Preschool on the ballot

Voters weigh sales tax measure for Denver Preschool Program

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Preschoolers attending the Hope Children's Center in northeast Denver listen to speakers at a June 11 press conference announcing a campaign to ask voters to renew and raise a sales tax to fund the Denver Preschool Program.

Eight years after Denver voters narrowly approved the sales tax ballot measure that created the Denver Preschool Program, they are being asked in ballot issue 2A whether to continue and expand that tax.

Advocates of the DPP program, including a host of political heavy-hitters, say it’s helped ensure school readiness, boost third-grade test scores and improve preschool quality in the city. There is no organized group opposing the measure, but skeptics like City Councilor Jeanne Faatz say providing preschool subsidies should be the state’s role not the city’s and that the program’s universal approach means that tax-payers are subsidizing preschool for affluent families who don’t truly need the help.

The DPP program provides preschool tuition credits to four-year-olds in Denver, with a tiered scale that means low-income families whose children attend highly-rated preschools get the most assistance and higher-income families whose children attend lower-rated preschools get the least.

If 2A passes, the sales tax would be raised from .12 percent to .15 percent, or 15 cents for every $100 spent in Denver on taxable items. The additional revenue would be used to reinstate summer preschool programs, increase the amount of tuition credits and offer help with extended-day preschool. The measure would extend the tax until 2026.

DPP By the numbers

Kids

  • Children served annually: 5020
  • Children served since DPP’s inception: 31,816
  • DPP students attending 3- or 4-star preschools: 89%

Money

  • Average tuition credit: $322 per month for full-day programs
  • 2015 budget if ballot measure passes: $19 million
  • 2015 budget if ballot measure fails: $15.3 million
  • Current cap on administrative expenses: 5%
  • Administrative expense cap if ballot measure passes: 7%

Timing

  • Expiration of current sales tax: December 2016
  • Expiration if ballot measure passes: 2026

The existing DPP sales tax, which passed with 50.6 percent of the vote in 2006, won’t expire until December 2016. Both sides agree that if the ballot measure fails next month, voters will have other opportunities to consider a sales tax extension for DPP before the tuition credits stop at the end of the 2016-17 school year.

Still, Jennifer Landrum, president and CEO of DPP, believes now is the time for a renewal.

“There is an urgency for voters to vote this year,” she said. “First off, the city decided that this was the year to go back to the voters…We’ve raised the money. We’ve launched the campaign. We’re on that course.”

A boon for student achievement?

There are now seven years of academic data available from students who’ve participated in the DPP program. Much of it comes from annual evaluations conducted by the Denver consulting firm Augenblick, Palaich and Associates in tandem with Clayton Early Learning Institute.

The most recent report from the firm indicates that about 90 percent of DPP students score well enough on national literacy and math assessments to be considered school-ready. DPP’s 2013 Report to the Community actually cites higher rates—98 percent for literacy and 99 percent for math—but the  report explains that those numbers are based on cut scores the authors believe are too low to accurately reflect school-readiness.

With the first two DPP cohorts now in fourth and fifth grade, there’s also evidence that DPP participants do better on third-grade state tests than non-DPP students. Overall, 64 percent of DPP kids were “proficient” or “advanced” on 2014 reading tests compared to 56 percent of non-participants.

The spread was about six points in math, with 63 percent of DPP participants  proficient or advanced compared to 57 percent of non-participants. Such differences in proficiency rates held true for participants and non-participants of all races as well as those who are English-language learners.

What about the state?

While there doesn’t seem to be a fundamental argument about preschool’s value this election season, there are questions about Denver’s approach. Faatz believes the state’s Colorado Preschool Program, which funds preschool and some full-day kindergarten for more than 23,000 at-risk children, represents a better way to go. She said it makes more sense to expand the reach of the state’s program than have another layer of bureaucracy working only for Denver children.

“I think the state is more efficient in the way it does it,” said Faatz, who cast the lone no vote when Denver’s city council decided in August to put the DPP sales tax question on the ballot.

Faatz also worries that DPP’s administrative costs are excessive. Although administrative expenses are capped at 5 percent by city ordinance, she said some line items don’t seem properly categorized and administrative costs would far exceed the cap if they were.

But Landrum said city ordinance defines exactly what is counted as administrative costs—things like staff salaries, facility costs and accounting fees–and that DPP is in compliance.

And Landrum pointed out that even with repeated efforts at the state level to expand CPP, there still aren’t enough slots for all eligible children.

“The city and county of Denver is trying to do better.”

Focus on quality

One aspect of the Denver Preschool Program that everyone seems to agree on is the focus on helping preschools improve and sustain their quality. Ten percent of the program’s budget is dedicated to quality improvement measures. This may mean providing coaches to help preschool providers prepare for rating visits, paying for teacher training or making facility improvements.

Do your homework

“I think the thing that’s really exemplary about what DPP is doing…is they’re investing not just in kids but in quality,” said Cheryl Caldwell, director of early childhood education for Denver Public Schools.

Last year, that quality improvement money paid for 15 hours of training for paraprofessionals at the district’s DPP sites as well as for teachers to attend a major early childhood conference.

In addition to designating part of its budget for preschool improvement,  Landrum said DPP’s tiered reimbursement model incentivizes parents to select higher-quality programs by providing larger tuition credits. It’s a model that seems to be catching on across the country.

“Denver has been at the forefront around that idea,” she said. “Quality is expensive and having higher tuition support for higher quality programs helps maintain quality.”

Nearly 90 percent of DPP participants attend preschools with the top two ratings from Qualistar, a highly-regarded rater of early childhood programs in the state. Up till now, those ratings have been voluntary and providers were not required to go through the process, but many Denver providers did because of DPP.

Landrum said when DPP launched in the fall of 2007 only 52 preschool providers in Denver had been rated by Qualistar. That number is now 227, with an additional 18 that have national accreditation equivalent to Qualistar’s top four-star rating.

“At the end of the day I think this is good for Denver…preschool is the beginning of a successful academic career,” she said.

2013 DPP Expenditures | Create Infographics

School Finance

IPS and the chamber outline unconventional three-year partnership to cut spending

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Michael Huber, left, and Lewis Ferebee at a March press conference.

Indiana’s largest school system is on the cusp of an unusual, three-year partnership with the local chamber of commerce designed to carry out extensive cuts that the business group proposed for balancing the district’s budget.

Under an arrangement that the Indianapolis Public Schools Board will vote on Thursday, the Indy Chamber would pay as much as $1 million during the first year for two new district administrators and consulting by outside groups to implement its cost-cutting plan. The agreement is nonbinding, and the chamber or district could withdraw at any time.

The partnership is the culmination of months of negotiation between the chamber and the Indianapolis Public Schools Board, which agreed last spring to delay a public vote on two tax increases to give the chamber time to analyze district finances. In exchange, the chamber agreed to help draft a new request from taxpayers and lend its political support to two tax increases that are on the ballot in November.

The staff members and consultants would help the district implement some of the chambers’ broad recommendations for hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts in the coming years, including possible school closures, reduced transportation, and staff reductions. Many of the potential cuts would likely need approval by the school board.

The aim of the cuts is to stabilize the district budget and generate enough savings to pay for raises for teachers and principals. Chamber officials say they are so invested in the effort because the prosperity of the city’s urban core, and its ability to attract investment, depend on the success of Indianapolis Public Schools.

But the plan gives the Indy Chamber a rare level of involvement in managing the district, said Zachary Baiel, president of the Indiana Coalition for Open Government. If the chamber is able to help the district improve its operations, the arrangement could be positive for the community, he said. But he raised concerns that the public could be shut out of decision making.

“Any constituent group would love to have this kind of access,” Baiel said. “It’s a fascinating precedent that’s unfolding.”

At a meeting Tuesday night where the proposal was discussed, school board member Venita Moore said the chamber has expertise that the district “desperately” needs. But she also asked for assurances that the district would have ultimate say on the cuts. “I just want to make sure that we’re taking the lead,” she said.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee assured Moore that the district is “clearly driving this work.”  The new positions would be funded by the chamber, he said at a press briefing Tuesday morning, but the district would choose who to hire and supervise the staff members.

The chamber and the district have already discussed how the business group can help the schools find savings, Ferebee said. “This is an opportunity for us to cement some of those details of how they will collaborate with the district,” he said.

Board member Mary Ann Sullivan said help from the chamber is essential because district staff members are already working overtime and couldn’t take on the extra responsibilities. “We wouldn’t have the resources to be able to devote to such targeted strategic thinking,” she said.

The chamber initially recommended nearly $500 million in sweeping cuts to Indianapolis Public Schools over eight years. But ultimately, the district and the business group settled on a compromise approach that would allow the district to make slower, less extensive cuts.

Indy Chamber CEO Michael Huber said now that the group and the district are on the same page about the referendums, the chamber is focused on helping the district with operational and financial planning.

“We are working as colleagues and bringing them some additional resources,” Huber said. “I personally think there’s no more important work that we can do as a business organization than provide this type of resources to help IPS get where it wants to go.”

With the chamber’s support, the district is asking voters for $220 million more in tax dollars over eight years for operating expenses, such as teacher salaries. A separate measure would raise $52 million for building improvements. That’s substantially lower than the district’s initial requests, which amounted to nearly $1 billion combined.

Board member Kelly Bentley said the district needs to be clear about the cuts that will be necessary to make the current plan work. “At the end of the day, in order to achieve the significant savings we are talking about, we are going to have to close schools and lay people off,” she said.

The positions funded by the chamber include a chief of transformation, who would be tasked with rethinking and improving the district’s non-academic functions, such as financial operations, transportation, facilities, food service, and information technology. An enterprise development director would lead cost savings projects. The chamber would also pay for at least a year of consulting by Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting, Policy Analytics, and, if necessary, other consultants.

This is not the first time the Indy Chamber has sought to influence the future of the district. The chamber made similar recommendations in 2014, when the district was projected to run a budget deficit. The administration eventually implemented some of the suggestions, but concerns about the deficit dissipated when it was revealed to be an accounting error.

funding battle

After three years, the fight to spend more money on Tennessee schools inches toward trial

PHOTO: Jae S. Lee/The Tennessean
Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman looks over evidence during a 2015 trial. The Nashville judge is presiding over a school funding lawsuit that pits Tennessee's two largest districts against the state.

A 3-year-old lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s system of funding public schools is one step closer to trial after a Nashville judge turned back the state’s second attempt in three months to derail the case.

Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman last week stood by her decision from July to deny the state’s motion to dismiss the suit on constitutional and legal grounds.

Her rulings mean that the case — which the state’s attorneys say “has few rivals in terms of its breadth and its cost” — is on track to go to trial next spring in Nashville.

If successful, the lawsuit could force Tennessee to invest more in public education, which at almost $5 billion already takes the largest chunk out of the state’s $37.5 billion annual budget.

The litigation pits Tennessee’s two largest districts against the state over whether it allocates enough money to provide an adequate education, particularly for urban school systems that serve more students who live in poverty, have special needs, or come from non-English-speaking homes. Memphis-based Shelby County Schools filed the suit in 2015, and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools joined the litigation last year.

Tennessee is among more than a half dozen states where lawsuits are winding their way through the courts over the quality of schools, the adequacy of funding, and whether some students are being shortchanged, especially as states raise academic standards without always increasing funding for resources and training to help students meet those benchmarks.

Outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam says Tennessee has been an exception by adding $1.5 billion to the K-12 pot during his eight-year administration. But attorneys for Memphis and Nashville schools say the investment falls woefully short and that Tennessee isn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to provide its children with a “free, adequate, and equitable education.”

Both legal teams are lining up expert witnesses, whose testimony will provide the meat of the case. They already have filed hundreds of thousands of pages of documents and are scheduled to take depositions this fall.

“This case has been pending for over three years with the ultimate goal of getting to trial to make a ruling, and we are closer now than ever,” said attorney Charles Grant, who represents both districts through the Tennessee firm of Baker Donelson.

Tennessee still could appeal to a state court in an effort to sidestep Bonnyman’s rulings, but that would be highly unusual. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Herbert Slattery said Tuesday that the state is evaluating its options under Tennessee law.

The question of adequate school funding is different from one posed by several previous landmark cases in the 1980s and ‘90s that focused on whether Tennessee was funding schools equitably. This litigation is about the size of the funding pie, not just how it’s carved up.

In documents, the state called the adequacy argument “extraordinary” since the court is being asked, in essence, to order the Legislature to boost its spending on schools, which would “require either raising taxes or redirecting existing revenue from other state services, or possibly both.”

"We don’t think the state has ever measured what it would actually cost to provide an adequate education."Lori Patterson, attorney

Tennessee’s two earlier funding cases ended up at the State Supreme Court and forced the state to change its funding formula so that smaller and rural school systems now receive a greater share of money than they previously were getting.

If the current legal battle mirrors those cases, litigation likely will drag on for years through trial and appeals and end up again in the state’s highest court.

A trial itself could take weeks and even months. A recent trial over the adequacy of school funding in New Mexico consumed two months in court. Another trial on an adequacy claim in Connecticut lasted five months.

The decision by Nashville’s school board to join in the Memphis lawsuit slowed the process but also made the plaintiffs’ case stronger, said Lori Patterson, another attorney representing the school systems.

“They’re joining together to say education is not adequately funded from a constitutional standpoint,” she said. “We don’t think the state has ever measured what it would actually cost to provide an adequate education.”

Theirs is not the only funding lawsuit pending in Chancery Court. Months before Shelby County Schools went to court, Hamilton County’s school board and six other districts in southeast Tennessee filed their own suit asking the court to order the Legislature to address a funding formula that they say leaves schools chronically underfunded. That case appears to have stalled, however, and representatives for the state and Hamilton County Schools had no comment on its status.

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