June
10th 2016
Dougco’s Voucher Lawsuit Muddle Explained

Posted under Colorado Supreme Court & Constitution & Courts & Douglas County & Legal Issues & School Choice & United States Supreme Court

I got a lot of questions yesterday about yet another ruling on the Douglas County voucher program. Was this good news? Was it bad news? Which lawsuit was this anyway? What the heck is going on in Douglas County?

It occurred to me after about the 50th question that stuff has gotten pretty complicated when it comes to vouchers in Dougco. We’re going to dedicate today’s post to clearing up the confusion. After all, there’s nothing worse than being perplexed over the weekend.

Let’s start from the beginning. Most everyone probably remembers that the original Dougco voucher program was shot down by the Colorado Supreme Court almost a year ago thanks to our state’s icky Blaine Amendment. That decision was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the whole process was complicated by the tragic (in so, so many ways) death of Justice Antonin Scalia and the fact that SCOTUS had already taken a Blaine-related case out of Missouri.

The case remains in limbo somewhere in the echoing hallways of the U.S. Supreme Court, which has yet to decide whether it will hear the case at all. It will likely remain undecided for some time. But Douglas County didn’t want to wait to get a voucher program up and running, so it approved a new version that excludes faith-based schools in March 2016.

For those of you keeping score, this means that there are now two Dougco voucher programs out there. Continue Reading »

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June
9th 2016
Independence Institute Stands Up (Again) for Tenure Reform

Posted under Colorado General Assembly & Colorado Supreme Court & Courts & Denver & Legal Issues & State Legislature

I have double good news for my fellow policy nerds on this fine Thursday morning. First, the Colorado State Board of Education voted yesterday to continue disaggregating student subgroup data for accountability purposes. I had some rather strong thoughts on the issue, so this decision makes me smile.

The conversation will continue, and, if Chairman Durham’s comment in the official CDE press release is any indication, may even lead to some thoughtful new approaches. In the meantime, I’m pleased to know that we won’t be sweeping challenging populations of students under the rug or compromising taxpayer accountability to satisfy the edu-blob.

Maybe even more exciting, though, is the fact that the Independence Institute has fired its next salvo in the war to protect teacher tenure reform in Colorado. Continue Reading »

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June
6th 2016
State Board Tackles Not-So-Super Subgroups

Posted under Accountability & Rural Schools & School Accountability & School Finance & State Board of Education & Taxpayers

Mondays are good days to roll up our sleeves and bury ourselves in education policy arcana. This Monday is a particularly good day to do that; on Wednesday, the Colorado State Board of Education will decide the fate of a complicated but important proposal related to our state’s school and district accountability system.

The proposal deals with the use of “super subgroups” (also called “combined subgroups”), which aggregate subgroups of students—minority, at-risk, English-language learner (ELL), and special education—into a single bucket for accountability purposes under Colorado’s school and district performance frameworks (SPFs and DPFs). Pushed by some school districts, interest groups, and the Colorado Department of Education, the shift toward combined subgroups is strongly opposed by a large, diverse coalition of organizations from across the political spectrum. Careful observers will note that one of those organizations is the Independence Institute, which I happen to be rather fond of.

Why is the Independence Institute involved? To understand that, you have to understand the issue in a little more detail. Brace yourself, thar be wonkery ahead. Continue Reading »

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June
1st 2016
COPs and Robbers: A Tale of Two Jeffco Schools

Posted under Fiscal Responsibility & Jefferson County Public Schools & School Board & School Finance

It’s been a little while since we talked about Jeffco, but I couldn’t resist chiming in on a CBS 4 story proudly declaring that the district has broken ground on a “brand-new K-8 school” in Arvada’s Candelas development. The construction of a new school wouldn’t normally merit a blog post, but this particular school carries such political baggage and symbolic value that it’s impossible to ignore.

If you dig deep into the locked container in your head labeled “Jeffco Recall 2015,” you’ll probably remember a bit of a kerfuffle last year about the proposed use of certificates of participation to finance new school construction in Jefferson County. COPs, as they’re colloquially known, exist mostly as an end-run around TABOR in that they allow governments to incur long-term debt without voter approval. The Independence Institute’s Josh Sharf explains it like this:

The government, in this case a school district, transfers some asset, usually a building or set of buildings, to a special-purpose entity set up specifically to administer the COP.  That entity – not the school district itself – then floats the bond on the municipal bond market.  It then leases the buildings back to the school district for lease payments that match the bond payments.  It is those lease payments that secure the debt.  In addition, the lease comes up for annual review by the school board which, in theory, could refuse to renew.

If that sounds a little shady to you, you’re not alone. Continue Reading »

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May
27th 2016
Another Friday, Another Goodbye, and a Big Opportunity

Posted under Douglas County & School Board

I hate goodbyes, especially when I have to issue them back to back to people who I think have done good work. Late last week, we talked a little about Commissioner Rich Crandall’s abrupt decision to resign from his position after only a few months on the job. Now we’re saying goodbye to Douglas County’s stalwart superintendent, Dr. Liz Fagen.

Dr. Fagen has been with Douglas County for six years. That’s a pretty good run if you consider that the typical tenure of a superintendent is only about three years—and that’s in districts far less venomous and politically charged than Douglas County. While there is research out there finding that superintendents are not the biggest influences on district performance (see the study linked in the prior sentence), no one can argue with the fact that Dr. Fagen has overseen some dramatic and successful changes in Douglas County. Continue Reading »

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May
20th 2016
Commissioner’s Resignation Shatters Friday Quiet

Posted under Colorado Department of Education & Education Politics

Yesterday, we took a philosophically taxing tour through the moral stickiness of education. I had hoped that today would be a good chance to cool off and talk about something a little less heavy. No such luck.

If you pay even a little attention to the education scene in Colorado, you probably heard that Commissioner Rich Crandall stepped down from his post yesterday afternoon. Continue Reading »

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May
19th 2016
Tough Choices and Doing “The Right Thing” in Education

Posted under Edublogging & Graduation & Principals & Teachers

It’s graduation time across Colorado and the nation. Happy kids everywhere are moving up a grade, finishing school, or digging in to do some more work over the summer. I think that’s fantastic, but I was reminded today of a different perspective while I was perusing my daily flood of education news, blogs, and columns.

Brace yourselves. Today’s post is a little squishy. Stop scowling. We five-year-olds are allowed to be squishy sometimes.

Most of you probably know that despite some amazing success stories, I have serious questions about number-gaming when it comes to graduation rates. The same applies to rates of advancement in lower grades. But I will admit that I have not spent a lot of time pondering the issue in terms of the potentially agonizing decisions teachers and school leaders have to make when it comes to sending kids out into the real world—or holding them back.

That perspective, and the important philosophical questions it raises, popped into the ol’ thinker this afternoon as I read a guest post on Rick Hess’s blog. Written by Meira Levinson, a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the post puts forward a fictional scenario involving an underprivileged eighth-grader at the end of a school year. The big question at the end: What is the right thing to do? Continue Reading »

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May
13th 2016
New Study Studies Studies on School Choice

Posted under Private Schools & Research & School Choice & Tax Credits

Well, friends, the 2016 legislative session is officially a done deal. I’ll have an official wrap-up (autopsy?) for you next week, but for now we can all breathe a little easier knowing that the crush of state-level education politics will recede for the most part until the fall. That leaves plenty of time to nerd it up, and nerd it up we shall.

Let’s get the policy party started today with a new study out of the University of Arkansas’s Department of Education Reform. Written by M. Danish Shakeel, Kaitlin P. Anderson, and Patrick J. Wolf, the study takes a look at the effects of private school choice programs around the world. Or, rather, the study looks at studies on the effects of private school choice programs around the world. That makes it a “meta-study.” Today’s lesson in impenetrable academic jargon: Studying studies yields meta-studies. You’re welcome.

Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat: I have a love-hate relationship with meta-studies. On one hand, comprehensive examinations of previous research are enormously valuable for those of us who swim in policy waters. On the other hand, they can easily fall victim to cherry picking, or the tendency to pick only studies that agree with whatever point you want to make. Then you have the issue of ensuring that the studies you are studying with your meta-study are actually decent—a question that often leads to screening processes that can, once again, easily fall victim to bias. That’s why you so often see meta-studies on the same subject reaching entirely different conclusions.

As a matter of fact, this particular meta-study is largely intended to correct what the researchers see as flaws in previous reviews of school choice research. Continue Reading »

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May
6th 2016
Waivers, Waivers Everywhere

Posted under Accountability & Public Charter Schools & School Board & Traditional Public Schools

A couple of weeks ago, I provided a rundown of the legislation still pending in the 2016 legislative session’s busy final days. One of the bills lingering out there is HB 16-1343, which seeks to eliminate automatic waivers for charter schools. As I’ve said before, there is little danger that the bill will survive. But that won’t stop the teachers union and its allies from using it as an opportunity to pontificate about those evil, nasty, no-good charter schools.

And pontificate they have. CEA has published all manner of charter-related ugliness on its Twitter account, and has supported 1343 on its website. More recently, the often icky Colorado Independent jumped on the bandwagon with an article accusing charters of “dodging Colorado laws”—likely after all the more credible news outlets declined to become mouthpieces for union propaganda.  But hey, I guess some folks have to take what they can get.

Anyway, the Independent article focuses on the union’s central messaging plank: That the waivers granted to charter schools create an unfair ability to shirk legal requirements that other schools have to follow. Why do charters deserve equal funding, they ask, if they don’t have to play by the same rules as traditional public schools? Traditional public schools do not have a way to waive out of these requirements, after all. Right? Wrong. Let’s talk. Continue Reading »

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May
4th 2016
Inadequate Funding or Inadequate Information?

Posted under Education Politics & Media & School Finance

Welcome back, friends. I apologize for my absence during the second half of last week. Do you have any idea how busy an intrepid policy explorer like myself gets in the closing weeks of the legislative session? Plus, I had to carve out some extra time to watch interesting education TV shows hosted by my Independence Institute policy friend Ross Izard. See here for a segment on charter funding equity, and here for one of my favorite Colorado private schools, Arrupe Jesuit High School.

I’m sorry I left you hanging. But now we’re back. And we’ve got some serious edu-policy work to do. Today’s topic: school finance in Colorado. No, no. Don’t run. I promise it’ll be (mostly) painless.

I started thinking about how important it is to get accurate information out there about school finance in Colorado when I read a Colorado Public Radio story about our state’s supposed failure to adequately fund its public schools despite a “booming” economy. Continue Reading »

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