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.”

the one to watch

Inside the three-candidate battle for northeast Denver’s school board seat

File photo of student at Marrama Elementary School in northeast Denver. (The Denver Post)

Of the Denver school board races on the November ballot, none packs more intrigue than the fight for District 4.

The three-person slate of candidates features an appointed incumbent who’s never run for office and supports the district’s current path, an outspoken recent high school graduate who sharply disagrees, and a former charter school educator with a more nuanced view and — in what on its surface may seem surprising — the endorsement of the teachers union.

The seat represents a large swath of northeast Denver with a wide range of income levels, including areas that are gentrifying quickly and others that have been home to some of the district’s most aggressive school improvement strategies.

The Nov. 7 election is high stakes. Four of the seven seats on the Denver school board are up for grabs. If candidates who disagree with Denver Public Schools’ direction win all four races, they’ll have the political power to change key policies in the state’s largest school district and one nationally recognized for its embrace of school choice and autonomy.

Tay Anderson is one of those candidates. The 19-year-old graduated from Denver’s Manual High School last year and is now a student at Metropolitan State University. On the campaign trail, he has doggedly criticized the district for what he describes as weak community engagement efforts and a move to “privatize” public education by approving more charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run (in Denver, by nonprofit operators).

He also has led the charge in attempting to tie the current school board and the incumbent candidates to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose stance on school choice — and especially private school vouchers, which DPS does not support — have made her a controversial figure.

    This is the first of a series of articles profiling this year’s Denver school board races. You can read about where candidates in all the DPS races stand on issues here, in Chalkbeat’s candidate questionnaire. Check out our coverage of the campaign’s first campaign finance reports here.

When DeVos came to Denver in July to give a speech to a group of conservative lawmakers from across the United States, Anderson organized a protest against her. In front of a crowd of hundreds, he called out the current Denver school board members.

“We can tell them, ‘Screw you. You’re fired in November!’” he said.

Anderson has a compelling personal story. The teenager struggled in high school before becoming a leader at Denver’s Manual High. He was student body president, chairman of the Colorado High School Democrats and a member of the Student Board of Education.

Anderson was also homeless for a time and has said his own challenges give him valuable insight into the lives of other Denver students living in difficult situations. About two-thirds of the district’s 92,000 students qualify for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty.

“I have had nobody in my corner when I was a homeless student and when I was in and out of foster care,” Anderson said at a recent televised candidate debate. “And now it is my turn to turn to our students and say, ‘I am going to be your champion.’”

His candidacy has attracted more local and national press attention than is usual for a school board race. But while Anderson has said his young age would bring a fresh perspective to the board, his opponents have questioned whether he has the experience to serve.

“It’s one thing to swing a hammer at a frustration, but it’s another to know where to swing it,” said candidate Jennifer Bacon, one of Anderson’s two opponents.

Anderson is running against Bacon, 35, and incumbent Rachele Espiritu, 48. Espiritu was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board in May 2016. The appointment process was long and marked by controversy. The first appointee, MiDian Holmes, stepped aside after details about a misdemeanor child abuse conviction and her mischaracterization of it came to light.

Both Espiritu and Bacon were among the finalists for the position. But Bacon withdrew, explaining at the time it was “in consideration of my need for growth and readiness for this position, as well as my interests in supporting the board.”

Asked recently to elaborate, Bacon said she withdrew because she sensed she wasn’t going to be appointed. She said she, too, had an arrest in her background: for stealing a necklace from Macy’s when she was in college. Bacon said the charge was dropped and she was not convicted. (No charges showed up in a background check done by Chalkbeat.)

Bacon, who attended college in Louisiana, said the arrest was a turning point at a time when she was struggling to find her purpose. She went on to join the Teach for America corps, teaching for a year in New Orleans and a year in Miami.

After teaching, she went to law school and then moved in 2010 to Denver, where she worked first as a dean for the city’s largest charter school network, DSST, and then in alumni affairs for Teach for America. She is now a regional director with Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit organization that trains educators to advocate for policy changes.

Bacon said she wondered whether her positions on key issues also made her an unlikely appointee. For instance, she has said she’s not opposed to charter schools but believes Denver has reached its threshold and should focus on shoring up its traditional schools.

“People ask me if I’m pro-charter,” Bacon said in an interview. “I’m pro-community.”

Since Espiritu was appointed, she has largely voted in line with the rest of the school board. But she chafes at the idea that the board is monolithic or a rubber stamp for the administration. Much back-and-forth occurs before a decision, she said in an interview, and each board member brings a unique background and set of life experiences to the table.

Espiritu often says on the campaign trail that she’s the only immigrant to serve on the board in the last century. She was born in the Philippines and came to the United States as a toddler. She holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Colorado Boulder and helped found a small business called Change Matrix that assists organizations with planning, putting into place and monitoring change. She and her family moved to Denver in 2012.

Espiritu has two sons. Her oldest goes to DSST: Stapleton High, a charter school. Her youngest goes to William (Bill) Roberts School, a K-8 district-run school. She has said that in choosing schools for her children, she focused on quality and not on type.

As a member of the board, Espiritu has paid particular attention to efforts to improve student mental health. She recently encouraged DPS to become a “trauma-informed school district.”

“I want us to be a district that addresses student and educator trauma in a proactive or preventative way that’s culturally sensitive and systematic in fashion,” she said at a September board meeting. “…We need to shift our thinking from asking what is wrong with a child to what happened with a child.”

Parts of northeast Denver have struggled academically. The region is home to the district’s biggest-ever school turnaround effort, as well as two of three schools the board voted unanimously last year to close due to poor performance.

The candidates’ disparate views on school closure offer a window into what differentiates them. Espiritu voted for the closures, though she noted at a subsequent board meeting that doing so was “a painful process … and such a difficult decision.”

Anderson has said he opposes closing any more traditional, district-run schools. Bacon, meanwhile, has said that while she doesn’t believe in “trapping kids in failing schools,” ideas about how to turn things around should originate with affected families.

Two local groups that traditionally endorse candidates and contribute large sums of money struggled this year with who to support in District 4. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association endorsed Bacon, but a progressive caucus of the union chose to separately support Anderson. The pro-reform group Stand for Children did not endorse any candidate, explaining that both Bacon and Espiritu surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Of the three candidates, Espiritu had raised the most money — $73,847 — as of Oct. 11, when the first campaign finance filing period ended. Bacon had raised $59,302, including $10,000 from the teachers union, while Anderson had raised $16,331.

Espiritu and Bacon have also benefitted from the support of independent expenditure committees. A union-funded group called Brighter Futures for Denver spent $139,000 on Bacon. Two other groups, Students for Education Reform and Raising Colorado, which is associated with Democrats for Education Reform, spent a total of $73,229 on Espiritu.

Sorting the Students

As Nashville heads to court over sharing student information with the state, here’s why Memphis probably won’t

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Nashville's Davidson County Chancery Court building where the state filed against Metro Nashville Public Schools over sharing contact information with charter schools.

Tennessee’s two largest school districts are often in lockstep on key issues. But in a recent tiff with the state about sharing student information with charter schools, the two districts are poised to part ways.

Leaders of Nashville’s school district have repeatedly defied an order from Tennessee’s education commissioner to share student addresses, phone numbers, and other information with the state’s controversial turnaround district, as required by a new state law. The state filed a lawsuit this week in response.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Memphis district have spoken out about the rule — but are preparing to comply. The district has given parents until Sunday, Oct. 22 to opt out of sharing their contact information with charter schools.

Instead of outright rejecting McQueen’s deadline last month like Nashville did, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson sought a compromise and the district has indicated contact information after the opt out window could be shared.

“… we respectfully request you extend your deadline until October 23, 2017 to allow our families the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding their rights and to give our board an opportunity to vote on the release of the data,” Hopson said in a letter to McQueen.

The state education department says it is holding off filing a similar suit against that district, for now. The Memphis district “is still deciding whether to comply, whereas Metro [Nashville] has made its decision already,” state spokeswoman Sara Gast said. “Given that, it is appropriate to file here and then review Shelby’s decision to decide if litigation is necessary.”

Shelby County Schools declined to share how many parents have chosen to opt out so far, but said it plans to share information with its board about the effort next week.

The fight has ignited long-simmering tensions around enrollment and the state’s influence in local schools, and comes on the heels of Metro Nashville Public Schools board voting to join Shelby County Schools in its landmark funding lawsuit against the state.

Memphis leaders have also said that the issue at hand is student privacy, though a robocall to Memphis parents indicated that the main goal of the opt-out process was not to lose students to charter schools.

Memphis’ compromise stance will be good news to groups like parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift, which says it has gathered about 1,200 parent signatures urging Shelby County Schools to release the contact information.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The legal questions at stake are the first challenge to a slight, but significant, amendment to federal rules

The Nashville school board cited two reasons for defying the state’s order in late August: One is U.S. Department of Education rule that allows districts to have discretion on who gets student directory information. The second was that when state lawmakers crafted the law that requires school districts to share student information, they did not intend for that information to be used for recruitment.

According to Frank LoMonte, a First Amendment lawyer and director of The Brechner Center at the University of Florida, said the lawsuit could have national implications.

“What we’re about to see is the first test of whether the U.S. Department of Education amended rules in 2011 are enforceable or not,” he said. What it comes down to, he said, is if a federal rule can give local districts the permission to violate state law.

The Nashville board’s second justification reflects concerns from State Rep. John Forgety, who chairs a key House education committee. He says the state is misinterpreting the law he helped create.

The state said in a statement that Commissioner Candice McQueen is seeking to confirm her interpretation of the new state law, “ensuring that families can be informed of all public education opportunities available to them.”

Below is a copy of the state’s court filing: