School Finance

Superintendents ponder the path forward

State policymakers got a message Tuesday from some key Colorado superintendents – time and flexibility are needed to effectively implement education reform programs.

Superintendent forum
Ten Colorado superintendents participated in the PEBC’s annual Superintendent Forum.

The comments came during the Public Education & Business Coalition’s annual Superintendent Forum. The session started, as have most education gatherings in recent weeks, with discussion of Amendment 66’s defeat.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg called the financial issues facing school districts “an enormous challenge right now.” He added, “We should get away from this silly debate about should there be more funding or should there be more reform.”

While the panelists generally agreed that schools need more financial resources, a lot of the conversation was about the need for time – and district flexibility — to thoughtfully implement school change.

Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson noted that districts are facing “multiple reforms, none of them bad,” but implementing several things at once is “resource intensive and time intensive.

“Our failing as a state is we say, here’s a reform to implement, and we’re not going to give you any resources.”

Some panelists said educational change has been too top down.

“The cumulative effect of the well-intentioned legislation … has been very challenging to my school district,” said Dougco Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen. “We’re mandated to do a lot of things we don’t feel are the right things. … I would roll back some of that.”

Littleton Superintendent Scott Murphy said, “There’s a great deal of power in letting each community” decide its course, and Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said, “Too often our friends in the legislature” rely on simplistic solutions.

Boulder Valley Superintendent Bruce Messinger picked up the same theme, saying, “There’s been an insensitivity to what’s going on locally.”

Other issues the superintendents touched on included:

strong>Education reform – “Our challenge is trying to find common ground on what reform is trying to achieve,” said St. Vrain Superintendent Don Haddad. “There’s a disconnect with some of the reforms” and what’s actually happening in classrooms, he added.

Common Core Standards – Celania-Fagen said, “The Common Core is an improvement but insufficient. [It’s] not high enough for what we’re aiming for in Douglas County.” Boasberg said, “The standards are right [but] it’s a matter of providing the kinds of supports” teachers need to use the standards effectively.

Early childhood education – Noting that A66 and its companion legislation, Senate Bill 13-213, would have imposed significant facilities costs on districts for preschool and full-day kindergarten, Celania-Fagen noted that nevertheless “We’re going to have to find ways to do that.”

Poudre Superintendent Sandra Smyser said early childhood education is “a huge part of how we close the achievement gap. … That’s a big conversation for the state.”

Also participating in Tuesday’s event were Cherry Creek Superintendent Harry Bull and Adams 12 Superintendent Chris Gdowski. The discussion was moderating by Donna Lynne, president of Kaiser Permanente Colorado.

$$ and schools

Memphis philanthropists, school leaders talk funding strategies at D.C. forum

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Philanthropic and education leaders from 16 cities, including Memphis, attended a forum Oct. 5 in the nation's capital hosted by the DC Public Education Fund.

Memphis school and philanthropic leaders were in the nation’s capital Thursday to hear how a local philanthropic group has raised $120 million for school initiatives in Washington, D.C.

The Memphis contingent joined representatives from 16 other cities at a one-day forum hosted by the DC Public Education Fund on its 10th anniversary. The goal was to learn about how private donors have contributed to a decade of growth in District of Columbia Public Schools, its organizers said.

Memphis has an active philanthropic community seeking to improve the quality of public education through Shelby County Schools, the state-run Achievement School District, and the city’s charter schools. Millions of dollars in education grants from national organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Walton Family Foundation also have flowed into the city. This month, the last of a $90 million Gates grant that launched in 2009 for teacher and leader development will dry up for Shelby County Schools. (The Gates and Walton foundations also support Chalkbeat.)

Here’s how $90 million from Bill Gates spurred sweeping changes in Memphis

In recent years, Memphis philanthropists have sought to become more coordinated in their investments through the Memphis Education Fund, formerly known as Teacher Town. It’s considered a younger peer to the DC Public Education Fund, and both act as an intermediaries between their cities’ school systems and philanthropies. The older D.C. organization works closely with D.C. Public Schools to identify needs and fill them in collaboration with foundations.

The forum’s speakers included D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson and two of his predecessors, Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson, who brought sweeping reforms to the district from 2007 to 2016.

The forum was meant to “reflect on a decade of transformation and to celebrate DCPS’ progress as the fastest-improving school district in the nation,” said Jessica Rauch, executive director and president of the DC fund. “Other cities are coming to learn from our partnership model and, we hope, will be inspired to implement some parts of our approach in their home cities.”

That means more than just writing checks. The agenda included strategies for supporting innovations in curriculum, celebrating excellent educators, empowering males of color, and partnering with families to accelerate student learning.

The gathering of philanthropic and school leaders took place at the newly modernized Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, the nation’s first public high school for black students.

study says...

Democratic governors boost funding for schools with more black, Hispanic students. (Test scores, not so much.)

PHOTO: Andy Cross, The Denver Post

Elections have consequences, goes the common saying — and that turns out to be true in schools.

A new study finds that electing a Democrat for governor leads to more money being spent in districts with more students of color, though there’s no evidence that meant higher test scores or smaller achievement gaps.

“School districts with a high share of minority students receive significantly greater transfers from the state government than other districts when a Democrat is elected,” write researchers Andrew Hill and Daniel Jones in the peer-reviewed Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization.

It’s one of only a few studies to directly examine how politicians’ partisan affiliation affects education policy. Another recent analysis found that Democratic school board members in North Carolina led to more racially integrated schools.

Of course, state governors don’t unilaterally make education policy, but they are likely to have significant sway, as this study suggests.

In order to isolate the effect of electing a Democrat versus a Republican, the latest study looks at governors’ races between 1990 and 2013; the paper focuses on 67 closely decided races of the nearly 300 elections. The idea of this common research approach is that the results of a narrowly decided election are essentially random.

First the researchers look at whether a governor’s party led to a greater overall increase in education spending. The effects here were modest: Democratic governors increased K-12 spending by about $100 per person more than Republicans, though there was no difference in higher education expenditures.

But when looking at how resources were distributed — rather than how much money was spent overall — the results were more stark.

Electing a Democratic governor led to an increase of about $500 per student for districts with a majority of black and Hispanic students, relative to whiter districts, simply because under them the money was distributed evenly between high-minority and whiter districts. In contrast, under Republicans total spending was higher in whiter districts.

Similarly, the study finds that Democratic governors targeted additional money to colleges and universities that serve more students of color.

So did this this distribution of spending lead to higher achievement or smaller test score gaps? Apparently not, according to the researchers’ analysis of the federal NAEP test.

“We find no evidence that a Democratic governor leads to higher NAEP scores during her term,” Hill and Jones write. “Moreover, despite the large shift in funds to school districts with a large share of minority students, we do not observe a shrinkage of the black-white score gap.”

It’s not clear why that’s the case — and perhaps surprising in light of recent research showing that students benefit when more money is spent on schools.

It could be that other policy changes by governors swamp school spending effects, that gains from school spending take several years to manifest on NAEP, or that spending went to areas that might be beneficial but don’t show up in test scores. It’s also possible that the increase in spending was simply not an effective way to improve schools.

The paper also examines why governors from different parties distribute money differently — is it based on politics or policy? It looks to be more the latter. Democrats were not any more likely to send money to districts with higher share of Democratic voters or electorally competitive districts.

But in other respects governors do seem to be affected by politics. “Lame duck” Democrats — those in their final years in office who could not run for re-election — seemed to lead to a greater increase in overall spending.

K-12 education spending “increases when a Democratic governor is elected, and this increase is substantially larger during ‘lame duck’ terms,” the study says. “It seems as if governors are constrained by political considerations when increasing spending on elementary and secondary education; although it increases, their preferences might be for even larger increases.”