Who Is In Charge

Aspen dispute back to construction board

Members of the State Board of Education have jawboned the state school construction board into taking yet another look at how much money the Aspen Community School will have to put up to get funds for replacement of an aging log building.

BEST program illustration
Illustration courtesy of the state’s Capital Construction Assistance Division.

Every August, the state board ratifies the annual list of construction grants recommended by the state Capital Construction Assistance Board, which oversees the Building Excellent Schools Today program.

Approval of the list usually is a formality, but this year the process has been derailed by a legal catch-22 that snagged Aspen Community, a 130-student charter perched on a mountaintop in the rural Woody Creek area south of Aspen.

The school is housed in a 42-year-old log building. School director Skye Skinner told SBE members the school “is an utterly failing facility” and that “in the spring, some classrooms are flooded by snowmelt.”

Aspen Community has made three applications for BEST grants, and the construction board in June included the school on the list of 2013 finalists. But members declined to grant a waiver that would have reduced the amount of matching funds the school had to provide.

The school was seeking support for a $9 million project to replace the log building.

The original match was calculated at 54 percent of the total cost, which would have meant a state grant of $4.2 million. But a new state law that changed matching requirements for charters drove that to 81 percent, something the school was informed about only two weeks before the construction board’s meeting in late June.

The construction board approved the project with a state share of $1.7 million but twice deadlocked 4-4 on motions to grant the school a waiver and keep the match at 54 percent. One board member was absent.

When the construction board met again on July 19 to finalize the list, Vinny Badolato of the Colorado League of Charter Schools asked members to reconsider the waiver, but the board took no action.

The new law was intended to lower matching percentages for many charters, but the revised formula has the opposite effect for Aspen Community.

The league formally appealed to the State Board of Education. Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs and author of the law that changed the matching formula, wrote a letter supporting the appeal.

Members of the state board on Wednesday were clearly sympathetic to Aspen Community, but it also was clear they didn’t want to overrule the construction board.

“It seems to me, if there’s some way for the BEST board to play a role in changing the outcome … that would be the cleanest strategy,” said state board chair Bob Schaffer, a Republican who represents the Fort Collins area.

Schaffer and other state board members repeatedly prodded Lyndon Burnett, a member of the BEST board, to commit to having that board hold a special meeting to once again consider Aspen Community’s waiver request.

Aspen Community School
Aspen Community School

Burnett, who’s also a member of the Agate school board, finally got the message, saying, “That’s fine. We can get a meeting together.”

The nine-member BEST board is in transition, with some members leaving and some new members not yet appointed. So the board currently has only seven voting members.

The timeline for reconsideration is tight. Most of the BEST grant finalists need to hold bond elections to raise their matches, and the deadline for setting those elections is Sept. 6, according to Ted Hughes, director of the state Division of Public School Capital Construction Assistance.

So the BEST board will have to meet again, and the State Board of Education will have to convene – probably by teleconference – to ratify the final list before the end of August.

“I was hoping for a decision” from state board members, Skinner told Education News Colorado. “I’m glad to hear they’re sympathetic. Now we will wait and see.”

The construction board’s original recommended list of major projects totaled about $273 million, including some $184 million in state support. The board also approved 13 smaller grants totaling $9.3 million, including $6.3 million in state funds.

The large-project list, in priority order, includes these schools and districts:

West End (Naturita), Elbert 200, Sheridan, Pikes Peak Board of Cooperative Educational Services, Lake County (Leadville), Platte Valley (Ovid), Hi Plains (Kit Carson County), Dolores, Lamar, Otis, Fort Morgan, Buena Vista, Genoa-Hugo, Fort Lupton, Montezuma-Cortez, Aurora, Aspen Community and Ross Montessori charter in Carbondale.

Four projects are on an alternates list in case one or more of the finalists loses its bond issue and can’t raise the local match. Alternates are Denver, Greeley, Calhan and Salida.

The BEST program receives most of its funding from a portion of revenues generated by state school trust lands. Larger projects are funded by lease-purchase agreements that are paid off over time by state and local funds. Smaller projects are paid for with direct state cash grants that districts combine with their own funds.

The state education board did approve the BEST board’s list of cash-funded smaller projects, which aren’t involved in the Aspen Community problem.

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.

Ruling

Judge orders Nashville schools to turn over student information to state charters

A Nashville judge has sided with Tennessee’s Achievement School District in the tussle over whether local school districts must share student contact information with charter networks under a new state law.

Chancellor Bill Young this week ordered Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools to turn over information requested by LEAD Public Schools, which operates two state-run schools in the city. The district has until March 16 to comply or appeal.

The ruling is a blow to local district leaders in both Nashville and Memphis, who have argued that a federal privacy law gives them discretion over who gets that information. They also contend that the intent of Tennessee’s new charter law, which passed last year, was that such information should not be used for marketing purposes.

The State Department of Education has backed information requests by LEAD in Nashville and Green Dot Public Schools in Memphis, both of which operate charter schools under the state-run turnaround district known as the ASD. State officials say the information is needed to increase parental awareness about their school options and also to help the state’s school turnaround district with planning.

Nashville’s school board has not yet decided whether to appeal Young’s ruling, according to Lora Fox, the city’s attorney.

Shelby County Schools was not included in the state’s lawsuit leading to this week’s ruling, but the case has implications for Memphis schools as well. Last summer, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered both districts to turn over the information. Both have been defiant.

Lawyers representing all sides told Chalkbeat this week that Young set the March 16 deadline to allow time for the legislature to address ambiguity over the state law and for Nashville schools to notify parents of their right to opt out.

Rep. Bill Forgety already has filed a bill in an attempt to clear the air. The Athens Republican chaired the key House committee that advanced the new charter law and has said that recruitment was not the intent of the provision over student contact information. His bill would restrict charter school requests to a two-month window from January 1 to March 1, confine school communication with non-students from February 1 to April 1, and open up a two-way street for districts to request the same information from charter schools.

The disagreement began with longstanding requests from state-run charter organizations for addresses, phone numbers and emails of students and their parents who live in neighborhoods zoned to low-performing schools. When local districts did not comply last summer, the charters cited the new state law requiring them to hand over student information to the charter schools within 30 days of receiving the request.

To learn what information is at stake and how it’s used, read our in-depth explainer on student data sharing and FERPA.