June
19th 2017
PARCC Rides Off Into the Sunset… On a Circular Track

Posted under Academic Achievement & Accountability & Education Politics & State Board of Education & Testing

It’s no secret that people don’t love Pearson’s PARCC tests. Even way back in 2015, states were practically tripping on themselves trying to get away from the unpopular test, which was originally designed to provide comparable results across state lines. That trend has continued, and only a handful of the original dozens of PARCC states remain. Now, it looks like Colorado is jumping ship. It’s about time. But are we really leaving PARCC behind? Or are we just witnessing a rebranding effort?

Colorado’s experience with PARCC has not been overly pleasant. For starters, and although there have been some improvements on this front, results have been slow to roll in despite promises from test-making giant Pearson Education that their technology would make those results available faster. It’s hard to do much with test scores that come in after the new school year is already in full swing. That makes it very tough to create buy-in on the part of educators, parents, or even education observers.

PARCC has similarly failed to convince students and parents of its value, and opt-out numbers have soared. Those opt outs are a serious problem for a number of reasons. First, they signal that the state is spending many millions of dollars on a testing instrument that parents and students do not see as valuable enough to use, particularly in certain grade levels. Second, they throw a serious wrench in the state’s accountability system. You know there’s an issue when you have to start flagging school and district accountability reports with asterisks for “low participation.” Finally, and more seriously, the unreliable data caused by the opt-out movement harms parents’ ability to make informed educational choices and adds fuel to the fire of the anti-reform movement.

There are many, many issues involved in Colorado’s current testing situation. But I remain convinced that one of the primary drivers of Colorado’s testing woes has been PARCC’s unpopularity. That’s why I was thrilled to see Independence Institute support a bill this year to remove PARCC from all Colorado high schools and replace it with a test that prepares students for and aligns with the SAT in 11th grade. That bill has since been signed into law.

Now, it looks like Colorado is taking similar steps in earlier grades. Thanks to a Colorado State Board of Education decision back in December, Colorado will soon move away from PARCC testing in grades 3-8 as it withdraws from the PARCC testing consortium. That should be cause for celebration for parents concerned about PARCC and a good catalyst to begin returning our focus to sensible accountability and testing. But don’t get too excited yet. Continue Reading »

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June
8th 2017
The Education Establishment is Dead, Long Live the Education Establishment?

Posted under Education Politics & Every Student Succeeds Act & Federal Government & Ross Izard

The king is dead, long live the king.” Have you heard that one before? It’s a phrase a variety of countries have used to simultaneously announce the death of a monarch and the ascension of a new one. The phrase has survived into the modern era in part because it provides an excuse to use the word epanalepsis and in part because it turns out to be a pretty poignant description of the lack of change when regimes shift.

I was reminded of this old phrase while reading a recent blog post by American Enterprise Institute education guru Rick Hess, who has been working for a while now to prevent education reformers from morphing into a new education establishment. This particular post is in response to a number of folks who took issue with a previous Hess post criticizing the amount of bureaucratic paperwork involved in crafting state education plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act. You know, like the 150-page one Colorado submitted in May. In that post, Hess wrote:

The vapidity of the exercise would be unremarkable if everyone clearly understood that these filings are the kind of pointless, paper exercise demanded by 21st century bureaucracy, and that the only thing that matters is what states and districts actually do after they’ve submitted their plans. But what’s disconcerting is how much enthusiasm the education intelligentsia has invested in these latter-day TPS reports. It makes them look more than a little like Initech’s paper-loving mandarins—and that’s not something I would wish on anyone. Continue Reading »

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June
1st 2017
Superintendent Subterfuge: Broken Promises, Empty Words, and the Crystal Ball in Jefferson County

Posted under Education Politics & Jefferson County & School Board & Union

Remember that recall thing that happened in Jeffco back in 2015? Of course you do. We all do. In fact, a fair number of folks are still suffering from the edu-PTSD that nasty fight caused. Many speculated as the dust settled that the dishonesty underlying the Jeffco recall portended broken promises and bad behavior by the new 5-0 anti-reform board. And based on the board’s recent selection of Eagle County’s legendarily anti-reform Jason Glass as its new superintendent, it would appear those predictions have come true.

It became clear pretty quickly following the 2015 election that recall proponents were somewhat… erm… less than honest about their motivations and backers. That’s a nice way of saying they lied through their collective teeth. First, it emerged that the teachers union began working against the conservative reform majority “from the moment the polls closed in 2013” despite statements to the contrary from just about everyone on the pro-recall side. Then, we discovered that the “parent-led” recall effort was, in fact, directly funded by the National Education Association. When that revelation blew up a legal attempt by the pro-recall Jeffco United to conceal its donors, it was revealed that things were even worse than they seemed. The organization received literally 99.9 percent of its money from teachers unions.

And, of course, those are only the worst examples of deliberate lying in the Jeffco recall. There were numerous other claims made that were roundly proven to be either inaccurate or flatly false. One of the largest and most heavily publicized of these claims dealt with the selection and contract of Dan McMinimee, whom the Jeffco school board’s conservative majority hired as the district’s chief in 2014. Back then, the same group of people who would later become the faces of the Jeffco recall effort argued that McMinimee’s salary was unjustifiably higher than his predecessor, Cindy Stevenson. As it turns out, that was a lie. Meanwhile, progressives and other opponents of the board’s conservative reform majority castigated them for engaging in a less-than-transparent selection process that presented only one sole finalist to the public.

The shrieking about McMinimee was at least part of the reason the pro-recall side prevailed in 2015. But their outrage apparently died with the old majority. Continue Reading »

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May
23rd 2017
HB 1375: What Is It, and What Does It Mean for Charters?

Posted under Colorado General Assembly & Education Politics & Educational Choice & Legal Issues & Legislation & Public Charter Schools & School Finance & State Board of Education & State Legislature & Union

Last week, we talked about the sausage-making process behind House Billl 17-1375, which was originally Senate Bill 17-061, but on two separate occasions was part of Senate Bill 17-296.  Got it?

Tortured though its legislative journey was, HB 1375′s passage has been heralded by many who worked on it as a huge victory for public charter schools. The Colorado League of Charter Schools, which spearheaded the effort, has been celebrating the bill’s passage as it heads to the governor’s desk, as has much of the rest of Colorado’s education reform lobby. Even the Denver Post gave the bill it’s nod of approval just before final passage.

Certainly, some high-fiving and celebration is in order. Many people and organizations, including the Independence Institute, worked in support of Senate Bill 061′s original incarnation. Those folks, and the handful of Senate Democrats brave enough to vote for the bill in its near-original form, deserve a lot of praise for their efforts. But after all the backroom deals and last-minute compromises, I think it’s important to take a close look at what, exactly, we passed. Let’s do that today. Below is a rundown of the major changes to the final bill and what they might mean in practice for charters.

Continue Reading »

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May
17th 2017
Sausage, Sausage Everywhere: Charter Funding Bill Survives the Legislature… Sort of

Posted under Colorado General Assembly & Education Politics & Educational Choice & Legislation & Public Charter Schools & School Finance

Well, my friends, we made it. As of last week, Colorado’s 2017 legislative session is a done deal. The session produced a couple of notable wins, including the elimination of PARCC in Colorado high schools and the bipartisan death of  Senator Mike “Special-Place-in-Hell” Merrifield’s perennial effort to blow up teacher tenure reform, performance compensation, and accountability in Colorado. But the main show of this year’s session was Senate Bill 061’s long and tortured journey toward finally providing funding equity for Colorado’s public charter school students. Unfortunately, that journey was rather messy and didn’t end quite the way I had hoped it would.

Despite some major controversy, SB 061 cleared the Colorado Senate on a bipartisan 22-13 vote back in March. Five brave Democrats joined most Senate Republicans in pushing the funding bill forward, though they did add an amendment offering districts the opportunity to “clarify” voter intent with regard to mill levy override revenues—an addition I find rather disconcerting given the near-total lack of MLOs that explicitly exclude public charters. But hey, at least it got through.

Then stuff got weird. Continue Reading »

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April
19th 2017
Trinity Lutheran Gets Its Day in Court

Posted under Blaine Amendments & Colorado Supreme Court & Courts & Douglas County & Educational Choice & Legal Issues & SCOTUS

This week is a big week in the world of education law. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court will take up its first case related to state constitutional Blaine clauses. We talked about these ugly little pieces of constitutional language in some detail last week when I highlighted the Independence Institute’s new paper, Blaine’s Shadow: Politics, Discrimination, and School Choice. Check out that paper if you need some historical background on Blaine clauses and what they mean for education today.

Before you ask, the court isn’t considering the Dougco voucher case tomorrow. We’re still waiting to find out whether SCOTUS will hear that one. Instead, the high court will hear oral arguments in Trinity Lutheran v. Pauley, which deals with a Blaine-related case out of Missouri. We’ve talked about that case in passing over the year or so since I wrote about it in detail, but a refresher is probably in order. From my previous post:

Here’s the skinny: Missouri runs a program under which organizations can apply to the state for grants. That’s not unusual. But here’s the trick: these “grants” do not come in the form of money. They come in the form of scrap rubber. That rubber is used by organizations to replace hard playground surfaces with soft, bouncy pads—a significant improvement over the concrete my dad used to play on. If you’ve met my dad, you know what kind of impact (heh) repeatedly hitting one’s head against concrete playground surfaces can have.

Trinity Lutheran Church runs a preschool in Missouri. That preschool has a playground, and that playground is surfaced with gravel. Gravel is admittedly better to fall on than concrete, but it’s still not great. It is, after all, made of rocks. With this safety concern in mind, the church’s preschool applied to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources for scrap rubber that it could use to resurface the playground.

The department’s response? “No can do. You’re religious.” It then fervently pointed to the state’s Blaine Amendment and walked away.

The problem here is a nuanced one. The Playground Scrap Tire Surface Material Grant Program is supposed to operate on the basis of neutrality. But Trinity Lutheran asserts that the department actively discriminated against its preschool simply because it is a religious organization, thereby violating its First Amendment rights.

Trinity Lutheran provides an opportunity for SCOTUS to consider whether this kind of application of state constitutional Blaine clauses violates the government’s First Amendment responsibility to maintain neutrality with respect to different religions. Continue Reading »

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April
12th 2017
History! Blaine’s Shadow Tells an Important Story

Posted under Blaine Amendments & Colorado Supreme Court & Constitution & Courts & Douglas County & Educational Choice & Legal Issues & Vouchers

James G. Blaine. You’ve heard that name before, right? Of course you have. I’ve written about Congressman Blaine a number of times, usually in the context of Douglas County’s ongoing legal battle against so-called “Blaine Amendments” through its first-of-its-kind local voucher program. Or maybe I should say programs (plural), as the district’s other voucher program made things pretty complicated for a while before a debatable court decision and a new decision by the board put an end to most of the legal craziness.

But while we’ve talked a fair amount about Blaine and the state constitutional clauses named after him, I’m not sure we’ve ever really known the full story. There’s a lot of important history and drama and politics buried behind the simple narrative that most folks just don’t know.  Ross Izard, my favorite policy nerd, set out to tell that story—and to explain why it matters from a constitutional perspective—in his most recent issue paper, Blaine’s Shadow: Politics, Discrimination, and School Choice Continue Reading »

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April
5th 2017
DeVos Wasn’t Wrong About Choice and Accessibility

Posted under Betsy DeVos & Education Politics & Educational Choice & Federal Government

It’s been a while since we last talked, hasn’t it? I apologize for that. The last few weeks have been absolutely packed with edu-stuff. But I’m back now, and what better way is there to rekindle old fires than to tackle a controversial issue? And what could be more controversial in education right now that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos?

I wrote about the unhinged shrieking over DeVos following her confirmation hearing. Shortly thereafter, she was confirmed as secretary of education on a historically narrow vote. The shrieking only intensified, so my policy friend Ross Izard used an editorial in The Hill to point out the Left’s rather stark philosophical inconsistency when it comes to ambitious, successful women in politics. As Ross wrote, the Left appears to believe that “Women are to be empowered—unless they disagree with progressive positions.”

The furor over DeVos receded somewhat as the healthcare debacle and President Trump’s newly declared war on conservative congressional leaders took center stage. But then, a statement by Secretary DeVos about Denver’s top ranking in the Brooking Institution’s latest Education Choice and Competition Index (ECCI) reignited the fire in earnest. Here’s the full video of DeVos’s remarks at Brookings for those who are interested in watching it. The statement in question begins at roughly the 29-minute marker.

For those who’d rather just read what terrible, awful, no-good things DeVos said, here’s a full transcript of her remarks. Make sure you note all the evil talk about not favoring one type of choice over another, empowering parents to choose the right educational fit for their children, and (as I always preach) focusing on children rather than institutions. But all those horrible things notwithstanding, the part that landed her in hot water was this:

Meanwhile, Denver scored well because the single application process for both charter and traditional public schools, as well as a website that allows parents to make side-by-side comparisons of schools. But the simple process masks the limited choices.

Russ has mentioned this, but I think it’s worth repeating that, even though a district may place well on the competition index, the letter grade does not necessarily reflect the state of education within that district.

The benefits of making options “accessible” are cancelled out when you don’t have a full menu of options.

Choice without accessibility doesn’t matter, just as accessibility without choices doesn’t matter. Neither scenario ultimately benefits students.

Those simple, tame words got folks into a big kerfuffle. The Denver Post ran a story accusing DeVos of “slamming” Denver, and Chalkbeat Colorado also wrote it up. Chalkbeat then ran a separate story featuring indignant tweets (remember when politics wasn’t conducted on Twitter?) from Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, who apparently sensed an opportunity to continue the Denver-based spat he began with DeVos during her confirmation hearing.  Meanwhile, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg issued a statement saying, in part:

We respectfully disagree with Secretary DeVos. We do not support private school vouchers. We believe that public dollars should be used for public schools that are open to all kids, whether they are district-run or charter.

Through all of this political maneuvering, I haven’t seen anyone attempt to take a step back and ask a simple question: Is there any merit to what DeVos is saying? I believe that answer is yes.

At about this time last year, I wrote about some interesting methodological hang-ups in Brookings ECCI rating system. In particular, I lamented the fact that the system tends to favor private school choice programs that are subject to heavy-handed regulation—a design decision that research indicates can produce adverse results. There are a number of other potential problems with the ECCI ratings, as well; no rating system is perfect. So, even though DeVos didn’t come at the discussion from the same angle I did last year, she’s not wrong to caution against simply taking an ECCI letter grade as the full picture of educational quality in any given district.

More importantly, DeVos’s statements on the interdependence of choice and access ring true. Complete access means little without meaningful choices to access. And meaningful choices mean little if no one can access them. That seems like common sense to me, but it was apparently taken as a slight by Denver because it implies that parents don’t have as much choice as they might desire—and that Denver should consider the private sector as a way to address that demand.

I can appreciate Denver’s sensitivity on this. They probably felt a little like the folks from La La Land at the Academy Awards back in February. Remember that? Here’s a video to remind you:

But setting Denver’s pride aside, DeVos wasn’t wrong to say that the district has room to grow when it comes to educational choice. Certainly, the district is doing good things when it comes to empowering parents to choose and apply for public schools. I’ve said as much. But choosing and applying are only part of the equation. Actually getting in is the other part.

Back in 2014, I wrote about a report on choice options in Denver and other major cities. The report largely echoed kudos to Denver for the district’s streamlined enrollment process and transportation options, and it’s stuffed with interesting data. But, importantly, the report also opens with a story about Joe Jiminez, a Denver parent with a daughter about to enter middle school. Seeing that his quality neighborhood options were limited, Joe began to look around. He found some good schools, marked his top three choices on Denver’s choice application, and felt pretty good. Then this happened:

… [W]hen school system officials ran the lottery in the spring, [Joe] discovered his daughter didn’t get into any of her options, leaving her stuck in her low-performing neighborhood school. “I think the [enrollment] process was pretty self-explanatory. It was the end result that was pretty disappointing…the good schools all have waiting lists.” The result left Joe feeling confused and angry: his family had invested considerable effort navigating their city’s system of public school choice, but came away feeling no better off because of it.

Public schools work for a great many families. In particular, the charter sector is doing great work in Colorado. But the fact remains that demand for options is significantly outpacing the supply of high-quality seats. Many of the best public schools in Denver and other districts have long waiting lists or deep lottery pools that serve as barriers to parents like Joe. Though reliable estimates of the true number of individual children on these waiting lists are hard to come by because parents often put their names on multiple lists, it is safe to say that thousands (and perhaps tens of thousands) of Colorado students have not been able to access the educational options they need. Meanwhile, more than 10,000 seats sit empty in Colorado private schools, most of which are located in or around the Denver Metro Area.

If you don’t believe there’s an opportunity in that situation to meet parental demand for high-quality educational options while providing kids with the excellent education they deserve, you aren’t being honest with yourself. You are focusing on institutions rather than children, and that is not a productive mindset if our goal is to produce the best possible outcomes for kids.

Perhaps DeVos could have made her point more gently or in a different context—politics is politics, after all—but the fact remains that she isn’t wrong to say that maximum choice and maximum accessibility are inextricably linked. And she’s not wrong to point out that Denver’s students would benefit from a well-designed private school choice program. So please, put down that tomato and consider the other side of the story.

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March
17th 2017
Colorado Democrats Take Brave Stand for Choice

Posted under Colorado General Assembly & Education Politics & Educational Choice & Legislation & Public Charter Schools & School Finance

I updated you last week on SB 061, which would provide fair local funding to public charter school students in Colorado. As expected, the bill sailed through the senate with broad bipartisan support, clearing the floor on a 22-13 vote. Five Democrats joined all but one Republican (Sen. Don Coram from far southeast Colorado) in passing the bill. The five Democrats were:

I have a lot of respect for the Democrats who were willing to take a stand on funding fairness. This may come as a surprise, but my posts don’t always fully capture the scale of the political forces folks feel at the capitol when big bills come through. Legislators often hear from many, many lobbyists on both sides of an issue, and the pressure exerted on them can be enormous.

Nowhere was that pressure more evident than with the debate about SB 061. Both sides lobbied heavily on the bill, but the opposition—CEA, AFT Colorado, AFL-CIO, a number of school districts, and others—were particularly hard on Democrats considering a yes vote. CEA President Kerrie Dallman penned a high-profile op-ed designed to politically damage Democrats by pinning them to their new arch nemesis, President Donald Trump. Meanwhile, multiple lobbying teams no doubt reminded Democrats that there would be severe consequences (remember all that money unions funnel to Dems?) should they break rank and side with students over special interests.

Despite all this intense pressure, these five Democrats bravely voted yes on this important bill. Granted, a couple of them insisted on including an amendment that would let school districts go back and re-ask voters whether they can share mill levy override revenue with charters—a proposal I don’t love for a number of reasons. But even so, these legislators deserve to be commended. I have a lot of respect for every legislator who voted for SB 061, but we can’t deny the fact that it was immeasurably harder for Democrats to support the legislation. Good for them!

It gets better. Two of the five senate Democrats who voted for SB 061 also took to the well (the name for the podium from which legislators deliver speeches on the chamber floor) to talk about why they believe SB 061 is the right thing to do. Their speeches were way more powerful than anything I could write, so I will shut up. Check out the video below:

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March
10th 2017
Good News: Charter Funding Bill Looks Set to Pass Senate

Posted under Colorado General Assembly & Education Politics & Legislation & Public Charter Schools & Union

The weekend is fast approaching, but it doesn’t look like charter advocates and legislators will be getting much rest. Further debate on Senate Bill 17-061 has been postponed until Monday, giving both sides some additional time to continue working the levers of influence.

For those who haven’t been watching the Colorado Capitol closely this year, SB 061 would address the problem on inequitable local funding for public charter school students by requiring school districts to share mill levy override revenue, or extra voter-approved property taxes for education, with charters. Many of you probably remember that we saw similar legislation last year (in the form of SB 16-188), and that I was strongly supportive of that legislation. Ross Izard, my favorite policy nerd, also supported the bill.

Here’s a quick refresher on the issue at hand:

Public charter schools get the same amount of funding as traditional public schools under Colorado’s school finance formula (minus some chargebacks for district overhead). But money that flows to schools under the School Finance Act is only part of the education funding equation. In 2014-15, the last year for which we have complete revenue data, the School Finance Formula calculated about $5.9 billion for education. But the actual amount of revenue that flowed into the system from all sources was roughly $10.5 billion. That means more than 40 percent of the money that rolled into Colorado education came from outside the formula. That, my friends, is a lot of money.

Buried somewhere in that mountainous stack of cash is money derived from local mill levy overrides, or MLOs. Don’t worry, you don’t have to walk around saying “MLO” like a nerd. You can just say “property tax increase.” Basically, a school district asks folks to pay more in taxes to run certain programs, buy new stuff, or do something else entirely. Roughly two-thirds of Colorado school districts have some type of MLO on the books in 2016-17, all of which combined add up to about $937 million. That’s about $100 million more than the big, scary negative factor. And, in fact, 62 districts have raised enough in extra local tax money (see page 8) to totally pay off their share of the negative factor and then have quite a bit left over. Just sayin’.

Here’s the trick, though: School districts don’t have to share the extra money they get from these property tax increases with charter schools. And while some districts have chosen to share—Boulder Valley, Denver Public Schools, Douglas County, Eagle County, Falcon 49, Jefferson County, Moffat 2, Roaring Fork, 27J (Brighton), St. Vrain, Weld County, and Widefield—many others don’t. As a result, a 2014 study found that charter schools in Colorado receive, on average, about $2,000 less per student than traditional public schools. That works out to about 80 cents on the dollar.

All of these kids are public school kids. But some of them are being dramatically underfunded. Does that seem right to you? Continue Reading »

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