First marathon of session

Panel passes kindergarten, preschool funding bills, but divisions remain

The House Education Committee on Monday passed two bills intended to increase funding for both preschool and full-day kindergarten, but the discussion highlighted differences over which program should have the highest priority.

House Bill 15-1020, a measure that would increase state financial support of full-day kindergarten, passed 10-1, with only one Republican voting no. But House Bill 15-1024, which would provide more funding for the Colorado Preschool Program, only passed on a 6-5 party-line vote, with majority Democrats on the winning side.

The two issues consumed much of a hearing that lasted more than six hours.

The primary impact of the committee votes is to keep the ideas alive. The real decisions on the two proposals will come much later in the legislative session, when lawmakers wrestle with and finally decide the broader issue of school funding for 2015-16.

The kindergarten proposal would cost $236 million, while the preschool plan adds up to $11.3 million, according to initial estimates by legislative staff.

Republican Rep. Jim Wilson, a retired superintendent from Salida, has made a crusade of increasing kindergarten funding.

The state provides districts with .58 percent of full per-pupil funding for each kindergarten student. “As a state we claim to have a K-12 system. We do not. We have a .58 system,” Wilson told the committee.

A majority of Colorado’s 178 districts offer full-day kindergarten, but they pay for it themselves or, in some cases, charge tuition. “We have a K-12 system only because the districts are footing the bill,” Wilson said, adding that districts spend $207 million on full-day kindergarten.

If the state picked up the tab, districts could use that $207 million for other educational needs, including preschool, he argued.

Three witnesses supported the bill – two school superintendents from Wilson’s district and Bill Jaeger, lobbyist for the Colorado Children’s Campaign, which is a strong supporter of the preschool bill.

Jaeger supported the kindergarten measure but in a nuanced way. “We encourage you to think about a long-term strategy to implement the goals of Rep. Wilson’s bill.”

Rep. Justin Everett, R-Littleton, was the only no vote on the kindergarten bill.

The discussion took a different turn on HB 15-1024, whose funding would allow expansion of the Colorado Preschool Program from 28,360 students to 31,360. The program primarily serves four-year-olds who meet a specific definition of being at-risk. The program is offered both through schools and non-profit groups.

“The funding for this program has not kept pace with the need,” said prime sponsor Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood.

There are a couple of fault lines on this issue, which cropped up during committee discussion.

On one side, Wilson argues that school districts should be able to choose whether to devote state early childhood money to preschool or to full-day kindergarten, depending on their individual needs. A 2014 increase in early childhood funding went into what’s called the ECARE program, which allows districts to choose how to spend the money. Some preschool advocates think too much of that money went to kindergarten.

“Why should we think we know better than the educators” in deciding how to use the money, Wilson asked.

Other Republicans are skeptical of the value of preschool and prefer that young children stay at home until kindergarten.

A parade of witnesses from advocacy groups – the Bell Policy Center, the Colorado Children’s Campaign, Together Colorado, Mile High Montessori, and others – testified for the bill, while two parents opposed it.

The committee also voted 6-5 (same partisan split) to advance House Bill 15-1001, another Pettersen-sponsored effort that would provide funding to education schools and non-profits to pay for scholarships for early childhood educators who want more training in their field.

Wilson said he’d be interested in amendments that would require scholarship recipients to both finish their degrees and work in the field for two years, and Pettersen said she’d be open to discussing those.

“We look forward to earning your votes,” she said to the committee Republicans.

Panel rejects change in school age requirements

The committee also split 6-5 on House Bill 15-1053, with Democrats voting to kill the bill. The measure would have changed the required age to enroll in school from six to seven and allowed students to leave school at 16 instead of 17.

The bill was sponsored by freshman Rep. Kim Ranson, R-Littleton, who told the committee, “This bill will allow the decision making to rest with the parents rather than the school authorities. … It simply gives parents additional time with the special cases” such as children who aren’t ready for school, illnesses, and family crises.

Ransom said the compulsory attendance ages were seven and 16 as recently as a decade ago.

Three parents testified in favor of the bill, while a representative of the Colorado Education Association opposed it.

Native American tuition bill advances

A bill that would expand resident-rate college tuition to a wider range of Native American students passed House Education on a 6-5 vote, with majority Democrats supporting and Republicans voting no.

To be eligible for the lower rate, students would have to be registered members of one of the 48 tribes with recognized “historic ties” to Colorado. One of the witnesses supporting the bill was Marshall Gover, president of the Oklahoma-based Pawnee Nation. Pawnees once lived in Colorado before white settlement. A long list of other witnesses supported the bill.

Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, sponsored a similar bill during the 2014 session. It got all the way through the House but died in the Senate Appropriations Committee late in the session, primarily because of cost issues. The potential cost of House Bill 15-1027 is tough to predict, given that it’s not known how many such students currently attend state colleges and pay out-of-state tuition, nor how many new students might be attracted. (See the best guess by legislative staff in this fiscal note.)

With Republicans now in control of the Senate, the tuition bill may not have good prospects there regardless of financial considerations.

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: