Future of Schools

Trio of bills raises hot topics

Updated 10 p.m. – New bills on sex education, tuition tax credits and science teaching could enliven education debates at the Capitol this year.

Colorado CapitolIntroduced Wednesday were a measure that proposes creation of a “comprehensive human sexuality education” grant program, a bill to allow tax credits for private school tuition and a proposal that would create an “Academic Freedom Act” affecting teaching of evolution, global warming and other scientific subjects.

The sex-ed bill is proposed by Democratic lawmakers; the other two are proposed by Republicans, who are in the minority in both houses.

House Bill 13-1081 would add language to state law defining standards for human sexuality education and create a program of grants for school districts that want to implement such programs.

The program would be run the Department of Public Health and Environment, and the grants would be funded by non-tax sources.

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The bill defines comprehensive human sexuality education as “medically accurate information about all methods to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and infections, including HIV and AIDS, hepatitis C, and the link between human papillomavirus and cancer. Methods must include information about the correct and consistent use of abstinence, contraception, condoms, and other barrier methods.”

Money from the grant program “must only be used for the purpose of providing comprehensive human sexuality education programs that are evidence-based, culturally sensitive, medically accurate, age-appropriate, reflective of positive youth development approaches, and that comply with statutory content standards,” according to the bill.

The measure also requires that schools that receive grant money “are required to implement an opt-out policy rather than an opt-in policy for comprehensive health and sexuality education programs.”

The state constitution gives school boards authority over school curriculum, but the state can set requirements for grant programs.

The bill has been assigned to the House Health, Insurance and Environment committee. The prime sponsors are Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, and Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, along with six other House Democrats.

Tuition tax credits

Sex education hasn’t been an issue during recent legislative sessions, but the tax credits proposal is a familiar topic at the statehouse.

A group of 23 Republican lawmakers introduced Senate Bill 13-069, which would allow taxpayers to receive credits for private school tuition and for home schooling. The credit also would apply to people who contribute scholarship funds to private schools.

The bill is similar to proposals that have failed in recent legislative sessions.

Starting in 2014, the credit for a full-time student would be equal to the amount of the child’s scholarship or half of average statewide per pupil funding for public schools, whichever is less.

The credit for home schooling would be $1,000 for a full-time student and $500 for a half-time student.

Corporations and other entities that contributed to scholarships would be eligible for the credit.

The prime sponsors of what’s titled the “Quality Education and Budget Reduction Act” are freshman Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, and Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker. The measure will have its first hearing in the Senate Education Committee at a date to be scheduled.

Variations on the tax-credit idea were proposed in 2011, when Republicans controlled the House and Democrats ran the Senate, and in 2010, when Democrats controlled both houses, as they do now. All of those bills died.

In 1998 voters defeated a ballot measure that would have allowed taxpayers to claim credits of up to $2,500 for private school tuition.

In 2011 the Douglas County school board approved a voucher program that would allow students to spend district-provided vouchers for private school tuition. The program is on hold and a challenge is pending in the Colorado Court of Appeals.

In 2003 the Colorado Supreme Court invalidated a pilot voucher program that had been approved by the legislature.

Academic freedom proposal

The legislative declaration of House Bill 13-1089 says that the measure is intended to “direct teachers to create an environment that encourages students to intelligently and respectfully explore scientific questions and learn about scientific evidence related to biological and chemical evolution, global warming, and human cloning.”

The bill continues, “The General Assembly further finds that the teaching of some scientific subjects, such as biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy and that some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they may present information on such subjects.”

The bill appears to be intended to protect teachers who raise questions about generally accepted scientific teaching on such topics as evolution and global warming.

The bill states that schools districts and administrators “must not prohibit any public school teacher in this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in a given course.”

The prime sponsors are freshman Rep. Steve Humphrey and Sen. Scott Renfroe, both Greeley Republicans. The bill has been assigned to the House Education Committee.

Other new bills

Also introduced Wednesday was Senate Bill 13-055, which would change how the actuarial soundness of the Public Employee’s Retirement Association (PERA) is calculated.

Republican lawmakers have criticized PERA for what they feel are overly optimistic projections of the pension system’s future soundness. The pension plan was overhauled by bipartisan legislation passed in 2010. All subsequent efforts to change that law have failed.

The PERA system covers all teachers in Colorado and many higher education employees.

This bill’s sponsors are Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, and freshman Rep. Lori Saine, R-Dacono. It will be heard by the Senate State Affairs Committee.

Senate Bill 13-065 would allow local governments to use “approval voting” in non-partisan elections. Under such a system voters cast votes for as many candidates as they want. The winner is the candidate with the most votes, or the top vote getters in elections to fill multiple seats on a board. The bill would apply to school districts.

The bill has bipartisan sponsors, freshman Sen. David Balmer, R-Centennial, and Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont. It goes to State Affairs.

Also introduced Wednesday was Senate Bill 13-053, which would formalize current practices for exchange of student data between K-12 school districts and state colleges and universities. Sponsors are Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, and Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon. It will be heard first by the Senate Education Committee.

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

Indiana’s push to raise teacher pay is creating some unlikely allies

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Middle school math teacher Eliana Moore, left, gives Armando Flynn, 13, some extra attention to help with a lesson in algebra.

It’s not every day that the state’s teachers union, Republican leaders, and education advocacy groups find themselves working toward the same goal. But this year, as Indiana puts teacher pay at the forefront of its legislative priorities, there seems to be an all-hands-on-deck approach to make it happen — and that means some unlikely allies.

During Tuesday’s ceremonial first day of the legislative session, House Speaker Brian Bosma announced in a speech to fellow lawmakers that Republican Reps. Bob Behning and Todd Huston — as well as representatives from the Indiana State Teachers Association, advocacy group Stand for Children, and the educator organization Teach Plus — were working on a plan to ensure teacher raises are part of the state’s next two-year budget.

“The most important profession for the future is those that serve in our classrooms,” Bosma said, adding that although the state has made increases over the past few years in school funding, pay for teachers has not kept pace even as administrative spending has increased.

It’s an unusual partnership because the teachers union has frequently had tension with Republicans who favor school choice and expanding the state’s charter school and private school voucher programs. The union, which staunchly advocates for traditional public schools, has also clashed over charter partnerships with districts, a model that Teach Plus and Stand for Children have supported, even though they aren’t inherently partisan.

Why now? The combination of local districts struggling to hire teachers and keep them in the classroom and a larger national conversation about teacher compensation has put raising teacher pay in the spotlight, both in Indiana and across the country. Last week, teachers in Portage, Indiana, picketed to push for larger raises as they negotiate a new contract.

“It’s been a crisis that’s been coming — we’ve seen it coming … and finally people are starting to connect the dots between compensation and retention,” said Teresa Meredith, president of ISTA, the state’s largest teachers union. “We finally had to take a step back and say, obviously fighting each other is not getting anything done.”

Meredith said state-driven policies that have led to more testing and dialed up the need for schools to compete for students naturally has resulted in increased spending on staff members who aren’t in the classroom. Now, she said, lawmakers are seeing how that’s affecting school budgets, and, in turn, making it difficult to attract and retain teachers.

The desire to figure out ways to keep teachers in the classroom also brought Teach Plus to the table, said Rachel Hathaway, program manager for the national organization’s Indiana arm. Teach Plus helps train teachers to be policy advocates.

“There is a moment happening this year that can bring folks together to really elevate the profession and support teachers to make sure they are able to stay in the classroom,” Hathaway said. Teach Plus has “a history of knowing the importance of teacher recruitment and retention and ensuring we have high-quality teachers in front of our students.”

And it’s that impact at the classroom level, Stand for Children Indiana executive director Justin Ohlemiller said, that speaks to his group’s mission. Stand is an organization that aims to help parents learn how to advocate for their children in schools, but the group has been criticized, such as during the recent Indianapolis Public Schools board election, because they do not have to disclose their spending.

“At the end of the day, data shows one of the most important single factors in children’s education is the educator at the front of the room,” Ohlemiller said.

Indiana’s plans for how to boost teacher salaries are expected to come into sharper focus over the next few weeks. But Bosma cautioned again Tuesday that there might not be much extra money to work with, casting some doubt on the state’s ability to raise pay enough to make a meaningful difference for educators across the state.

“We’re going to have more needs, more critical needs, than we have available dollars,” Bosma said.

Bosma wouldn’t offer details about how much money House Republicans would add for teacher pay, but said after funding obligations to the Department of Child Services, that state would have an optimistic $50 million per year in new revenue for other funding requests. If teacher pay were to receive just a piece of that, it would be far less than the $81 million per year or so that Senate Democrats have called for — which they figure would amount to a 5 percent raise for teachers and counselors over the next two years.

And if curbing teacher shortages is as much of a priority as the state’s majority is now pushing, state Democrat leaders say, Indiana needs to prove that come January by making it a meaningful part of the budget.

“We have the resources,” Sen. Tim Lanane, a Democrat from Anderson, said on Friday when his caucus presented its 2019 priorities. “We can make that sacrifice to make sure our teachers know we respect and appreciate them.”

cry for help

View from the child care trenches: ‘Those of us cleaning the poop are not making it’

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat

At the end of three hours of briefings Monday on advancing care for Illinois’ tiniest residents, an on-the-ground provider’s 3-minute plea shook awake a gathering of the state’s top early childhood leaders and reminded them why they were there.

“We are in a crisis and unable to get help,” said Holtz, who in seven years has cycled through 147 staff members at her two day care centers in south central Effingham.

Turnover in that time among her 35 employees has been enough to staff the two centers more than four times over.

Speaking to the early learning council that directs how the state funds services for children from birth to age 5, Holtz said half of those departing sought better-paying jobs in other fields. Others headed to public school districts that pay better. Some she let go.

“Down here in the trenches, those of us who are cleaning the poop and plunging the toilets — we’re the ones who are not making it,” said Holtz, ticking off how well-intentioned Illinois directives make it tough to run a childcare business. She listed state policies like raising degree requirements for jobs that pay $8.50 to $10.25 an hour in her area, an endless stream of “health and safety” trainings, and lead and radon tests that cost her $1,000 apiece.

In a meeting that focused mainly on future ambitions, Holtz redirected attention to a present hazard: a critical shortage of qualified staffers to work in infant centers, daycare programs, and community-based preschools.  

The issue threatens to undercut any sort of universal pre-K program, which governor-elect J.B. Pritzker pledged to pursue as a candidate.

Preschool expert GG Weisenfeld said Illinois meets many established early learning benchmarks. But the state lags in salary parity. Other shortcomings: a revolving door of the state’s top leadership in early learning and a lack of full-day programs.   

“For preschools housed within public schools, those teachers have salary parity with other teachers,” said Weisenfeld, the lead author of a new state preschool policy scan from the National Institute for Early Education Research. “Unfortunately, when programs are housed in community-based centers, those teachers do not.”

But the state’s powerful Early Learning Council barely touched on that topic at its quarterly meeting Monday.

Holtz, one of only two people to address the council, said she drove several hours from Effingham for her three minutes at the mic. She said she supports the state’s push for better quality, but that effort doesn’t pencil out for her and other caregivers. One state subsidized program for low-income families reimburses her only $23 per day per child. That’s not enough to pay a lead teacher with a bachelor’s degree.

“When we do hire them, they uniformly all leave for better pay and benefits — and less stress. The stress is up there with the reasons for leaving, along with pay.”

As Illinois focuses on raising the quality of early learning throughout the state by requiring bachelor’s degrees for lead teachers in preschools, it faces a conundrum: Teachers with college degrees want to and can earn more than minimum wage elsewhere. (A 2017 state report said the median hourly wage for a licensed childcare center teacher was $12.50. Assistant teachers and infant caregivers generally made less.)

Jill Andrews, another downstate center director who heads up the Southern Illinois Child Care Assistance Task Force and made the trek with Holtz, handed out folders with her own set of recommendations.

Among them: raising state reimbursement rates for publicly funded child care programs, helping child care providers qualify for state health insurance, and offering community college credit as an incentive for workers to pursue training.