Who Is In Charge

A day of much talk, little action

A chaotic day for education bills at the Colorado legislature ended with just one noteworthy bill passed and much work left over for later.

Preschool students
Preschool students demonstrated their counting and language abilities during a legislative hearing Feb. 23, 2012, on a bill that would reduce state testing and use the money for preschool.

The highest-profile casualty of the day of delay was House Bill 12-1091, Rep. Judy Solano’s proposal to eliminate state writing tests and one set of high school tests.

Senate Bill 12-148, the proposal to rename Metro State College as Metropolitan State University of Denver, did pass the Senate Education Committee on a 6-0 vote, but not until after the committee spent two hours on it.

And of four bills related to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, which provides pensions for Colorado teachers, one was killed at its sponsor’s request and three were delayed for later consideration.

Messy morning for State Affairs

Solano, a term-limited Brighton Democrat, is making her last attempt to cut back on statewide testing with HB 12-1091. She proposes to use the savings from elimination of writing tests and one set of high school tests to increase funding for the Colorado Preschool Program.

The House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee is commonly known as the “kill committee” because House GOP leadership sends bills that it wants killed to the committee. So Solano is facing somewhat long odds, but she’d marshaled a big list of witnesses, including several cute preschool kids.

The trouble was that the committee burned more than two hours hearing testimony on two non-education bills before killing them on party-line votes. That left less than an hour to consider Solano’s bill before the panel had to vacate the room for the 1:30 p.m. meeting of another committee.

Vice chair Rep. Don Corum, R-Montrose, tried to allocate the remaining time equally among supporters and opponents of the bill, but he seemed to have only tenuous control over the meeting. (Chair Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Lakewood, was in and out of the meeting because he was carrying a PERA bill in the House Finance Committee, which had its own problems Thursday acting on bills – see below.)

As the crowd grew a little restive, Corum announced the bill would be laid over to a future meeting so that every witness would have a chance to speak.

An anxious Solano crammed in a few more witnesses, including the odd spectacle of the preschoolers counting to 10 in different languages under the direction of a teacher.

The committee didn’t get to House Bill 12-1118, which would require school district collective bargaining sessions be open to the public.

Full-court press for Metro name change

Steve Jordan and Bill Hanzlik
Metro State President Steve Jordan (left) and Metro trustee Bill Hanzlik.

The Senate Education Committee did pass the main bill on its agenda Thursday, but it took awhile. Senate Bill 12-148, the Metro State name change bill, was approved 6-0. The measure was considered pretty much of a lock this session, given that Metro has worked out “branding” differences with the private University of Denver that derailed a Metro name change in the 2011 legislative session.

But Metro wanted to clinch the sale with a long list of witnesses – trustees, students, alumni, business leaders and others – testifying in support of the bill. Former Denver Nugget Bill Hanzlik, a Metro trustee, even testified twice, one for himself and once for trustee chair Robert Cohen, who couldn’t make the meeting.

The proceedings also were slowed by committee member Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, who kept asking questions about why the bill was needed. Hudak said she was worried that Metro’s target demographic – minorities, low-income and first-generation students – might be put off by the word “university.” Metro leaders, including President Steve Jordan, are adamant that the name change to “university” will increase the value of Metro degrees in the job market.

In the end, Hudak missed the vote because she had to leave the committee room to say goodbye and take photos with the students who were shadowing her on Thursday (see below).

PERA bills die, stall in House Finance

The House Finance Committee had four PERA bills on its agenda Thursday. Some legislative Republicans, fretful about the financial future of the big pension system, are proposing various changes in the system.

Three PERA bills already have been killed in the Democratic-controlled Senate, and the Republican-majority House is considered a somewhat friendlier environment.

It didn’t work out that way, at least on Thursday.

Conservative Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, asked the panel to kill his House Bill 12-1250, which some critics said would cut some retirees out of some health insurance benefits.

Three other bills – to change the membership of the PERA board, change the base for calculation of retirement benefits and expand the system’s defined contribution system – were laid over for later consideration.


• The Senate Health and Human Services Committee voted 7-2 to pass Senate Bill 12-130, which would consolidate several early childhood programs into the state Department of Human Services. While the bill tangentially affects early childhood education programs, it’s of interest because it’s a priority of the Hickenlooper administration, which has made early childhood programs and literacy a priority.

• The Capitol was overrun with students Thursday, giving the marble-and-brass halls the air of a middle school. In addition to the counting preschoolers in House State Affairs, there was a large contingent of students marshaled by the Colorado Association for Gifted and Talented, many of whom shadowed individual legislators.

The Colorado Coalition of Cyberschool Families and the Colorado Cyberschools Association rallied what they claimed were 1,000 students and adults on the Capitol’s west steps to support online education.

And some 150 kids (according to FOX31), watched as the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee gave 7-0 final approval to House Bill 12-1147, which would name the tiger salamander as the official state amphibian. The idea originated with school kids, as have many of the “official state whatever” bills of the past.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

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.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.