at the capitol

House Education Committee passes gifted education spending bill

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Colorado
High school student Dylan McNally (right) testified in favor of gifted and talented bill. Sponsor Rep. Cherilyn Peniston, D-Westerminster, is at left.

The House Education Committee Monday passed yet another schools spending bill, this one intended to improve gifted and talented education at a cost of $5 million.

The discussion and vote on House Bill 14-1102 followed a now-familiar pattern. First there’s lengthy testimony highlighted by opposition from school district witnesses who argue the money would be better spent on restoring past K-12 budget cuts. Bill passes by relatively narrow margin. Then the bill is sent to an uncertain fate in the House Appropriations Committee.

Key elements of House Bill 14-1102 would require that districts (or “administrative units” such as boards of cooperative educational services) hire qualified gifted and talented coordinators and also evaluate all students to determine gifted and talented status before the third grade.

Over the last two weeks the committee has passed bills to support Advanced Placement classes in rural districts ($1 million) and to improve the quality of early childhood education programs ($12 million).

Six bills with a combined draw on the State Education Fund of about $40 million already have been introduced in the legislature. Another 10 bills without specific price tags also are in the mix.

Such bills are at ground zero in a battle over how to spend additional K-12 funding in 2014-15. School districts, administrators and the state’s largest teachers union have drawn a line in the sand this year, insisting that any extra money available for K-12 education be used to backfill at least some of the $1 billion in cuts schools have taken in recent years.

(Statehouse jargon for this proposal is “buying down the negative factor,” referring to the formula used by the legislature to trim K-12 funding from what it otherwise would have been.)

Lawmakers of both parties have proposed earmarked uses of extra education funding, such as the gifted and talented bill. And Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, and a bipartisan group of allies are working on a bill to direct about $250 million into elements of Johnston’s 2013 shelved school-finance overhaul. (See this story for details on that.)

School district interest groups are hardening their position on this issue, and a majority of Colorado’s superintendents are expected to deliver a letter to lawmakers and Gov. John Hickenlooper, perhaps as early as this week, insisting that $275 million be devoted to “buying down” the negative factor in 2014-15. (If there’s no significant buy down of the negative factor, there’s even quiet talk of a lawsuit challenging it, on the grounds that it violates Amendment 23, the 2000 constitutional provision that was approved by voters and which sets the rules for annual increases in K-12 spending.)

The negative factor was mentioned repeatedly in opposition testimony Monday on House Bill 14-1102.

“We do see it as a mandate” on school districts, said Don Anderson, executive director on the East Center BOCES, which provides services to districts on the eastern plains. “These funds would be far more beneficial in buying down the negative factor.”

That theme was repeated by other witnesses, including Bruce Caughey, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, and Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards. “If we truly want to serve our students we much reduce the negative factor,” she said.

Supporters of the bill stressed the need to identify gifted students early so that they can receive the kind of instruction that will engage them and keep them in school.

“I was sitting in the classroom bored out of my mind,” said Loveland High School junior Dylan McNally, who said he wasn’t identified as gifted and talented until he was in the third grade. “I think we need to get kids identified early.”

Linda Crane, executive director of the Colorado Association for the Gifted and Talented, said, “gifted students from lower income families will continue to fall through the cracks” unless universal evaluation of students is implemented.

The bill passed on a party-line vote, with all seven committee Democrats voting for it and all six Republicans voting no. The sponsor, Rep. Cherilyn Peniston, D-Westminster, is committee vice chair and a longtime gifted-and-talented advocate who is serving her last term in the House. Passage of the bill in House Education reflected party solidarity among Democrats, something that may change when education spending bills are winnowed later.

In other action

House Education also voted 7-6 to pass House Bill 14-1156, which would make all students in grades 3-12 who are now eligible for reduced-price lunches eligible for free lunches. (A state law passed a few years ago made free lunches universal for students in grades PRE-2, regardless of whether family income made them eligible only for reduced-price lunch.)

“The reality is that when families are hurting that doesn’t stop at the third grade,” said sponsor Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City. He was sponsor of the earlier bill that applied to PRE-2 and also of last year’s breakfast-after-the-bell law.

The measure also goes to the House Appropriations Committee. Financing is less of an issue with this bill because its $2.4 million price tag would be offset by an estimated increase of $21.4 million in federal reimbursements to the school lunch program.

The committee was more bipartisan on Senate Bill 14-004, the measure that would allow community colleges of offer bachelor of applied sciences degrees in such vocational fields as dental hygiene, water quality management and culinary arts. The bill passed 11-2, with only two GOP members voting no.

Use the Education Bill Tracker to read bill texts and find additional information.


Memphis just gained an important ally in its legal battle with Tennessee over school funding

The board for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools voted Tuesday to become a co-plaintiff in Shelby County Schools' funding lawsuit against the state of Tennessee.

For more than two years, a funding lawsuit by Memphis school leaders has been winding through the state’s legal system.

Now, as the litigation inches closer to a court date next year, Shelby County Schools has gained a powerful ally in its battle with Tennessee over the adequacy of funding for its schools and students.

The board for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools voted unanimously Tuesday to become a co-plaintiff in the case.

The decision ends almost three years of talk from Nashville about going to court.

In 2015 at the urging of then-director Jesse Register, the district’s board opted for conversation over litigation with Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration about how to improve education funding in Tennessee.

But Register moved on, and the board’s dissatisfaction grew as the percentage of state funding for the district’s budget shrank. Adding to their frustration, Haslam backed off last year from an enhanced funding formula approved in 2007 during the administration of his predecessor, Phil Bredesen.

“We’ve just come to grips with the harsh reality that we are a chronically underfunded school system,” said Will Pinkston, a board member who has urged legal action.

Nashville’s decision is welcome news for Memphis. A statement Wednesday from the state’s largest district called the lawsuit “the most important civil rights litigation in Tennessee in the last 30 years.”

“When you have the two largest school districts in Tennessee on the same side, I think it’s very powerful,” added former board chairman Chris Caldwell, who has championed the lawsuit in behalf of Shelby County Schools.

Both boards are working with Tennessee-based Baker Donelson, one of the South’s largest and oldest law firms. It has offices in both cities.

“We believe that our original case had a strong message about the inadequacy of education funding in Tennessee,” said Lori Patterson, lead attorney in the case from Memphis. “We believe that having the second largest district in the state join the suit and make the same claims only makes the message stronger.”

Gov. Bill Haslam

Haslam’s administration declined to comment Wednesday about the new development, but has stood by Tennessee’s funding model. In a 2016 response to the Shelby County lawsuit, the state said its formula known as the Basic Education Plan, or BEP, provides adequate funding under state law.

But Shelby County, in its 2015 suit, argues that not only does the state not adequately fund K-12 schools, it doesn’t fully fund its own formula. And the formula, it charges, “fails to take into account the actual costs of funding an education,” especially for the many poor students in Memphis. To provide an adequate education, the lawsuit says the district needs more resources to pay for everything from math and reading tutors to guidance counselors and social workers.

States often get sued over funding for schools — and frequently lose those cases. In Tennessee, state courts heard three such cases from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, siding with local districts every time. Those suits keyed in on built-in inequities in the state’s funding formula that cause some districts to get more money than others.

This time, the argument is about adequacy. What is the true cost of educating today’s students, especially in the shift to more rigorous academic standards?

Tennessee is also the defendant in a separate funding lawsuit filed in 2015 by seven southeast Tennessee school districts including Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga.

Pinkston said Nashville opted to join the Memphis suit because its arguments are most applicable to the state’s second largest district. “Our student populations are very similar in terms of high socioeconomic needs,” he said.


Parent concerns prompt Denver Public Schools to change how it’s spending a chunk of tax dollars

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post
An RTD bus heads downtown along Colfax Ave. in 2016.

Denver Public Schools is changing course on how it will spend $400,000 in local tax dollars earmarked for student transportation after parents and community organizations claimed the district had not followed through on a promise to increase options for high school students.

The dollars are part of a $56.6 million tax increase voters approved in November. This school year, the district allocated $273,000 to buy bus passes for 630 additional students at two schools: Northfield High and Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design. However, it earmarked the remaining $127,000 to pay for transportation for special needs students.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg announced Monday evening that the $127,000 set aside for special needs transportation would be immediately reallocated so that all $400,000 is being spent on bus passes for high school students.

“We’ve heard loud and clear from the community,” Boasberg said.

Parents and other advocates say that while the reallocation is a move in the right direction, it doesn’t relieve all of their worries about how the money will be spent.

“That’s great,” parent Karen Mortimer said. “But what is your next step?”

Transportation is a hot-button issue for Denver Public Schools. The district has been nationally recognized for its school choice system, which allows its 92,000 students to request to attend any one of its more than 200 schools. However, DPS does not provide transportation to most students who choose a school that is not the assigned school in their neighborhood.

Critics argue that not providing transportation to all students leaves families who don’t have a vehicle or the means to transport their children across town with no choice at all.

Nearly half of the district’s 20,623 high school students — 9,256 — don’t qualify for DPS transportation because they don’t attend their assigned schools, according to numbers presented to the school board at a work session Monday night.

Another 4,394 don’t qualify for transportation because they live within three and a half miles of their assigned schools, a distance the district considers walkable.

In a bid to reduce those numbers, a committee of 75 parents, students, teachers and taxpayers tasked with recommending how to spend the tax revenue suggested earmarking $400,000 each year for a “new effort to increase high school students’ access to high quality schools and educational opportunities through greater transportation options.”

Whereas most ideas for how to spend the $56.6 million in tax revenue came from DPS staff, the idea to expand transportation originated with the committee members.

The final recommendation, which was adopted by the school board, said DPS would “work with community stakeholders to secure matching funds, and design and implement a test effort to positively impact students,” which has not yet happened.

If the test effort wasn’t working, the recommendation said, the district could use those funds “for other efforts to increase access to educational opportunities.”

In a statement Friday, Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district was using the funds “as promised,” a contention advocates disputed, to pay for transportation for high school students and students with special needs. DPS saw an increase this year of 78 students whose needs exceed the district’s capacity to serve them and who are being bused elsewhere by third-party companies, according to a district spokeswoman and information provided to the school board.

But Boasberg said Monday that as of this month, the $127,000 that was earmarked for special education transportation would be spent on high school students instead. District officials estimated that sum would buy an additional 370 bus passes. Boasberg said they “look forward to a discussion with the community” about how to distribute them.

Meanwhile, community members said they’re still confused about how DPS distributed the 630 additional passes it already purchased with the $273,000 in tax revenue.

“The community was left out of the loop,” said Matt Samelson of the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation, which has been pushing for the district to come up with a plan for how to use the $400,000 before February, when families must make their school choices for next year. (The foundation is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat).

District spokeswoman Nancy Mitchell told Chalkbeat that most of the 630 passes went to students at Northfield High, a comprehensive high school that opened in northeast Denver in 2015. The district had been providing yellow bus service to Northfield because the Regional Transportation District didn’t serve the area. But it does now, Mitchell said, so Northfield students who meet the district’s criteria for bus passes got them this year.

To qualify for transportation, high school students must attend their assigned schools and live more than three and a half miles away. District policy allows other students to receive transportation, too. That includes those learning English as a second language, for example, or those attending certain types of schools, including magnet and Montessori schools.

Students at Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design, which also opened in 2015, received a portion of the 630 passes because the district “determined DSISD most resembles a pathway school for purposes of transportation, as they do not have an enrollment boundary,” according to a statement from DPS spokeswoman Jessie Smiley.

“Pathway” schools are alternative schools that serve students who’ve struggled elsewhere. DSISD is not a pathway school. It was rated “blue” this year, the highest rating on the district’s five-color scale.

Not counting the students who received the 630 extra passes purchased with the tax money, 2,565 high school students were eligible this year for Regional Transportation District bus passes, according to district officials. That’s up from 2,376 last year. In addition, nearly 5,000 high school students qualify for yellow bus service because they attend a school in an “enrollment zone,” which is essentially an enlarged boundary that contains several schools.

Boasberg said that while the district would like to provide transportation to even more students, it must balance spending money on buses with spending money in classrooms. DPS already spends $26 million of its nearly $1 billion budget on transportation, according to information provided to the school board. Even if it wanted to hire more drivers, district officials said they’re having a hard time finding them in a thriving economy; DPS is down 40 drivers this year.

To come up with a solution, Boasberg said the district must collaborate with the city and the Regional Transportation District, which has commissioned its own task force to come up with new pricing recommendations. DPS officials have been participating in that group.

“Ultimately, RTD has assets and abilities as a transportation entity to specialize in what they specialize in,” Boasberg said at Monday’s school board work session. “Our specialty is in educating students. The more we can be collaborative with RTD … the better.”

But advocates said participating in other agencies’ processes isn’t enough. DPS should be leading its own investigation into how to expand transportation options by gathering parents, students and community members to come up with ideas, they said.

“There have been lots of conversations but DPS hasn’t led any of them,” Samelson said.

Unlike other programs and initiatives funded by the tax increase and suggested by district staff, the transportation expansion proposal hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, he said.

“We’re trying to help the district increase access to schools for students but we feel pushback, we feel stonewalled, we feel like we have to argue our way into this premise that increased transportation is good for kids,” Mortimer said. “We just don’t understand it.”