Who Is In Charge

School funding headed for collapse?

Colorado’s school funding system could hit a constitutional dead end in less than five years, a veteran analyst told the Joint Budget Committee Wednesday.

Photo illustration of piggy bankA discussion of the tough prospects facing school funding was the centerpiece of Carolyn Kampman’s briefing to the committee on the proposed K-12 budget for the 2012-13 school year. She also updated the committee – and more than a dozen other lawmakers who sat in – on funding for online students and the status of the Lobato v. State school funding lawsuit.

Every fall committee staff analysts such as Kampman brief the panel on each state agency, reviewing current spending, policy issues and making initial spending recommendations for the upcoming budget year.

Wednesday’s K-12 funding briefing departed from the usual script in taking a longer-term view of the dilemma facing the state.

Kampman walked lawmakers through an explanation of the two constitutional requirements that drive school funding:

• Amendment 23 requires that base per-pupil funding increase annually by the rate of inflation.

• State school finance law, which is designed to implement the constitution’s “thorough and uniform” education requirement, allocates different per-pupil amounts to individual districts based on what are called the “factors.” The primary factors are cost of living for staff, district size and the percentage of at-risk students. The system is intended to provide a “thorough and uniform” education to students in districts where it may be more expensive to educate students than it is elsewhere.

The legislature, faced two years ago with having to balance the state budget while revenues were dropping, introduced a new element called the “negative factor” into the equation. It’s used to reduce the total amount determined by Amendment 23 and the other factors to a dollar amount for school funding needed to balance the state budget.

School funding chart
Starred line shows projected increase in per pupil base funding. Black portion indicates flat K- funding. Green area shows impact of fulling funding enrollment growth. Red area shows cost of fully covering inflation increases, White area shows cost of funding to full Amendment 23 levels. CLICK TO ENLARGE

What Kampman basically told lawmakers was that Amendment 23, school finance law and the negative factor are on a collision course that will make the whole system unconstitutional by 2015-16.

“If total program funding remains flat, the portion devoted to base per pupil funding will continue to crowd out the portion available to differentiate districts’ per pupil funding amounts. Absent a funding increase, there would be no funding available for differentiation by FY 2015-16 and funding would be insufficient to increase base per pupil funding as required by Amendment 23,” Kampman wrote in her briefing paper. (She used “differentiation” to refer to the factors.)

The briefing paper said that Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed 2012-13 cut of $88 million to current school funding of $5.2 billion would reduce the amount of money available for the factors to 7.5 percent of total spending. Kampman said that would accelerate the trend she’s warning about.

She recommended that the JBC work with legislative leaders, the House and Senate education committees and the governor’s office to discuss a school funding amount for 2012-13. Also recommended was discussion of whether new laws, constitutional changes and/or additional funding are needed “to ensure that the General Assembly can continue to comply with the constitutional mandate to provide for the maintenance of a thorough and uniform public school system,” in the words of the briefing paper.

School finance snapshots
  • Current total program funding – $5.2 billion
  • Average per-pupil funding – $6,468
  • Funded enrollment – 805,891
  • Governor’s proposed 2012-13 cut – 1.7 percent
  • Cut in per-pupil funding – $162
  • Historic school funding high was $5.6 million in 2009-10 for 789,497 students

“I think this is one of the most important issues we’re going to be dealing with,” said Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen. She said she’d work to set up a meeting of the JBC and the two education committees as early as possible in the 2012 legislative session, which kicks off Jan. 11. The two committee chairs, Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, and Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, sat through Wednesday’s briefing.

Gerou, noting other pressures on the state budget like steeply rising Medicaid costs, quipped, “This is why I wake up at night screaming.”

Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver and a JBC member, said K-12 and Medicaid funding make it “conceivable that we could not fund higher education at all.”

Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver and also a committee member, commented, “We just keep digging a deeper hole in the school finance act.”

Funding for online schools

The briefing paper also included a section about online schools, an issue of increasing concern and a problem examined in a recent investigation by Education News Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network (read stories here).

The Legislative Audit Committee recently deadlocked on a request by Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, for a state audit of online schools (see story).

Kampman recommended lawmakers take a look at online education because of budgetary implications. Her briefing paper noted “existing systems for funding students and holding school districts accountable have proven to be an awkward fit as on-line learning has developed and expanded in Colorado.”

Briefing paper
  • Discussion of school finance dilemma starts on page 15
  • Online education section begins on page 33

Her recommendation is that “the General Assembly continues to evaluate whether the existing framework for funding and evaluating on-line programs can and should be improved. Staff recommends further study and consideration of policy issues related to per-pupil funding levels and counting methods for on-line programs, limiting the amount of per-pupil funding that may be retained by an authorizer, and ensuring that financial reporting requirements are consistent and transparent.”

Among the key questions around online programs are high attrition rates rates of students and lagging achievement levels.

Some of the lawmakers at Wednesday’s hearing raised questions about the real meaning of attrition rates, suggesting deeper analysis of that problem is needed.

What’s next

The JBC will be briefed Dec. 1 on other parts of CDE’s budget, including the department’s request for $25.9 million in startup funds for a new testing system. Hickenlooper has recommended that money not be included in the 2012-13 budget, but CDE hopes to persuade lawmakers otherwise.

Department executives will have a chance at a Dec. 16 hearing to make their spending case and to answer questions raised at the two briefings.

New mayor

Illinois charter PAC ready to spend millions in Chicago elections

PHOTO: Creative Commons

A pro-charter Illinois PAC will expand its focus from statewide politics into Chicago’s upcoming mayoral and alderman elections, with a plan to infuse millions of dollars into contested races where education is at issue.

“The stakes couldn’t be higher for urban public education,” Andrew Broy, president of INCS Action, a political action committee that advocates for charter schools in Illinois, told Chalkbeat. “We expect to spend a seven-figure sum in each of these races.”

INCS Action is the political advocacy arm of the Illinois Network for Charters Schools, and in the past has advocated for lifting a cap on charters statewide and against a statewide charter moratorium.

The expansion of charter schools is a live-wire issue in Chicago, with some advocates arguing that the growth of charters, which are publicly funded but privately run, pushes out resources for neighborhood schools in low-income areas. Charter advocates, meanwhile, argue the charter school model offers a faster way to bring high-quality education to students in Chicago.

Chicago Public Schools has 121 charter schools, down 7 percent from two years ago when the teachers union negotiated a cap on charter enrollment.

The upcoming elections make up just one part of a the network’s larger legislative agenda, with three of its five legislative goals already in place, Broy said. They’ve established the state charter school commission, secured charter funding equity in Illinois, and created a 10-year renewal term for charter contracts, he said, adding, “we still need to secure state facility funding and lift the cap on charter schools nationwide.”

INCS Action has not yet named the candidates it will support, but said its criteria for endorsement include contested races featuring candidates with different positions on charter schools. “For aldermanic races, if we can impact 2,000 or 3,000 votes in a ward, that offers a lot of opportunity,” Broy said.

Aldermen can introduce city-level resolutions against charter openings or ban a charter’s expansion into their ward or, if they are supportive, offer tax-increment financing for charter school buildings or other investments.

The Chicago Teachers Union also runs a PAC, through which it has supported candidates at the state, mayoral and aldermanic levels. The union opposes charter expansion. 

Broy expects his group will support candidates by sending out mailers, canvassing and telephoning voters.

According to election finance data obtained by Illinois Sunshine, the INCS Action PAC has already contributed more than $65,000 to the campaigns of state-level candidates for congressional seats in Illinois since Sept. 11. The largest sums went to the campaigns of Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Burr Ridge, the House minority leader, and Rep. Monica Bristow, D-Alton.

In state-level races, INCS Action has been a heavy hitter since it started in 2013. This past spring, the organization said in a press release that 13 of the 15 primary candidates for Illinois’ state Senate and House of Representatives supported by the group won their primaries.

The next governor could play a big role in the future of charter schools in Illinois, and by extension in Chicago, but Broy says the committee has declined to endorse a candidate because of the amount of spending required to sway a candidate or the election. The committee gets more bang for its buck focusing on local races.

Incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner and challenger J.B. Pritzker have staked out opposing positions on the charter debate, with Rauner a supporter of charter schools, while his opponent says he’d place a moratorium on opening new charters.

Meanwhile, Broy said his political action committee will soon begin throwing money into campaigns he believes they can win. “In some races, we see a pathway to victory with our support.”


Heated Debate

Candidates clash over innovation schools and high school closures in IPS Board campaigns

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang / Chalkbeat
Candidates for the District 3 and District 5 seats on the Indianapolis Public Schools Board debated at a forum hosted Tuesday night by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Recorder, WFYI, and the Central Library.

In the races for three seats on the Indianapolis Public Schools Board, candidates are sharply split over whether the district is moving in the right direction.

The divisions were clear during a forum Tuesday night hosted by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Recorder, WFYI, and the Indianapolis Public Library. Some of the most heated discussions came over the district’s recent decision to close high schools and move to an all-choice high school model, and candidates also clashed over the district’s innovation partnerships with outside operators to run schools — including some where students have struggled the most.

“It’s just disruptive when you just keep changing and changing and changing,” said ceramics studio owner and IPS parent Joanna Krumel, who goes by Jodi, a challenger in the at-large race. “Especially when the district was doing a good job with the programs that they had.”

Retired IPS teacher Susan Collins, who is also running for the at-large seat lamented the closure of high schools that had long legacies in their neighborhoods: “Why do we let our good programs die?” she said.

But at-large incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan defended the district’s decisions, pushing back on the perception that schools have taken a turn for the worse.

“I don’t think we were doing well. I don’t think all was all right with IPS. I think we were patient for too long with strategies that weren’t moving the needle for kids,” said Sullivan, a former Democratic state lawmaker.

Read more: Sort through each school board district race and see candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

Candidates also debated the district’s low test scores, financial transparency, community engagement, and equity of access to highly sought-after magnet programs.

Often, their disagreements illustrated long-standing rifts between advocates and critics of school choice.

The at-large challengers denounced the district’s partnerships with charter schools, influential charter supporters such as The Mind Trust, and the Indy Chamber on finances and its referendum efforts.

“There is too much incursion by business interests in the education of our children,” Collins said.

Krumel said she didn’t support working so closely with charter schools, either: “I don’t think that charter schools are here to stay. At least I hope they’re not.”

But Sullivan called those “adult battles” over politics that distract from addressing the needs of children.

“I’m just very sad that we still have the same kinds of conversations that take our eyes off the prize of being able to offer every single kid in the city of Indianapolis a great opportunity,” Sullivan said. “I would like to have more conversations about where we’re going, what’s possible — and not a return to something that I don’t think were ever really glory days, especially not for too many of our students of color and students in poverty.”

In the race for the open seat in District 3, which represents the north side, one candidate supported innovation schools while two others expressed concerns.

“I see innovation schools, frankly, as the next generation of the district willing to take risks, to do what it takes to serve our students,” said Evan Hawkins, executive director of facilities and procurement for Marian University and an IPS parent. “Innovations schools are not the panacea, but innovation represents one of those options that the district has … [to] ensure that our schools stay locally controlled.”

But Sherry Shelton said she wanted to support ideas proven to work, and she didn’t believe the innovation schools showed enough positive results.

“I don’t think we should take a chance with our students,” said Shelton, director of information services for Pike Township schools. “I think we should stop the innovation schools, re-evaluate the program, tweak it, and if it’s something that we’re going to move forward with, that we develop a successful process to open those, evaluate, and keep them up to a certain standard.”

Michele Lorbieski, a trial attorney with Frost Brown Todd and an IPS parent, said the innovation schools cause disruption, and said they haven’t shown as much improvement as is often touted.

“I think we need to pump the brakes on these innovation schools,” she said. “We’re doing a pilot to figure out if our high school students should take the IndyGo bus, but we didn’t even pilot the innovation schools. So let’s make sure they’re effective before we keep going down this path at this pace we’re going.”

In the race for District 5, which represents the northwest side of the city, candidate Taria Slack outlined the challenges of teacher turnover that she has seen in the innovation schools that her three children attend.

“I think we need to stop replicating this program until we have better research on what’s really going on,” said Slack, a federal worker. “We need to make sure that our kids are hitting every last one of these benchmarks.”

But incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an IPS parent, said families and community members sometimes feel innovation schools are the best fit for their neighborhoods.

“Sometimes the innovation school option is the best option,” she said. “So I see charter schools and innovation schools as part of our educational landscape, part of our toolbox if you will, to look at what’s the best option for our children in a specific neighborhood.”

Watch the full forum: