The cost of reform

Budget panel gives ed department half a loaf amid staffing controversy

The legislative Joint Budget Committee agreed Tuesday to fund five of the seven staff positions the Department of Education had requested to help districts with teacher evaluations and rollout of new standards.

Funding for those jobs has been a touchy issue for some committee members for a couple of reasons. First, because the state is being asked to pick up costs previously borne by federal and other one-time sources. Second, because a private foundation paid for two of those CDE employees in the past.

Committee staff analyst Craig Harper recommended funding none of the positions, largely as a symbolic way to express displeasure with the department.

But some committee members argued that not funding the jobs would hurt school districts that need help evaluating teachers and integrating new content standards into classroom teaching.

“Discontinuing this kind of support sends a very poor message to our school districts,” said Rep. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat and vice chair of the budget panel.

The committee voted 4-2 to fund five positions in CDE’s educator effectiveness unit but deadlocked on a motion to fund two content specialists who help districts with standards. A tie vote means the jobs won’t be included in the department budget. However, the committee is recommending that five other content specialists already on the CDE payroll be funded in 2015-16.

The JBC’s decision isn’t the final word on the issue. The department could request the committee reconsider this issue, or the content specialists could be restored by an amendment when the full legislature considers the long bill.

CDE officials didn’t have immediate comment Tuesday on the committee vote.

This kind of dry business is usually followed only by top bureaucrats and lobbyists, but the CDE issue has a complicated backstory that makes it interesting. Here are the elements:

Worries about outside influence: Starting in 2012-13, two employees from the private foundation the Colorado Education Initiative (formerly known as the Colorado Legacy Foundation) worked at CDE as director of standards and instructional support and as a literacy specialist. They were paid directly by the foundation.

CDE officials told Chalkbeat Colorado they approved the arrangement because they were having trouble finding applicants for what would be short-term jobs.

Harper, the JBC’s staff analyst, raised questions about the propriety of that arrangement during a committee briefing in December. Department officials maintained there were no legal problems with the two workers but ended the arrangement Dec. 31.

The two employees now are classified as state workers, and the foundation has made a grant to CDE. (It’s common for outside groups to make direct grants to the department to help support specific programs, but it’s not common for an outside group to directly pay individual salaries.)

Some budget committee members were concerned that the arrangement distorted how the state personnel system is supposed to work. But some Republican lawmakers and activist groups had other concerns about the Colorado Education Initiative because it has received substantial funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation is a frequent target of criticism by groups opposed to the Common Core State Standards, multi-state testing, and other education reform efforts.

Glossing over the costs of reform: A bigger issue is the legislature’s propensity to create sweeping programs without paying for them up front. The education department’s request for state funding of the educator effectiveness staff and content specialists represents bills coming due for earlier education laws the legislature chose not to pay for when those laws were created.

Sponsors of both the 2008 Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids and the 2010 educator effectiveness law downplayed the potential costs of those reforms, because high price tags would have made the bills less popular, and because true costs were hard to estimate, given that both programs had long implementation timelines.

In the case of educator effectiveness, sponsors were counting on use of federal Race to the Top money, which didn’t come in until a couple of years after the law was passed.

CDE has funded implementation of education reform measures through a combination of one-time state, federal and private funds, money that largely will run out this year.

“We’ve been over the river and through the woods” on promises that education reform was cost-free, said JBC member Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver. Criticizing “winking and nodding and pretense that it wouldn’t cost anything. That’s all water under the bridge.”

Putting the educator effectiveness law into practice has evolved in some unexpected ways. For instance, CDE developed a model evaluation teacher evaluation system that districts could choose to use. State officials expected most districts would develop their own systems. But the vast majority of districts have opted to use the state system, requiring continuing support by the department.

School finance base set

The JBC devoted most of its day Tuesday to figure-setting for the alphabet soup of CDE programs as well as base district funding for 2015-16.

The panel opted for a plan that would increase average per pupil funding from $7,025 this year to $7,265 in 2015-16. That would set what’s called total program funding at $6.23 billion, an increase of $281 million in state and local funding over current district funding of $5.9 billion.

The JBC’s recommendation is not the final word on school funding for next year. The proposal basically increases support based on constitutional and legal requirements. A separate piece of legislation, called the school finance act, typically is used to provide additional K-12 support.

So proposals like Gov. John Hickenlooper’s plan to give schools a $200 million one-time increase, and a plan by superintendents to funnel another $70 million to at-risk students and rural districts, will be part of the discussion on that second bill.

For the record

The House gave final 45-19 approval to House Bill 15-1104, which would provide a $250 tax deduction to teachers who buy school supplies out of their own pockets. The bill is considered a feel-good measure that would recognize teacher contributions to their classrooms but not provide significant tax savings.

Who says bipartisan sponsorship helps pass bills in a split-control legislature?

The Finance Committee in the Republican-controlled Senate on Tuesday killed House Bill 15-1079, a bipartisan bill that would have expanded a teen pregnancy and dropout prevention program now operating in three Western Slope counties. Anything involving “sex” is a touchy issue in the Senate, given the strong social conservative views of Republicans in that chamber.

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.

Business of education

Memphis leaders say diversifying school business contracts will help in the classroom, too

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Winston Gipson confers with his wife and daughter, who help run Gipson Mechanical Contractors, a family-owned business in Memphis for 35 years.

Winston Gipson used to do up to $10 million of work annually for Memphis City Schools. The construction and mechanical contracts were so steady, he recalls, that his minority-owned family business employed up to 200 people at its peak in the early 2000s.

Looking back, Gipson says being able to build schools was key to breaking through in the private sector.

“When we got contracts in the private sector, it’s because we did the projects in the public sector,” said Gipson, who started Gipson Mechanical Contractors with his wife in 1983. “That allowed us to go to the private sector and say ‘Look what we’ve done.’”

But that work has become increasingly scarce over the years for him and many other minorities and women. The program designed to address contract disparities in Memphis City Schools was cut during its 2013 merger with Shelby County Schools.

A recent study found that a third of qualified local companies are owned by white women and people of color, but such businesses were awarded just 15 percent of the contracts for Shelby County Schools in the last five years.

It was even worse for black-owned construction companies, like Gipson’s, which make up more than a third of the local industry but were awarded less than 1 percent of contracts.

The disparity is being spotlighted as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in Memphis while trying to fight for the rights of minority workers in 1968.

On Jan. 25, Chalkbeat will co-host a panel discussion on how Shelby County Schools, as one of the city’s largest employers, can be an economic driver for women- and black-owned businesses. Called “Show Me The Money: The Education Edition,” the evening event will be held at Freedom Preparatory Academy’s new Whitehaven campus in conjunction with MLK50 Justice Through Journalism and High Ground News.

Community leaders say school-related business contracts are a matter of equity, but also an education strategy. Since poverty is a crucial factor in why many Memphis students fall behind in school, the lack of job opportunities for their parents must be part of the discussion, they say.

The district already is taking steps to improve its record on minority contracting, starting with setting new goals and resurrecting the city district’s hiring program.

Big district, big opportunity

Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest district. With an annual budget of more than $1 billion, it awards $314 million in business contracts.   

An otherwise dismal 1994 study of local government contract spending highlighted Memphis City Schools’ program to increase participation of historically marginalized businesses as one of the county’s most diverse, though some areas were cited as needing improvement. The same study criticized the former county school system, which lacked such a program, for its dearth of contracts with Minority and Women Business Enterprises (MWBEs).

But when the two districts merged in 2013, the program in Memphis City Schools disappeared.

“We had to cut, cut, cut,” said school board member Teresa Jones. “We were trying to stay alive as a district. We did not focus as we should have.”

Jones, a former school board chairwoman, said it’s time to revisit the things that were working before the merger. “We have to get back,” she said, “to make sure there’s equity, opportunity, access, and an atmosphere that promotes business with Shelby County Schools.”

District and community leaders say the consolidated district has lost its ability to develop relationships with qualified minority-owned businesses.

“There was an infrastructure where African-Americans felt comfortable enough approaching the school system” for work, said Melvin Jones, CEO of Memphis Business Contracting Consortium, a black business advocacy group formed in 2015. “There was trust. During the merger, they dropped the infrastructure.”

Brenda Allen

Without the outreach, “we’re seeing the same vendors,” said Brenda Allen, hired last summer as procurement director for Shelby County Schools after working in Maryland’s Prince George County Public Schools, where she oversaw a diversity contracting program.

“We’re not marketing the district like we should,” she told school board members in November.  

Shelby County Schools is not alone in disproportionately hiring white and male-owned companies for public business. Just 3 percent of all revenue generated in Memphis goes to firms owned by non-white people, even though people of color make up 72 percent of the city’s population, according to a 2016 report by the Mid-South Minority Business Council Continuum.

Not coincidentally, district and community leaders say, Memphis has the highest rate of young adults who aren’t working or in college, and the highest poverty rate among the nation’s major metropolitan areas. About 60 percent of students in Shelby County Schools live in poverty and all but three of the district’s schools qualify for federal funding for schools serving high-poverty neighborhoods.

Jozelle Luster Booker, the CEO of the MMBC Continuum, developed an equity contracting program for the city utility company following the 1994 study that was so critical of the city. The program funneled half a billion dollars to minority-owned businesses — an example of how government policies can promote equitable contracting, and grow businesses too.

“When that happens, you could basically change the socioeconomic conditions of that community, which impacts learning,” Booker said. “They’re ready to learn when they come to school.”

Shelby County Schools plans to hire a consulting firm to help develop a procurement outreach program and set diversity goals for its contractors and subcontractors. The program will launch in July, and Allen plans to hire three people to oversee it.

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Bricklayers from TopCat Masonry Contractors LLC work on an apartment complex in downtown Memphis in 2014.

The district also is part of a city-led group that provides a common certification process for businesses seeking contracts with city and county governments, the airport, the transit authority, and Memphis Light Gas & Water. The city’s office of business diversity and compliance also has a list of qualified minority businesses, offers free business development courses, and accepts referrals from other government entities to reduce redundancy.

“As you spend public dollars, you always want those dollars to be spent in your neighborhoods because that money comes back into your economy,” Allen said. “When people have jobs, you should see crime go down. You should see more people wanting to do business in the community if you have a good program.”

Leveling the playing field

In order for it to work, there has to be consistent reports, measures and, most of all,  accountability, according to Janice Banks, CEO of Small Planet Works, who helped the district with its disparity study.

Gipson agrees.

A wall of his second-floor Memphis office is lined with photos of some of his most significant projects during his 35 years of business, including a multimillion-dollar mechanical contract with AutoZone when the Memphis-based car part company moved its headquarters downtown in the early 2000s.

The work was made possible, he said, because of public sector jobs like constructing nine schools under Memphis City Schools. But that work evaporated after the merger. “It’s mostly been Caucasian companies that do the work (now),” he said. “It’d be one thing if you didn’t have anyone qualified to do it.”

Shelby County Schools will have to show commitment, he said, if it wants to level the playing field.

“You have the mechanism in place to make a difference,” he said. “Now do you make a difference with that mechanism or do you just walk around, beat your chest, and say we have a disparity study and let things run the way they’ve been running?”

“If you don’t make it happen, it will not happen,” he said.