged from this parent night in Frayser to a luncheon with some of the city’s biggest business leaders. And Sharon Griffin’s message remained unchanged: Stay with us, we’re going to get better.

“One of my biggest goals was getting our communities to think differently about the district,” Griffin told Chalkbeat this month. “People only interact with the superintendent or the central office when there’s an issue. We want to meet people where they are and tell them what we are going to do for them.”

When Griffin became the latest leader of the Achievement School District in June, she said one of her biggest priorities would be reconnecting the state-run district with the community it serves most — Memphis.

Griffin, a turnaround veteran from Memphis, has been assigned the task of improving academic performance and the public perception of the state district. Originally created to boost the bottom 5 percent of schools academically, the district of charter operators has struggled to show improvement. Of the 30 schools in the district, nine have climbed out of the bottom 5 percent.

Griffin’s efforts are in line with what Education Commissioner Candice McQueen asked her to prioritize: recruit and support effective educators, improve collaboration with schools and in doing so, plan strategically with them.

But first she’s doubling down on improving the way the district functions – such as making sure that the district is in compliance with federal and state grants, and that teachers have the certifications they need to teach certain courses. And that’s taken more time than expected.

Researchers, as well as community members and parents, have said that the district should be seeing greater academic progress after six years. Griffin told Chalkbeat that one of her big priorities will be helping the district better its teaching workforce, which she believes will help improve test scores. In the most recent batch of state test scores, not a single Achievement School District elementary, middle, or high school had more than 20 percent of students scoring on grade level in English or math.

But first, she needed to go on a “listening tour.”

“I’ve been to more meetings than I can count, because I wanted people to get to know me in this role, but more importantly, because I wanted to hear from those in our schools about what’s working and what’s not,” Griffin said. “Now, I get to take what I’ve heard and learned and create action steps forward.”

Griffin said those action look like “better customer service for our charters and our families.” That means Griffin has been focusing on improving communication with the district’s central office, one of the longstanding problems she has heard about from operators. She’s also striving to improve the quality of the district’s teacher workforce, and making facilities safer and more usable.

Griffin’s task will be a mammoth one, and she told Chalkbeat that part of her strategy for getting it done revolves around her new central office team. She said that getting the office running smoothly has taken up a large portion of her time during these early months in the job – especially establishing the revamped office so her charter operators can better communicate with the district. A year ago, more than half of 59 central office staff positions were slashed – and Griffin’s team of four is now even smaller.

“We’re still small but mighty,” Griffin said. “But I wanted our charters to know where to go with a problem or a question. Same for parents. We had heard they didn’t know where to go. That’s changing.”

Some charter operators have already benefited from the change. Dwayne Tucker, the CEO of LEAD Public Schools, said the district has become more responsive this year and more respectful of charter operators’ time. LEAD runs two turnaround schools in Nashville, the district’s only outside of Memphis

“Previously, we’d get a request for data or information that needed a 24-hour turnaround because someone just realized that it needed to be fulfilled,” Tucker said. “Versus looking at us as the customer and planning so we didn’t need to drop everything. There’s more of a customer-service focus happening on ASD leadership now.”

Griffin’s also been turning to charter operators like LEAD for lessons learned – specifically about teacher recruitment and retention. She said she wants to see what charters are doing well and replicate those practices across the district. When Griffin visited Tucker at LEAD this fall, he said they talked mostly about hiring practices.

“She asked us a lot of questions about the teachers we’re looking for,” Tucker said. “We know that our teachers need to have a sense of purpose to do this work, because a turnaround environment is very hard work.”

Earlier in the year, Griffin also turned to the Memphis-based Freedom Prep, which runs one turnaround school, for lessons learned in retaining teachers.

“Our retention rate in the ASD in the past has not been great,” Griffin said. “I’m the third superintendent in six years, so you can imagine what the teacher retention rate is. Freedom Prep is one of the schools that has had a higher retention rate. Why? They’re focused on teacher support.”

A goal for Griffin during the first month or so as chief was to establish an advisory team of local parents, students, and faith leaders – and that hasn’t happened yet. But Griffin says the team is being assembled now, and that their input would be a big factor in the future.

Collaboration is key for Griffin, who is known for bringing groups with different interests together to find common ground.

“My goal is to work us out of a job,” Griffin said. “When we have empowered all of our teachers and leaders to build capacity within schools, the hope is that they won’t need us anymore.”

new kids on the block

Meet the newly elected Indianapolis Public Schools board members

Three newcomers were elected Tuesday to the Indianapolis Public Schools board. From left: Susan Collins, Evan Hawkins, and Taria Slack.

In a shakeup of the Indianapolis Public Schools board, two challengers unseated incumbents in Tuesday’s election.

In all, three newcomers will join the school board: retired teacher Susan Collins, Marian University administrator Evan Hawkins, and federal employee Taria Slack.

Learn more about where the new school board members stand on issues such as the district’s budget woes, school closings, and innovation schools, from their responses to our candidate survey published last month.