Future of Schools

Rejecting Ritz's logic, state board promises A-to-F grades will be issued

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
State Superintendent Glenda Ritz speaks with reporters after Indiana's request for a waiver from some rules of the federal No Child Left Behind law was approved in 2014.

Indiana schools will have A-to-F grades for 2014-15, although they probably won’t be publicly released until 2016.

The Indiana State Board of Education today approved a resolution that orders state Superintendent Glenda Ritz to issue school A-to-F grades for 2014-15 despite earlier questions raised by Ritz about whether the board’s earlier actions caused the rules for calculating those grades to expire.

That could have meant the Indiana Department of Education would have no formal guidelines for assigning grades. But the state board rejected Ritz’s argument and insisted last year’s rules are still in effect.

“This has been a very confusing process with the rules expiring, the emergency rules,” Ritz said. “I just want to say I’m glad we’re headed to the new rules and the new measures and the new metrics, and we’re moving as fast as we can toward that.”

Education department spokesman Daniel Altman said the tentative date for final grades being submitted to the state board for approval is Jan. 18. Typically, grades are finalized well before year’s end, but the company that makes ISTEP, California-based CTB, reported scoring problems last month that have caused the delay. Schools are expected to get preliminary score data by Dec. 1.

“Obviously we’re dealing with the delay from CTB,” Altman said. “We’ve been working significantly with state board staff and legislative staff and stakeholders to get the timeline as reduced as it could be, and we’re going to get information to schools as soon as it’s possible.”

A letter from Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, expressed concern that grades wouldn’t be issued before the state’s Jan. 31 deadline for when districts must give performance bonuses to teachers. Brown chairs the budget making Ways and Means Committee in the Indiana House. If that bonus money is not used by then, state board spokesman Marc Lotter said, it could go back to the education department rather than be paid to teachers.

The board voted 9-0 to approve the resolution to issue the grades, with Ritz abstaining. When asked by board member Gordon Hendry why she chose not to vote, Ritz cited the confusion about the rules.

“I choose to, I guess, because of the confusing nature of the entire piece and the resolution enacting a rule that is expired,” she said. “It’s probably more procedural than anything.”

Lotter said 2014-15 grades would be determined using the same system as in 2013-14. A new model for figuring out school grades will equally weigh student scores and improvement over prior years. It will be used for the first time for 2015-16 grades.

An A-to-F grade delay can cause schools a variety of problems, as the scores are used in part to determine teacher raises, as well as guide the state board to decide if it needs to take over schools with repeated F-grades.

Ritz’s team argued earlier this month that the state board’s actions last year to change the way they issued grades for a handful of schools with unusual grade configurations — such as those with some elementary grades and some high school grades — had a secondary effect of invalidating the entire A-to-F system.

The rules, they said, indicate even a small change means there is a new system, and that the old system no longer is in effect.

The Indiana attorney general’s office said in a letter to the board and the department that an expiring emergency rule would not invalidate A-to-F grades and doesn’t negate state law that requires grades to be issued each year.

A legal opinion from Matt Light, with the state’s attorney general’s office, also blocks another proposal Ritz has made. She has suggested A-to-F school grades be “paused” for 2014-15. Ritz proposed grades only be changed and made public if they were better than those from 2014. If scores went down, she said, grades should stay the same.

Pausing grades is “inconsistent with statutory requirements and provisions relating to placement of schools in A-F categories for school performance and accountability,” Light wrote.

Ritz and her team have tried to persuade the state board to “pause” accountability and school grades several times. Recently, those arguments have been spurred on by difficulties schools have had as they quickly implement new academic standards and give new tests after Indiana dumped Common Core standards in 2014.

Light wrote that while it might be valid to argue that new standards and new tests had an effect on accountability, it doesn’t mean that withholding grades is the best option. Plus, he wrote, there’s no evidence that the 2015 ISTEP test isn’t valid or reliable.

“There is always a difficult balance to be struck between the need to establish the validity and reliability of the test items against the burden of time needed to test the items,” his letter said.

In the money

Here’s how Colorado schools would spend an extra $100 million from the state

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Hannah Moore, 8, shows off her moves during practice for an after school talent show that is part of the Scholars Unlimited After School program at Ashley Elementary school on March 10, 2017 in Denver, Colorado. Scholars Unlimited is an after school and summer program funded by the 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant, which is threatened to be cut entirely under the White House's budget cuts. The 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant served almost 20,000 students in Colorado between 2015 and 2016 and 76 percent of students showed academic improvement. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Legislators on the Joint Budget Committee unanimously decided this week to set aside $100 million to “buy down” the budget stabilization factor.

This number – $822 million in 2017-18 – is the amount by which Colorado underfunds its schools when compared to the constitutional requirement that spending on education increase every year based on student count and inflation. It’s more commonly known as the negative factor, though lawmakers are trying to get away from that term.

For several years now, lawmakers have held the negative factor steady, but this year, as Colorado has more money to spend than it has had in a long time, Gov. John Hickenlooper wanted to make a dent in it and requested the $100 million reduction. To be clear, a $100 million reduction in the negative factor is $100 million more that the state would send to districts. Technically, this number will be finalized in a separate piece of legislation, the School Finance Bill, which is coming any day now.

But state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee, wanted to give some reassurance to educators that the money will be there in the budget. 

“It would send a message to our K-12 community that we are not spending that money and have set it aside,” she said.

And educators have been clamoring to hear that message. The Colorado School Finance Project has been running a social media campaign for the $100 million buydown using the hashtags #k12needsco and #kidsmattertoo.

The non-profit asked school superintendents around the state to say what they would do with the extra money, which translates to an additional $114 on average for each enrolled student, compared to holding the budget stabilization factor steady. The answers are identified by region, but not by district.

Here’s a small sample of the responses:

You can read all of them here.

The Joint Budget Committee has set total program spending on education at $7.75 billion before the negative factor is applied, up from $7.45 billion this year, a 4 percent increase. Of total program spending, the state will pay $4.4 billion, with the rest coming from local property taxes. This doesn’t include voter-approved tax increases known as mill levy overrides.

That translates to average per-pupil spending of $7,959, compared to $7,662 this year. A budget stabilization factor of $722 million would yield an average per-pupil amount closer to $8,074. 

The smaller budget stabilization factor is significant beyond just one budget year because state law says that this number shouldn’t get larger from one year to the next. However, Colorado superintendents are also pushing for a tax increase and change to the distribution of school money. It will take more than an additional $100 million spread among 870,000 students to address all the needs they identify in their responses to the Colorado School Finance Project.

Hickenlooper had also requested an additional $200 million for the state education fund, with the intention that that money be used to offset costs to districts from proposed changes to the public pension system and expected reductions in property tax revenue in rural communities.

The Joint Budget Committee instead voted to set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with fixing the Public Employees Retirement Association’s unfunded liability – but in the general fund rather than the state education fund and not specifically to help schools, where retirement costs account for a big chunk of the personnel budget.

The committee also agreed to set aside $30 million to help small rural districts with low tax bases and was supportive of setting aside $10 million to address rural teacher shortages, though some of the details are still being worked out.

March for Our Lives

Memphis students say Saturday protest is not just about school shootings. It’s about all gun violence.

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
A student at Columbine High School holds a sign during a protest of gun violence, on March 14, 2018 in Littleton, Colorado.

Students marching Saturday in Memphis against gun violence say they are not only protesting the shootings that killed 17 people last month at a Florida high school. They also are speaking out against shootings that happen daily in their own city.

Seventeen-year-old John Chatman says he fears school shootings, but he especially fears the common gun violence in his neighborhood of South Memphis. He has lost close friends to shootings.

“It can happen anywhere, anytime,” Chatman said. “I think [this march] is a great stand. We should protest against school shootings. But we have to talk about what kids like me are seeing in Memphis on the daily.”

Memphis had 200 homicides in 2017, down from 228 the previous year, the deadliest year recorded in the city in two decades.

Chatman is one of hundreds of Memphians expected to participate in this weekend’s March for Our Lives event as part of a nationwide protest sparked by the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The largest march will be in Washington, D.C., where up to a half million protesters are expected, but smaller demonstrations are planned in cities and towns across the nation. In Tennessee, other marches are slated for Jackson, Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Clarksville, Cookeville, and Johnson City.

The Memphis march will start at 10 a.m. at Claiborne Temple, and Savanah Thompson will be there. One of more than a dozen student organizers, she worries that news about people getting shot has become commonplace.

“Being in Memphis, you get used to hearing about gun violence,” said Thompson, a freshman at White Station High School. “This affects the youth in our city. … We never want a school shooting to happen in Memphis or anywhere ever again.”

Alyssa Kieren, a student leader at Collierville High School, hopes the march fosters a sense of unity.

“We’re trying to stress that this isn’t a partisan issue,” Kieren said. “We have to acknowledge there is a problem and we have to come up with solutions. … The thing we’re upset about is that children are dying in our schools, and they’re dying in our city.”