Who Is In Charge

Last education bills get cleared out

Updated 9:30 a.m. May 7 – The Senate today gave final 27-8 approval to a late bill intended to give the University of Colorado more flexibility in admitting out-of-state students and using the additional revenue to provide merit scholarships to bright Colorado students.

CU-Boulder campus view
PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Campus of University of Colorado at Boulder

House Bill 13-1320, introduced only on April 23, is the last education bill in line as the 2013 legislative session heads toward Wednesday adjournment. It’s had a bit of a bumpy ride in committee, but on Monday passed on a voice vote after about 20 minutes of debate. After Tuesday’s final vote the House will have to consider Senate amendments.

Although the bill applies in theory to all Colorado colleges, in practice it’s tailored for CU-Boulder, which is bumping against its allowed percentage of non-resident students. CU officials want to admit more non-residents both so it can gain the substantially higher tuition they pay and also so it can use some of that revenue to provide merit scholarships for top Colorado students. (The state hasn’t provided any merit aid since 2009, although colleges can do so on their own, as CU does already.)

Issues decided Monday

Do your homework

A controversial portion of the bill allows a college to count a Colorado merit scholar as equivalent to two regular Colorado students, making it possible to maintain the required 55 percent resident undergraduate enrollment while creating more space for out-of-staters.

“What they have done here is a little creative, I would say,” said Democratic sponsor Sen. Rollie Heath, whose district includes the Boulder campus. “You could say ingenious, but we have to resort to this sort of thing at this stage of the game.” Heath and other bill sponsors argue that top Colorado high school graduates are being lured out of state by generous scholarships offered by other universities.

Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, said, “It’s not pretty, it’s not clean” but that he supports the bill anyway.

Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, argued against the bill Monday evening, noting questions raised last week by the Department of Higher education. Claiming the bill could lead to fewer Colorado students at CU, Renfroe asked, “Is that what you want?

The House version of the bill also included $3 million in state funds to be divvied up among colleges for merit scholarships. The Senate stripped the money fom the bill, and the House isn’t expected to object. (Learn more about the bill’s intricacies, who would qualify for scholarships and more in his legislative staff analysis.)

Green schools bill finally passes

School under construction
School under construction

Senate Bill 13-279, another late April bill that encountered some turbulence, is on its way to the governor. The measure sets energy conservation requirements for new school buildings and substantial renovations. Amendments to soften the bill and make its requirements more flexible somewhat eased the initial concerns of school districts. The Senate accepted House amendments and re-passed the bill 19-16.

Passage of the bill is a long-awaited victory for Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, a Jeffco teacher who floated several unsuccessful versions while serving in the House.

Here are the details on the other education bills that passed Monday:

School medical emergencies

House Bill 13-1171 allows (but doesn’t require) schools to stock epinephrine injectors to treat students suffering allergic reactions. Students with diagnosed allergies now can bring their own injectors to school. Advocates of the bill argued that schools should stock injectors for undiagnosed students who have reactions. The bill was delayed because of negotiations over training of school employees, liability issues and the role of school nurses. Passed Senate 27-8; the House Tuesday adopted Senate amendments and re-passed the bill 57-8.

Parent involvement

Senate Bill 13-193 makes several changes in parent involvement laws. The measure requires school accountability committees to better promote parent involvement and to be more involved in school turnaround and priority improvement plans, requires each district to designate one staff member as a parent contact person, expands the role of the State Advisory Council for Parent Involvement in Education and allocates $150,000 for the Department of Education to hire a parent engagement specialist. Passed 37-28; the Senate has to review amendments.

Teacher evaluations

Teacher evaluationHouse Bill 13-1257 tweaks the state’s 2010 educator evaluation law and gives the Department of Education greater oversight of district principal and teacher evaluation plans. (Current law allows districts to use the state model system or develop their own systems if they meet state standards.) The bill allows the department to review district plans – or do so at the request of “any interested party” – and order compliance with state standards or use of the state system. The Senate passed the bill 21-14, and the House later approved Senate amendments and re-passed it 35-27.

The bill was introduced in a very different form, at the behest of AFT-Colorado, which represents teachers in the Douglas County Schools. The union and the conservative Dougco board are locked in a variety of disputes. The original bill essentially would have given teachers’ unions veto power over district evaluation plans. That idea had little or no support, and the measure was dramatically retooled.

Technical education

House Bill 13-1165 directs a variety of state agencies, including the community colleges board and the departments of education and higher education, to create “a career pathway for students seeking employment in the manufacturing sector.” The program has to be up and running for the 2014-15 academic year. Passed 21-14. (Get more information on the bill here.)

The bill directs state officials to hold a “summit” with industry representatives to determine state manufacturing workforce needs and to design programs to fill them. The measure has a $474,600 price tag in the first year. This is one of two workforce/education bills that survived this session. The other, House Bill 13-1005, directs the community college system to create pilot programs that combine adult basic education with career training. The highest profile workforce bill, a measure allowing community colleges in a limited number of technical fields, died in the face of opposition from state universities.


House Bill 13-1021 makes several changes in state truancy law with the intent of keeping more students in school and reducing the jailing of truant students. The bill encourages districts to develop procedures for identifying students who are chronically absent, to work more closely with local with juvenile services agencies and to adopt policies for dealing with habitually truant students. The bill says districts should “minimize the need for court action” and take students to court “only as a last resort.” The bill also limits detention of a student to no more than five days at any one time. The House agreed to Senate amendments and re-passed the bill 38-27. (Read the bill text for more details.)

Also approved Monday was House Bill 13-1007, which reinstates a legislative early childhood study commission. The body won’t receive funding – it will be getting in-kind support from the Colorado Children’s Campaign — but the panel will have the ability to propose bills without those counting against the limit of five that applies to individual members. Re-passed 21-14 by the Senate and 37-26 in the House.

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.