Who Is In Charge

$237 million in BEST projects make the cut

Nearly a dozen school renovation and construction projects totaling $237.7 million were recommended Wednesday by the state School Capital Construction Assistance Board.

The decisions came after two and a half days of difficult meetings during which the board wrestled with competing priorities, the unavoidable fact that most applications wouldn’t get funded and with some public confusion about how the board makes its decisions.

The State Board of Education has the final say on grants from the Build Excellent Schools Today program. The board is expected to consider the recommendations at its meeting on Aug. 11-12.

The construction board’s recommendations were the second major round of grants since passage of the BEST law in 2008. Grants awarded last year totaled about half of the latest package, although a substantial portion of last year’s package wasn’t used because some local matching funds fell through.

Voters in several school districts also will have an influence on which projects ultimately are funded. In most cases BEST grants require local matching money, and districts are expected to ask voters to approve bond issues this November to raise local matching funds.

If some of those bond issues fail, those projects will be out of the running. Anticipating that problem, the CCAB Wednesday designated one additional project as a “runner-up” that won’t be funded unless one or more of the others fall off the list.

Voters statewide also may have an influence on the BEST projects, which are funded by lease-purchase agreements called certificates of participation, or COPs in government lingo. Amendment 61 on the November ballot would ban use of COPs.

“All bets are off if Amendment 61 passes,” said Dave Van Sant, a retired superintendent who serves on the construction board.

Here are the projects recommended by the board, culled from the 47 that applied:

Center District 26 JT – $31.5 million for replacement of several buildings. State share is $26.7 million and the local match is $4.7 million. (Bond vote required this November.) District enrollment is about 600 students.

Elbert District 200 – $19.6 million for a PK-12 replacement school. State share $16.1 million; local match $3.5 million. (Bond vote required this November.) Enrollment is about 240 students.

Fremont District RE-2 – $13.1 million  for an elementary school renovation and addition. State share $8.3 million; local match is $4.7 million.

Holly District RE-3 – $28.5 million for a new PK-12 school. State share $25 million; local match $3.5 million. (Bond vote required this November.) Enrollment 290 students.

Lake George Charter School (Park County) – $7.4 million for a new P-6 school. $6.5 million state share; $970,000 local match in hand. Enrollment is about 85 students.

Mapleton Public Schools – $53.7 million for major construction and renovation of the district’s Skyline Campus. State share about $33 million; local match about $21 million, which will require a bond issue in November. Enrollment 5,800 students. (The Mapleton proposal has a difficult history and sparked intense board discussion; see below for details.)

Monte Vista Schools – $32.1 million for elementary school renovations and high school replacement. State share $27.6 million; $4.5 million match already raised. Enrollment 1,200 students.

North Routt Charter School – $3.9 million for an addition to its K-8 campus. $3,1 million state grant; about $696,000 local match. Enrollment is about 70 students. (The school, which uses a Mongolian yurt for one of its buildings, won a BEST award last year but couldn’t use it because the state ruled it didn’t have a properly funded match. That problem has been fixed.)

Peyton School District 23 JT – $5.6 million for a junior high addition to the high school. State share $3 million; local match $2.6 million.

Salida District R-32 – $30.4 million for a new high school. State share $12.5 million; local match $17.9 million, with a bond vote this fall. The district has about 1,100 students.

Vista Charter School (Montrose) – $6.1 replacement for a 6-8 alternative school. State share $4.6 million; local match of  $1.5 million is in hand. Enrollment 190 students.

The runner-up on the list is a $24.1 million P-12 building to replace three schools in the 380-student Akron R-1 School District. The rub for the district is that it will have to try to sell voters on a bond issue to raise the $7.7 million local match without being able to say the $16.3 million state share is a sure thing. The district hasn’t passed a bond issue since 1964.

(Enrollment data taken from Department of Education 2009 statistics.)

Mapleton Public Schools Skyline campus

Like North Routt, Mapleton received a BEST award last year but couldn’t use the money because voters defeated a $30 million bond issue by only a few votes.

Mapleton’s latest application proposed only a $10.7 million local match, about half the $21 million required by the state’s formula for matching. Construction board members weren’t comfortable with that and rejected Mapleton’s waiver letter, thereby requiring the full match.

Superintendent Charlotte Ciancio, who attended all three days of the board’s hearings, wasn’t happy with the board’s decision, telling Education News Colorado “It puts us at a disadvantage” when seeking another bond issue this November. “We will go back and try again,” she said.

Ciancio said the district believes that the state’s matching calculations aren’t accurate in Mapleton’s case.

The Division of Public School Capital Construction Assistance calculates required matches based on a district’s assessed value per pupil relative to the state average;  median household income relative to the state average; bond redemption fund mill levy relative to the statewide average; the percentage of pupils eligible for free and/or reduced-cost lunch; and bond election effort and success over the last 10 years.

Districts can request waivers from the match formula, and the board has discretion to grant or reject those.

After having given it a preliminary OK Tuesday, the board Wednesday dropped an $18.7 million new-school request from the Rocky Mountain Deaf Charter School in Jefferson County, which serves about 40 students from several districts. The board was concerned that the request was for a new building that could serve four times as many students.

Other proposals that never made the cut included applications from Denver, Aurora, the Odyssey Charter School in DPS, Sheridan, Westminster, Otis, Pueblo County, the Pikes Peak BOCES, Falcon, Florence, the Ross Montessori School in Carbondale, the Eagle County Charter, the West End District at Nucla.

The total lease-purchase package recommended by the board is $165.5 million state money and $66.8 million in local matches. An additional $5 million in state money will be held in reserve to pay federal prevailing wages where required by federal law.

The BEST program is funded by revenues from state school lands and some Lottery funds. The program so far has awarded nearly $311.4 million to 69 projects in 57 districts, which have provided $98.6 million in matching funds. Advisors to the program estimate about $342 million will be available for lease-purchase grants in 2011-12 and 2012-13. After that most of the annual BEST revenue will have to be used for paying previous projects.

The board also approved spending of about $11.3 million of state money in 35 cash grants to school districts for smaller projects such as fire alarm upgrades, new heating and air conditioning systems and roof repairs. That package includes an additional $8.5 million in local matches. (See CDE list of all cash projects.)

There were 102 applicants for cash and lease-purchase projects.

This story was corrected on July 1 to include additional information.

Division of Public School Capital Construction Assistance

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.