From the Statehouse

Tempered good news on K-12 funding

Updated 4 p.m. – Improved state revenue forecasts have provided a nice present for Colorado school districts, but the gift isn’t as large as some might hope.

Gov. John Hickenlooper, Henry Sobanet
Gov. John Hickenlooper (left) and budget director Henry Sobanet

State budget chief Henry Sobanet told legislators Tuesday morning that the brightened revenue outlook would allow giving schools an extra $22 million this year for enrollment increases and eliminate the need for an $89 million cut in 2012-13, something Gov. John Hickenlooper proposed in his original budget for next year.

“Today is a good day to talk about the budget … the economy is improving,” Hickenlooper told reporters later in the day. “First and most critically,” he said, the additional revenue allowed the administration to roll back proposed K-12 cuts.

But holding school total program funding steady at about $5.2 billion effectively would be a cut, because statewide enrollment is expected to increase 1.2 percent in 2012-13, meaning average per-pupil funding would drop by about $70 a student. Under the governor’s original plan for 2012-13, the average per-pupil cut would have been $179. Actual per-student funding varies widely by district under the state’s school finance system.

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Gov. Hickenlooper’s comments on state revenues, education spending and Colorado’s economy.

And funding would be about $1 billion below the full amount called for by the previous interpretation of Amendment 23, the school-funding provision of the state constitution. In recent years, the legislature has used a “negative factor” to reduce projected school funding to a predetermined amount necessary to balance the state budget.

One proposed cut the administration is not planning to fully restore is what’s called the senior homestead property tax exemption. Hickenlooper is proposing the current suspension of that $100 million program continue in 2012-13 but that $17.5 million be budgeted to help low-income seniors.

House Republican leaders have said they’ll fight to restore the $100 million. Doing so could force K-12 cuts in exchange.

Forecasts seen as good news

Still the forecasts were greeted as welcome developments.

“Thanks for the good news,” said Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen and chair of the Joint Budget Committee, after legislative and executive branch economists finished their presentations.

Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, told EdNews the forecast means, “We’re going to push very hard” to reduce K-12 cuts in 2012-13. Massey, chair of the House Education Committee, led efforts to minimize school cuts in the current budget and is expected to be a central figure on education issues during the 2012 session.

Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, said, “This is good news for the 2011-12 fiscal year, and the governor’s willingness to retract the $89 million is good news.” Still, noting the precariousness of school funding, Urschel said, “We’re just living fiscal year to fiscal year, and that’s no way to fund schools.”

“Our students and schools so desperately needed a good-news day, and this is good news,” said Beverly Ingle, president of the Colorado Education Association.

Do your homework

In addition to discussing state revenues, both documents contain extensive information about Colorado economic and business trends.

Sobanet told legislators at the morning hearing that state revenues for the current 2011-12 year are projected to be $231 million higher than was predicted in September. Natalie Mullis, legislative chief economist, said her office estimates revenues will be $148 million more than projected in her last quarterly forecast. Both projected state revenue growth will slow in the immediate future.

“Obviously, this change is most welcome,” said Sobanet, who’s director of the Office of State Planning and Budgeting.

“The economy has definitely stabilized,” Mullis said. But she and executive branch economists warned that economic instability in Europe could cloud Colorado and U.S. economic prospects in the future.

The forecasts mean lawmakers will have a modestly larger amount to spend in 2012-13 than previously thought.

Sobanet said the administration would recommend the following steps related to education:

  • Allocation of an additional $22 million in the current 2011-12 budget year to help districts cover the costs of increased enrollment.
  • Transfer of an additional $110 million to the chronically underfunded State Education Fund, which is used to supplement school spending.
  • Keeping total program funding, the combination of state and local money that funds basic school operations, near the current level of about $5.2 billion. Hickenlooper had proposed cutting $89 million.

Sobanet also said higher revenues mean it will be possible to avoid a $30 million cut in the state’s $100 million student financial aid program. An additional $30 million cut in direct support of colleges and universities remains in the governor’s plan.

The legislature, of course, will have the final say on the 2012-13 budget. But if lawmakers take the administration’s suggestions, it would be the first time in several years that school districts would get a mid-year adjustment for enrollment increases and that base school funding remained stable.

The two forecasts also touched on other issues and trends of interest to education, including:

  • Local property taxes: School districts will see a 1.5 percent increase in property tax revenues, slightly reducing the pressure on the state to backfill local revenues.
  • Enrollment: Full-time equivalent enrollment will grow 1.2 percent in 2012-13 to nearly 795,000. Most of the growth will come in Front Range districts; many other areas of the state will see continued declines. The forecast from legislative staff contains a detailed analysis of where enrollment will grow and where it will fall.
  • Gaming revenues: Community colleges are expected to receive $6.1 million this year from their share of gambling revenue and $6.2 million in 2012-13.

The recent Denver District Court ruling in the Lobato v. State school funding case was referenced briefly during the hearing.

Sobanet said, “The governor is in consultation with the attorney general about the appropriate path forward. The most likely outcome is the state will appeal the district court ruling.”

Estimates of “full” K-12 funding under the Lobato ruling range from $2 to $4 billion more a year than the $5.2 billion currently spent.

Asked about the issue at his news conference, Hickenlooper said, “We’re just working out the details” and that an announcement on the appeal will come “hopefully in the near future.”

legal opinion

Tennessee’s attorney general sides with charter schools in battle over student information

Herbert H. Slatery III was appointed Tennessee attorney general in 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam, for whom he previously served as general counsel.

Tennessee’s attorney general says requests for student contact information from state-run charter school operators don’t violate a federal student privacy law, but rather are “entirely consistent with it.”

The opinion from Herbert Slatery III, issued late on Wednesday in response to a request by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, was a win for charter schools in their battle with the state’s two largest districts.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

McQueen quickly responded by ordering school leaders in Memphis and Nashville to comply. In letters dispatched to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Director Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, McQueen gave the districts a deadline, adding that they will face consequences if they refuse.

“If you do not provide this information by Sept. 25, 2017, to the (Achievement School District) and any other charter school or charter authorizer who has an outstanding request, we will be forced to consider actions to enforce the law,” she wrote.

Neither superintendent responded immediately to requests for comment, but school board leaders in both districts said Thursday that their attorneys were reviewing the matter.

Chris Caldwell, chairman for Shelby County’s board, said he’s also concerned “whether the timeframe stated gives us enough time to make sure families are aware of what is happening.”

Wednesday’s flurry of events heats up the battle that started in July when charter operators Green Dot and LEAD requested student contact information under the state’s new charter law, which gives districts 30 days to comply with such requests. School boards in both Memphis and Nashville refused, arguing they had the right under the federal student privacy law to restrict who gets the information and for what reasons.

The attorney general said sharing such information would not violate federal law.

The requested information falls under “student directory information,” and can be published by school districts without a parent’s permission. For Shelby County Schools, this type of information includes names, addresses, emails and phone numbers.

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

The opinion also backs up the new state law, which directs districts to share information that charter operators say they need to recruit students and market their programs in Tennessee’s expanding school-choice environment.

However, the opinion allowed for districts to have a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents of their right to opt out of sharing such information. It was not clear from the opinion if the two school districts have exhausted that time.

A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said Tuesday the district had not yet distributed forms that would allow parents to opt out of having their students’ information shared, although the district’s parent-student handbook already includes instructions for doing so.

Below, you can read the attorney general’s opinion and McQueen’s letters to both superintendents:

Clarification, Sept. 14, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify the school boards’ arguments for not sharing the information.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.