Who Is In Charge

JBC mulls testing cost options

Department of Education leaders will face lots of questions on testing costs and a couple of other key issue when they meet with the Joint Budget Committee later this month.

Testing illustrationThe committee was briefed Thursday on proposed CDE spending in 2012-13. (The session didn’t involve state aid to school districts, which was covered at a separate meeting last month – see story.)

As committee analyst Craig Harper noted, the JBC faces a knotty situation with the CDE budget, because the department and Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration differ on two key issues – funding for a new state testing system and for implementation of the educator effectiveness law.

Harper himself raised another possibly controversial idea – cutting back funding for the Building Excellent Schools Today program.

“This is a unique situation,” Harper said, referring to the fact that CDE can make direct budget requests to the legislature because it is governed by an elected body, the State Board of Education. “This year there’s a big disagreement” between the administration and the department, he added.

Here are the key differences:

Testing: The department has asked for $25.9 million to pay for development of a new state testing system to launch in 2014. The administration isn’t asking for that money, and budget officials have suggested Colorado should perhaps wait for the expected launch of multistate tests in 2015.

Educator evaluation: The department wants $424,390 from a state cash reserve fund to continue paying the salaries of staff members working on implementation of the educator effectiveness law, Senate Bill 11-191. But Hickenlooper has asked for $7.7 million from state tax funds to be spent over two budget years on additional staff members for the project.

Harper’s briefing paper sums up the differences in this way: “It appears that the State Board is requesting $25.9 million General Fund for assessments that the Governor is not requesting … and the Governor is requesting $7.7 million General Fund for educator effectiveness implementation that the State Board is not requesting.”

Harper didn’t make recommendations on the issues other than to suggest the committee closely question CDE leaders about them at a scheduled Dec. 16 hearing.

“This conversation should happen. I think they [CDE] need to be heard,” said Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen and JBC chair.

BEST funding questioned

Harper’s briefing paper
  • Testing issues – page 23
  • Educator effectiveness funding – page 32
  • BEST revenues – page 39

Harper did make a recommendation on a third issue – funding of the Building Excellent Schools Today construction program – that’s likely to raise alarms at CDE and in school districts across the state.

He recommended that the committee introduce a bill to limit the revenues that BEST receives from state school trust lands and that the legislature also put limits on the practice of “sweeping” other trust land revenues into general education spending.

The school lands and their revenues are administered by the State Land Board, an arm of the Department of Natural Resources. According to a JBC staff document, in 2010-11 “the Land Board collected a record $120.6 million for the school trust, $46.5 million more than the previous record year in FY 2008-09. … In FY 2010-11 the BEST program received $60.3 million … and $52.2 million [was] diverted into the State Public School Fund for school finance.”

Those revenues may not be as high in the future, Harper said, suggesting it would be prudent to reduce the diversions so more money could flow into what’s called the permanent fund. That fund has been stagnant at about $581 million for the last three years, Harper said. “My recommendation would be that you start growing it again.”

Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver
Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver

The BEST program already is approaching the point where it will have to scale back on new major grants so it can service the debt on big projects approved in the last few years. Cutting down the revenues from state lands could hasten that.

Democratic Sens. Pat Steadman of Denver and Evie Hudak of Westminster both expressed support for the idea, as did Rep. Ken Summers, R-Lakewood. Steadman is a member of the JBC; Hudak and Summers serve on the Senate and House education committees. Several members of the education committees attended the two hour and 45-minute hearing Thursday. (Get more information about the BEST program in the Education News Colorado archive.)

Delay of new tests raises complicated issues

While he didn’t make recommendations, Harper did provide the committee with lots of detail about the questions involved in delaying launch of new state tests.

He noted department concerns that delaying new tests could put Colorado’s new content standards out of synch with the tests, possibly disrupting state achievement data and threatening implementation of the educator effectiveness law.

“Without the assessments it’s going to be difficult for anyone to implement that piece of Senate Bill 10-191,” Harper said, referring to the law’s requirement that 50 percent of principal and teacher annual evaluations be based on student growth, as measured by statewide and other tests.

Harper’s briefing paper noted that the new tests would cost $25.9 million in 2012-13, $16 million the following year and $15.5 million in 2014-15 – on top of the base $21 million annual cost of testing. Part of the additional cost is due to the addition of interim tests and social studies assessments to the testing system.

The paper included several possible options for reducing those costs, including phasing in new tests, delaying interim tests or delaying the switchover until the multi-state tests are ready. The final CSAP tests were given last spring; transitional tests called TCAPs are to be given in 2012 and 2013.

“The department has concerns about the momentum behind reform efforts” stalling if new tests aren’t launched in 2014, Harper said. “That’s the big-picture concern here.”

the one to watch

Inside the three-candidate battle for northeast Denver’s school board seat

File photo of student at Marrama Elementary School in northeast Denver. (The Denver Post)

Of the Denver school board races on the November ballot, none packs more intrigue than the fight for District 4.

The three-person slate of candidates features an appointed incumbent who’s never run for office and supports the district’s current path, an outspoken recent high school graduate who sharply disagrees, and a former charter school educator with a more nuanced view and — in what on its surface may seem surprising — the endorsement of the teachers union.

The seat represents a large swath of northeast Denver with a wide range of income levels, including areas that are gentrifying quickly and others that have been home to some of the district’s most aggressive school improvement strategies.

The Nov. 7 election is high stakes. Four of the seven seats on the Denver school board are up for grabs. If candidates who disagree with Denver Public Schools’ direction win all four races, they’ll have the political power to change key policies in the state’s largest school district and one nationally recognized for its embrace of school choice and autonomy.

Tay Anderson is one of those candidates. The 19-year-old graduated from Denver’s Manual High School last year and is now a student at Metropolitan State University. On the campaign trail, he has doggedly criticized the district for what he describes as weak community engagement efforts and a move to “privatize” public education by approving more charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run (in Denver, by nonprofit operators).

He also has led the charge in attempting to tie the current school board and the incumbent candidates to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose stance on school choice — and especially private school vouchers, which DPS does not support — have made her a controversial figure.

    This is the first of a series of articles profiling this year’s Denver school board races. You can read about where candidates in all the DPS races stand on issues here, in Chalkbeat’s candidate questionnaire. Check out our coverage of the campaign’s first campaign finance reports here.

When DeVos came to Denver in July to give a speech to a group of conservative lawmakers from across the United States, Anderson organized a protest against her. In front of a crowd of hundreds, he called out the current Denver school board members.

“We can tell them, ‘Screw you. You’re fired in November!’” he said.

Anderson has a compelling personal story. The teenager struggled in high school before becoming a leader at Denver’s Manual High. He was student body president, chairman of the Colorado High School Democrats and a member of the Student Board of Education.

Anderson was also homeless for a time and has said his own challenges give him valuable insight into the lives of other Denver students living in difficult situations. About two-thirds of the district’s 92,000 students qualify for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty.

“I have had nobody in my corner when I was a homeless student and when I was in and out of foster care,” Anderson said at a recent televised candidate debate. “And now it is my turn to turn to our students and say, ‘I am going to be your champion.’”

His candidacy has attracted more local and national press attention than is usual for a school board race. But while Anderson has said his young age would bring a fresh perspective to the board, his opponents have questioned whether he has the experience to serve.

“It’s one thing to swing a hammer at a frustration, but it’s another to know where to swing it,” said candidate Jennifer Bacon, one of Anderson’s two opponents.

Anderson is running against Bacon, 35, and incumbent Rachele Espiritu, 48. Espiritu was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board in May 2016. The appointment process was long and marked by controversy. The first appointee, MiDian Holmes, stepped aside after details about a misdemeanor child abuse conviction and her mischaracterization of it came to light.

Both Espiritu and Bacon were among the finalists for the position. But Bacon withdrew, explaining at the time it was “in consideration of my need for growth and readiness for this position, as well as my interests in supporting the board.”

Asked recently to elaborate, Bacon said she withdrew because she sensed she wasn’t going to be appointed. She said she, too, had an arrest in her background: for stealing a necklace from Macy’s when she was in college. Bacon said the charge was dropped and she was not convicted. (No charges showed up in a background check done by Chalkbeat.)

Bacon, who attended college in Louisiana, said the arrest was a turning point at a time when she was struggling to find her purpose. She went on to join the Teach for America corps, teaching for a year in New Orleans and a year in Miami.

After teaching, she went to law school and then moved in 2010 to Denver, where she worked first as a dean for the city’s largest charter school network, DSST, and then in alumni affairs for Teach for America. She is now a regional director with Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit organization that trains educators to advocate for policy changes.

Bacon said she wondered whether her positions on key issues also made her an unlikely appointee. For instance, she has said she’s not opposed to charter schools but believes Denver has reached its threshold and should focus on shoring up its traditional schools.

“People ask me if I’m pro-charter,” Bacon said in an interview. “I’m pro-community.”

Since Espiritu was appointed, she has largely voted in line with the rest of the school board. But she chafes at the idea that the board is monolithic or a rubber stamp for the administration. Much back-and-forth occurs before a decision, she said in an interview, and each board member brings a unique background and set of life experiences to the table.

Espiritu often says on the campaign trail that she’s the only immigrant to serve on the board in the last century. She was born in the Philippines and came to the United States as a toddler. She holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Colorado Boulder and helped found a small business called Change Matrix that assists organizations with planning, putting into place and monitoring change. She and her family moved to Denver in 2012.

Espiritu has two sons. Her oldest goes to DSST: Stapleton High, a charter school. Her youngest goes to William (Bill) Roberts School, a K-8 district-run school. She has said that in choosing schools for her children, she focused on quality and not on type.

As a member of the board, Espiritu has paid particular attention to efforts to improve student mental health. She recently encouraged DPS to become a “trauma-informed school district.”

“I want us to be a district that addresses student and educator trauma in a proactive or preventative way that’s culturally sensitive and systematic in fashion,” she said at a September board meeting. “…We need to shift our thinking from asking what is wrong with a child to what happened with a child.”

Parts of northeast Denver have struggled academically. The region is home to the district’s biggest-ever school turnaround effort, as well as two of three schools the board voted unanimously last year to close due to poor performance.

The candidates’ disparate views on school closure offer a window into what differentiates them. Espiritu voted for the closures, though she noted at a subsequent board meeting that doing so was “a painful process … and such a difficult decision.”

Anderson has said he opposes closing any more traditional, district-run schools. Bacon, meanwhile, has said that while she doesn’t believe in “trapping kids in failing schools,” ideas about how to turn things around should originate with affected families.

Two local groups that traditionally endorse candidates and contribute large sums of money struggled this year with who to support in District 4. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association endorsed Bacon, but a progressive caucus of the union chose to separately support Anderson. The pro-reform group Stand for Children did not endorse any candidate, explaining that both Bacon and Espiritu surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Of the three candidates, Espiritu had raised the most money — $73,847 — as of Oct. 11, when the first campaign finance filing period ended. Bacon had raised $59,302, including $10,000 from the teachers union, while Anderson had raised $16,331.

Espiritu and Bacon have also benefitted from the support of independent expenditure committees. A union-funded group called Brighter Futures for Denver spent $139,000 on Bacon. Two other groups, Students for Education Reform and Raising Colorado, which is associated with Democrats for Education Reform, spent a total of $73,229 on Espiritu.

Sorting the Students

As Nashville heads to court over sharing student information with the state, here’s why Memphis probably won’t

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Nashville's Davidson County Chancery Court building where the state filed against Metro Nashville Public Schools over sharing contact information with charter schools.

Tennessee’s two largest school districts are often in lockstep on key issues. But in a recent tiff with the state about sharing student information with charter schools, the two districts are poised to part ways.

Leaders of Nashville’s school district have repeatedly defied an order from Tennessee’s education commissioner to share student addresses, phone numbers, and other information with the state’s controversial turnaround district, as required by a new state law. The state filed a lawsuit this week in response.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Memphis district have spoken out about the rule — but are preparing to comply. The district has given parents until Sunday, Oct. 22 to opt out of sharing their contact information with charter schools.

Instead of outright rejecting McQueen’s deadline last month like Nashville did, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson sought a compromise and the district has indicated contact information after the opt out window could be shared.

“… we respectfully request you extend your deadline until October 23, 2017 to allow our families the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding their rights and to give our board an opportunity to vote on the release of the data,” Hopson said in a letter to McQueen.

The state education department says it is holding off filing a similar suit against that district, for now. The Memphis district “is still deciding whether to comply, whereas Metro [Nashville] has made its decision already,” state spokeswoman Sara Gast said. “Given that, it is appropriate to file here and then review Shelby’s decision to decide if litigation is necessary.”

Shelby County Schools declined to share how many parents have chosen to opt out so far, but said it plans to share information with its board about the effort next week.

The fight has ignited long-simmering tensions around enrollment and the state’s influence in local schools, and comes on the heels of Metro Nashville Public Schools board voting to join Shelby County Schools in its landmark funding lawsuit against the state.

Memphis leaders have also said that the issue at hand is student privacy, though a robocall to Memphis parents indicated that the main goal of the opt-out process was not to lose students to charter schools.

Memphis’ compromise stance will be good news to groups like parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift, which says it has gathered about 1,200 parent signatures urging Shelby County Schools to release the contact information.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The legal questions at stake are the first challenge to a slight, but significant, amendment to federal rules

The Nashville school board cited two reasons for defying the state’s order in late August: One is U.S. Department of Education rule that allows districts to have discretion on who gets student directory information. The second was that when state lawmakers crafted the law that requires school districts to share student information, they did not intend for that information to be used for recruitment.

According to Frank LoMonte, a First Amendment lawyer and director of The Brechner Center at the University of Florida, said the lawsuit could have national implications.

“What we’re about to see is the first test of whether the U.S. Department of Education amended rules in 2011 are enforceable or not,” he said. What it comes down to, he said, is if a federal rule can give local districts the permission to violate state law.

The Nashville board’s second justification reflects concerns from State Rep. John Forgety, who chairs a key House education committee. He says the state is misinterpreting the law he helped create.

The state said in a statement that Commissioner Candice McQueen is seeking to confirm her interpretation of the new state law, “ensuring that families can be informed of all public education opportunities available to them.”

Below is a copy of the state’s court filing: