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.

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.