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.

school finance

Memphis charters could soon qualify for free rent in district-owned buildings

PHOTO: Courtesy of Vision Prep
Building maintenance is a challenge for charter schools in Memphis that pay rent to Shelby County Schools, including Vision Preparatory Charter School pictured here in spring 2017.

In a sea change, some Memphis charters could soon use district buildings without paying rent, though which would qualify is yet to be determined.

The proposal is the latest from the committee of charter and district leaders tasked with working through thorny issues between the sectors, which often have a tense relationship because they are competing for students. Shelby County Schools board members will discuss the recommendation at its meeting tomorrow evening and vote next Tuesday.

The group is also recommending that Shelby County Schools sell its unused buildings to charter schools if the buildings are in good enough condition. Of the 10 vacant district-owned buildings, four would qualify.

The proposed policy would go a long way in clarifying charter school access to public facilities and speeding up Shelby County Schools’ shedding of excess buildings, an issue that has become more acutely felt as enrollment declines.


2016 map: Half of Memphis schools closed since 2012 stand empty


Charter schools authorized by Shelby County Schools make up about a fourth of the district, the most in the state, but only five of the 51 schools use district space. The rest rent private space or, in a few cases, own their buildings.

One barrier to using district space: Until recently, district officials required charter schools to pay rent because not all schools agreed to pay an “authorizer fee” meant to defray the costs the district incurs in overseeing charters. But now that a new state law requires charter schools to pay 3 percent of their state and local dollars to their authorizers starting next year, the district is under less pressure to recoup costs.

The prospect of a change is exciting to Tom Benton, the founder of Vision Prep, one of the five schools currently operating in district space. The school has been spending $79,000 a year to rent its southwest Memphis building, while also footing the bill for maintenance, utilities, some insurance, and any capital improvements it wants to make.

Benton said there are better uses for taxpayer dollars.

“That money could have bought us a new roof,” Benton said from his office, which is one of several parts of the school that have flooded during recent rainfalls. He recently promoted a part-time building engineer to full-time to deal with the issue.

“This is a public school with public school children,” he said. “We feel like those dollars should follow the child.”

It’s unclear whether Vision Prep will get to operate rent-free. The proposal does not guarantee free rent, only make it available, and it does not specify which charter schools will qualify.

Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management, said the district could weigh where the school wants to locate, performance on state tests, and whether the school offers specific programs, such as STEM or Montessori. Those specifications would ultimately be up to the school board, Leon said.


With a charter comes the search for school space. Here’s how one Memphis operator is doing it.


How school districts handle space requests by charter schools says a lot about their relationship with the publicly funded, privately managed schools. In New York City, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a charter schools advocate, handed out excess space at no cost — a policy that his successor, the current mayor Bill de Blasio, campaigned on altering. (Legislation has stopped him from making major changes.)

Other urban districts with a large number of charters, including Chicago and Indianapolis, negotiate nominal rents — often just $1 — for charter schools. Those cities have robust charter sectors and, importantly, district leaders who accept that charter schools are going to serve a large number of local students.

Shelby County Schools officials have a more complicated relationship with the city’s growing charter sector. They are actively vying to prevent more students from leaving the district for charter schools. And they resent being required by law to allow the 29 Memphis schools in the state-run Achievement School District, which takes over low-performing schools and mostly turns them into charters, to operate in their buildings rent-free.

Tennessee has helped charter schools with space in other ways. It requires districts to post a list of vacant or underused properties that could be used by charter schools, although it lets districts ultimately decide what to do with the buildings.

The state has shown willingness to help charter schools with facility expenses. The same state law that ushered in the authorizer fee also launched a $6 million grant program to reimburse charter schools for capital projects, rent, or purchasing buildings — if the school has a high academic growth score. Benton said Vision Prep has applied to the grant program to offset the school’s costs.

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.