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

All over the map

What do children need to know when they start kindergarten? You might be surprised.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

How many letters should kids recognize when they enter kindergarten? Should they be able to cut with scissors? How long should they be able to sit still?

Such basic questions seem like they should come with clear-cut answers, but parents and teachers — and even Colorado state standards — differ widely in their expectations for entering kindergarteners

Early childhood leaders in Larimer County discovered just how much variation exists after they surveyed 800 local parents, preschool teachers and kindergarten teachers in 2015.

“The answers were all over the map,” said Bev Thurber, executive director of the Early Childhood Council of Larimer County. “A lot of times it was way above what research says is developmentally appropriate.”

Such findings spotlight the lack of consensus about what it means to be ready for kindergarten. The survey found parents and preschool teachers generally had higher expectations for youngsters than kindergarten teachers or state standards, suggesting that some parents and preschool teachers may be focusing too much energy on teaching academic skills to young children.

“Our concern is not only do you have this variability, but also this pressure on the academic side … when that’s really not the most important thing, especially at this young age,” said Thurber.

To help parents sort it all out, Thurber and a team of early childhood teachers and advocates created a new eight-page parent guide called “Ready Set Kindergarten.” Available in English and Spanish, the whimsically illustrated booklet gives parents tips for building academic and social-emotional skills — things like simple counting, recognizing the letters in a child’s name, naming feelings and taking turns. It also includes a month-by-month schedule for the pre-kindergarten year highlighting logistical details like registration windows and meet-the-teacher opportunities.

All three Larimer County school districts, — Poudre, Thompson and Estes Park — have agreed to use the guide, which is being distributed through preschools, elementary schools, doctors’ offices and libraries.

But some experts say too much emphasis on getting children ready for kindergarten relieves schools of their obligation to serve students regardless of their background or experience.

“It’s critical for schools to take responsibility for being ready for children – not the other way around,” said Sherry Cleary, executive director of the New York Early Childhood Professional Development Institute at the City University of New York.

Cleary reviewed the guide and worried that it would create unneeded stress for families and set up teachers to have unrealistic expectations for kids.

Thurber said many teachers and parents already have unrealistic expectations for entering kindergarteners, according to survey results. The guide scales those back, she said, and offers a more reasonable list of activities that are based on state standards and Colorado’s early learning and development guidelines.

“This is what experts have said is developmentally appropriate,” Thurber said.

“I completely buy in that schools have to meet kids where they are at,” she said. ”However, within that, there is a certain anxiety among families when you have all these differing expectations.”

Karen Rattenborg, executive director of the Colorado State University Early Childhood Center and an assistant professor at the university, saw the disparity in expectations when she analyzed the survey data.

Take letters, for example. State standards say kids should recognize at least 10 letters when they start kindergarten, specifically the letters in their name. Survey results showed most parents and preschool teachers believed entering kindergarteners should recognize more than 20 letters. Kindergarten teachers opted for a lower 11-20 range.

The same dynamic held true for counting — about half of parents and preschool teachers thought kids should be able to count higher than 20 while state standards say 10 is enough.

In some cases, both preschool and kindergarten teachers placed a high value on tasks that state standards and other common benchmarks don’t mention. Both groups rated cutting with scissors as the second most important fine motor skill for entering kindergarteners, but state standards and the state’s early learning guidelines are silent about scissors.

“It’s things like that where we had these a-ha moments,” said Rattenborg.

In some cases, there was agreement. For instance, the vast majority of both preschool and kindergarten teachers said the ability to communicate needs and wants was the top communication skill kindergarteners need.

Rattenborg said the diversity of views made one thing clear.

“We realized having a common guide throughout Larimer County would be helpful for virtually everyone involved,” she said.

Diane Umbreit, a kindergarten teacher at Kruse Elementary School in Fort Collins and a member of the committee that conceived the guide, agreed.

Over the years, she’s seen plenty of confusion and anxiety among parents. Some push their kids hard to acquire new skills before kindergarten. Some want to do learning activities with their children, but aren’t sure where to start.

Others, she said, are “shocked that their child needs to know the letters in his name.”

Umbreit said of the new kindergarten guide, “Hopefully, it evens the playing field.”

Alliance

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

PHOTO: MNPS
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.”

PHOTO: TN.Gov
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.