Who Is In Charge

Teacher pension bite could rise

New bills started flowing again Wednesday in the legislature, including 10 education-related measures, four of which are of major interest.

Those measures would allow local governments and school boards to change employee pension contributions, create a new performance-based funding system for state colleges and universities, require physical activity for elementary school students and make education management organizations subject to state regulation.

Jim Polsfut, Joe Garcia
Jim Polsfut, chair of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, and Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia (right) testified to legislative committees Jan. 19, 2011.

Wednesday also marked the first convening of the House and Senate education committees, which held a joint hearing for a briefing on the state’s higher ed system from Joe Garcia, who is both lieutenant governor and the nominee to head the Department of Higher Education.

Here’s the rundown on the key education measures:

Senate Bill 11-074 – PERA contributions

The bill would allow school boards to lower the percentage of payroll they contribute to employee pensions – and raise the amount from their paychecks that employees have to contribute. Under current state law, local government employers contribute 10.15 percent of payroll while workers pay 8 percent of salary. The bill would allow employers to lower their contribution by up to 2.5 percent and raise the employee contribution by a like amount.

The state has done a similar thing with its workers, including many in higher education, and may extend the shift for another year. The measure is sponsored by Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, and Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Lakewood, who are among a group of conservative Republicans skeptical of the PERA reforms, Senate Bill 0-001, passed last year. Whether the bill will get anywhere in the Democratic controlled Senate is an open question. But the idea might be attractive to some school boards and local governments.

But, shifting employer and employee contributions isn’t necessarily neutral for PERA. Because employees who leave the system are allowed to withdraw their past contributions, higher contributions mean a larger payout for departing workers and less money in PERA trust funds. Employer contributions stay with the system, regardless of whether employees leave.

Senate Bill 11-052 – Higher education goals and accountability

This might be the “big” higher ed bill of the 2011 session and, like several education reform bills of recent years, it would have a long implementation horizon. It would set broad state goals for education – increased access affordability and productivity; reduction of ethnic gaps in college completion; affordability; and increased contribution of higher education to economic development. It would then assign the Colorado Commission on Higher Education to set more detailed goals for the higher ed system’s various levels – research universities, four-year colleges and community colleges – and to review the roles of all state colleges.

Rep. Tom Masssey, Sen. Bob Bacon
Rep. Tom Masssey, R-Poncha Springs, and Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, chair of the legislative education committees.

Ultimately, starting the 2012-13 school year, performance on those goals would be tied to part of institutions’ funding from the state. According to the bill summary, “over the following five years, an increasing portion, eventually 25 percent, of the state funding for the statewide system of higher education will be allocated to governing boards based on their respective institutions’ success in meeting expectations.”

The idea of tying college funding to performance – retention, graduation rates and more – is being widely discussed nationally. It also was suggested as a future direction for Colorado in the higher education strategic plan. But – and this was the subject of much discussion – drafters of the plan agreed that performance funding won’t work until state support of higher ed increases. Overall, the state system now gets only about a quarter of its revenue from tax revenues, and that contribution keeps going down.

The proposal should provide interesting discussion, and some college leaders won’t be happy with the increased power it gives to CCHE. The bill does have influential bipartisan sponsors: House Education Chair Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs; Senate Ed Chair Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins plus Senate Ed members Rollie Health, D-Boulder, and Keith King, R-Colorado Springs. Joint Budget Committee member Rep. Mark Ferandino, D-Denver, is signed on in the House. Heath and Massey are the prime sponsors.

House Bill 11-1069 – Required physical activity

This year’s version of the “recess bill” would require schools to provide elementary students with 150 minutes a week of “physical activity,” which is rather broadly defined in the bill. It’s hard to argue against student health, but school districts – spooked by seemingly endless budget cuts – may well fight this as an unfunded state mandate. They’ve done that before and won. Massey is the prime sponsor – and he doesn’t yet have a Senate sponsor.

Senate Bill 11-069 – Regulation of education management organizations

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, is proposing that all education management organizations – the kinds of companies and nonprofits that manage some charter schools, provide services for school districts and run projects for the state – be licensed by the Department of Education and that the length of such contracts be limited.

Hudak and some other Democrats with more traditional views about the structure of public education have become nervous about the influence of such organizations. But this bill may have a tough time, and it doesn’t currently have a sponsor in the Republican-controlled House.

Other bills

Senate Bill 11-070 – Special education services in college

Also sponsored by Hudak, this bill would require state colleges to offer the same services in colleges to disabled students as those students received under individual education plans in high school. Colleges may be concerned about the costs in tight budget times.

Bouncy castleSenate Bill 11-075 – Bouncy castles

You’ve seen them at school carnivals – those inflatable castles the kids jump around in. They’re not currently regulated, as amusement rides are, but freshman Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, thinks they and other inflatable amusement devices should be.

House Bill 11-1077 – Gifted and talented law

Rep. Cherilyn Peniston, D-Westminster, wants to separate state laws covering gifted and talented students from the law covering special education students. Peniston tried to do this last year with a bill that gained a lot of additional costly sections and was defeated.

Also introduced Wednesday were House Bill11-1074, concerning financial aid and tuition at the Colorado Schools of Mines; House Bill 11-1062, a proposed study of a pilot farm-to-school program in the San Luis Valley; and House Bill 11-1060, changing the terms of University of Northern Colorado trustees.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.

Garcia’s first committee outing

“I don’t know what to call you,” one legislator said Thursday morning to Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who also has been nominated to be director of DHE.

“Joe is fine,” Garcia said.

Garcia was articulate and on point as he moved through a presentation about the state higher ed system, including such challenges as tight funding, completion gaps, lagging financial aid and other woes.

Mention of the completion gap between white and Hispanic students – Colorado has the second largest in the nation – prompted some lawmakers to raise the sensitive issue of resident tuition rates for undocumented students, something that’s expected to be a big fight later in the session.

None of the legislators got on their soapboxes; they just were curious how undocumented students figure into the completion gap.

Garcia noted that any way you figure it, “We still have a big gap.”

Complimented by lawmakers at the end of the nearly 90-minute session, Garcia said, “I think, for the most part, I was able to bluff my way through it.”

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.