Who Is In Charge

Session opens with K-12 funding bill

The first education bill of the 2011 legislative session was introduced Wednesday, a measure that proposes corralling “excess” state revenues and using them to offset cuts in state K-12 support.

Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont
Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, spoke about education funding on the legislature's opening day Jan. 12, 2011. (Photo taken from legislative video archive.)

Senate Bill 11-001 was just one of more than a dozen education-related and budget bills read across the House and Senate front desks on the opening day of the session.

Among them were some unsuccessful favorites from past sessions – tax credits for private school tuition, student voting representation on the CSU board and changing the membership of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association Board.

Other bills propose giving charter schools easier access to unused school district buildings, letting Mesa State College non-academic employees opt out of the state personnel system, giving at-will college teachers some new rights when terminated, changing the rules on whether students can administer prescriptions to themselves at school and requiring greater transparency of the State Land Board.

The finance bill was touted by Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, in his opening remarks after the session convened and formally introduced later in the day by Senate Education Committee Chair Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins. Shaffer is a cosponsor. The House prime sponsor is Rep. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood.

“As we head into a session where we are staring down the barrel of millions of dollars of cuts to our K-12 and higher education systems, we must consciously prioritize education first as we consider every bill that comes before the legislature,” Shaffer said.

“Today I designate the Knowledge-Based Economy Fund as Senate Bill 1. … It will create an account to set funds aside throughout this session and dedicate them specifically to education funding.”

“If your goal is to shrink the size of government – to eliminate programs and root out wasteful government spending – let me help you. Let me help you identify those programs that don’t make sense, those functions of government that can be done more efficiently and less expensively, and let me help you redirect the funds currently being wasted to a higher cause: our Knowledge-Based Economy.”

The measure would create a temporary and somewhat convoluted system to funnel an undetermined amount of money to K-12 schools. It apparently would work like this: If the balance in the state general fund next December is larger than the March 2011 estimate of general fund revenue, the difference would go into a Knowledge-Based Economy Fund and then given to the Department of Education in January 2012. The money then would be distributed to school districts to partially offset expected cuts in state support for the 2011-12 school year.

Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins
Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins

The bill also proposes that money recovered through various state audits go into the fund, along with whatever other money the legislature decides to transfer.

The intent of the bill is to help schools “if there is any loose money,” Bacon told Education News Colorado.

After a lengthy listing of the economic benefits of the state’s colleges and universities, Shaffer said, “There is no question, there is no argument and there is no doubt: education equals jobs. An educated workforce attracts business and a healthy business climate is the foundation for a high quality-of-life for every Coloradan.” (You can view Shaffer’s speech here.)

Education had a lower profile during opening-day ceremonies in the House.

New Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, sounded a cautionary financial note, saying, “The bill for kicking the can down the road has come due. We will not spend what we don’t have, and yes, I recognize that this will require the state of Colorado to further tighten its belt.”

McNulty did say, “We are committed to a strong and well-funded K-12 education system. We are committed to our colleges and universities that will prepare graduates to compete in a 21st century economy.” The state’s higher education system also is expected to face budget cuts in 2011-12 – and the state’s resident undergraduate students to face tuition increases of at least 9 percent.

Given Republican control of the House, SB 11-001 would seem to have uncertain prospects in that chamber.

Other education bills of interests that surfaced Wednesday include (with prime sponsors in parenthesis):

House Bill 11-1007 – Would let Mesa State employees opt out of the state personnel system. (Rep. Laura Bradford and Sen. Steve King, both Grand Junction Republicans)

House Bill 11-1008 – Would change the membership of the PERA board to reduce member representation. This has been a continuing crusade for some Republicans. (Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Lakewood and Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango)

House Bill 11-1048 – Another hardy conservative Republican perennial, this would allow parents – and scholarship donors – to take tax credits for private school costs. (Rep. Spencer Swalm, R-Centennial and Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud)

House Bill 11-1055 – A priority of the Colorado League of Charter schools, the measure would give charter schools greater leverage in getting use of district buildings and land. Expect a fight over this one. (Rep. Don Beezley, R-Broomfield; no Senate sponsor yet)

Senate Bill 11-011 – Another repeat, this year’s version would add both voting students and voting faculty members to the CSU board. CSU rolled out some big lobbying guns to kill the 2010 version. (Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo and Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins)

Senate Bill 11-029 – A pet project of Senate Education Committee Vice Chair Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, this measure would require greater financial transparency of the State Land Board, which manages school trust and other state lands. Hudak and others long have felt the lands provide too little supplemental revenue for education. (Hudak and Rep. Ken Summers, R-Lakewood)

Remember, the conventional wisdom this year is that a bill has a better chance if it has a Democratic prime sponsor in the Senate and a Republican one in the House.

Check the all-new-for-2011 Education Bill Tracker for links to texts of these bills and others introduced on opening day.

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.