School Finance

Panel: Mourning Amendment 66 clouds next steps for school finance

Too soon.

That’s the message from supporters of Amendment 66 who are still reeling from their loss at the ballot box earlier this month when voters rejected a tax increase in order to finance a school finance overhaul law.

The symbolic corpse of Amendment 66 is cold enough for a political autopsy — and there have been several (here, here and here) — but it’s still too early in the mourning process to articulate how the state should move on and implement some or all of the reforms outlined by the ballot measure and its companion legislation, Senate Bill 213, supporters said Tuesday night.

A panel including, from left, Sheridan Schools Superintendent Mike Clough, Denver Preschool Program CEO Jennifer Landrum, Littleton Public School Superintendent Scott Murphy and State Sen. Mike Johnston couldn't answer, specifically, how the state should move forward after voters rejected an income tax increase to overhaul education funding. Photo by Maura Walz
A panel including, from left, Sheridan Schools Superintendent Mike Clough, Denver Preschool Program CEO Jennifer Landrum, Littleton Public School Superintendent Scott Murphy and State Sen. Mike Johnston couldn’t answer, specifically, how the state should move forward after voters rejected an income tax increase to overhaul education funding. Photo by Maura Walz

“I’m still so disappointed,” said Denver Preschool Program CEO Jennifer Landrum. “I loved the whole package. I don’t want to think about having to take it apart.”

Landrum was a panelist attempting to address how Colorado should move forward after voters patently rejected the tax increase by 66 percent.

If the amendment had passed Colorado’s flat income tax rate would have risen to 5 percent on incomes up to $75,000. Income above $75,000 would have been taxed at 5.9 percent. The extra money would have funded the school finance overhaul and provided for such things like full day kindergarten and funding for charter schools, funneled money to impoverished school districts, and changed how districts calculate their student enrollment among other changes.

Colorado’s income tax remains at 4.63 percent.

Onlookers called the married amendment and legislation, authored by State Sen. Mike Johnston, who also sat on Tuesday’s panel, the most progressive school finance reform effort in the nation.

Now backers face the reality they “can’t do it all,” Littleton Public School Superintendent Scott Murphy said.

The panel, at the University of Colorado Denver’s School for Public Affairs, was produced by EdNews Colorado.

Johnston would not elaborate on any specific legislation he plans on authoring in the 2014 legislature. And other panelists were hesitant to single out one specific piece of the legislation they believe could stand and be funded in a silo.

“For me there is nothing I’d want to give up (in SB 213).” Johnston, a Denver Democrat, said. “The question has to be, ‘What are the steps to achieve the full vision?'”

Gut reaction after the failure of Amendment 66 was that funding for education initiatives in Colorado would lie in the hands of local, not statewide, electorates.

That sentiment was echoed at Tuesday’s forum. But many panelists fear that scenario will only further the financial gap between large urban districts and small rural ones.

“I don’t think we’ll get there,” Murphy said.

Part of relationship between Amendment 66 and SB 213 was more funding for small and rural school districts, which, as Sheridan Schools Superintendent Mike Clough said, “have cut to the bone.”

The Sheridan district was banking on money from the passage of the ballot question, Clough said.

“We can expect to see larger classes sizes. We’ve already lost our consumer and family studies program. The challenges will keep coming until we find a way to address this,” Clough said. “The smaller you get, the more you feel the pinch.”

Urban districts aren’t that better off, Superintendent Murphy and Colorado Children’s Campaign Vice President Reilly Pharo said.

“There are a lot of unknowns for all of us,” Murphy said. Reserve funds at large districts have been spent down since the Great Recession and supplemental money from federal grants are drying up too.

Colorado is one of a few states with a growing student population, and those students are likely to be English language learners and living in poverty Pharo said.

“How we serve underprivileged kids is paramount in the conversation,” she said.

The postmortem did not impress Jeffco mother Rachael Strickland.

She had hopped to hear more solutions from the panel. She opposed the amendment because of, what she called, attached strings.

“We should be funding our neighborhood schools,” she said. “I don’t agree with the distribution of the money to charter and online schools. When you have funding tied to reforms parents don’t support, you’re going to see us vote ‘no.'”

new money

House budget draft sends more money to schools, but not specifically to teacher raises

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Despite months of heated debate, Indiana House Republicans are not setting aside extra dollars for meaningful teacher raises in their version of the state’s $14.5 billion education budget plan released Monday night.

Even though lawmakers are proposing preserving a controversial merit-based bonus pool and adding small amounts for teacher training programs, their budget draft would largely leave it up to school districts to dole out raises through increased overall funding.

The budget draft proposes increasing what Indiana spends on schools overall by $461 million — or 4.3 percent — through 2021, a little more than increases in years past. The basic per-student funding that all districts get would jump from $5,352 per student this year to $5,442 per student in 2020 and $5,549 per student in 2021. House lawmakers are also adding in a one-time payment of $150 million from state reserves that would pay down a pension liability for schools. But while lawmakers and Gov. Eric Holcomb have said that pension payment would free up about $70 million in schools’ budgets each year, the state likely wouldn’t require the cost-savings be passed along to teachers.

Although increasing teacher pay is a top goal for House Republicans, lawmakers have crafted bills that hinge on districts spending less money in areas such as administration or transportation rather than adding more money to school budgets and earmarking it for teacher salaries.

Their criticism of school spending has raised the ire of superintendents and educators who say they have little left to cut after years of increasing costs and state revenue that has barely kept pace with inflation.

But budget draft, which is expected to be presented to and voted on by the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday, doesn’t completely omit efforts to incentivize teachers to stick around. Unlike Holcomb’s budget proposal, House lawmakers are keeping in the current appropriation of $30 million per year for teacher bonuses.

The House budget draft would also set aside $1 million over two years for a teacher residency pilot program and $5 million over two years for schools that put in place career ladder programs that allow teachers to gain skills and opportunities without leaving the classroom.

Teacher advocacy groups, such as the Indiana State Teachers Association and Teach Plus, have been supportive of residency and career ladder programs, but the organizations have also called for more action this year to get dollars to teachers. Additionally, the ideas aren’t new — similar programs have been proposed in years past.

Calls for the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take to raise teacher salaries to be more in line with surrounding states will likely go unheeded for now as the state instead prioritizes other high-profile and expensive agencies, such as the Department of Child Services and Medicaid.

But while plans for major teacher pay raises appear to be on hold, House lawmakers are looking to boost funding in other areas of education to support some of the state’s most vulnerable students.

The budget draft would increase what the state must spend on preschool programs for students with disabilities from the current $2,750 per-student to $2,875 in 2020 and $3,000 in 2021 — the first such increase in more than 25 years.

House lawmakers are also proposing the state spend more money on students learning English as a new language, at $325 per student up from $300 per student now. While all schools with English learners would receive more money per student under this plan, the new budget draft removes a provision that had previously allocated extra dollars to schools with higher concentrations of English learners.

A 2017 calculation error and an uptick in interested schools meant state lawmakers did not budget enough money for schools with larger shares of English-learners in the last budget cycle, so they ended up getting far less than what the state had promised. But even the small increases were valuable, educators told Chalkbeat.

House lawmakers also suggested slashing funding for virtual programs run by traditional public school districts. Going forward, funding for both virtual charter schools and virtual schools within school districts would come in at 90 percent of what traditional schools receive from the state — now, only virtual charter schools are at the 90 percent level. It’s a marked change for House lawmakers, who in years past have asked that virtual charter school funding be increased to 100 percent.

The virtual funding proposal comes as lawmakers are considering bills that would add regulations for the troubled schools, where few students pass state exams or graduate.

The budget draft also includes:

  • $5 million per year added to school safety grants, totaling $19 million in 2020 and $24 million in 2021
  • Doubling grants for high-performing charter schools from $500 per student to $1,000 per student, at a cost of about $32 million over two years. The money is a way for charter schools to make up for not receiving local property tax dollars like district schools, lawmakers say.
  • $4 million per year more to expand the state’s private school voucher program to increase funding for certain families above the poverty line. Under the plan, a family of four making between $46,000 and $58,000 annually could receive a voucher for 70 percent of what public schools would have received in state funding for the student. Currently, those families receive a 50 percent voucher.
  • About $33 million over two years (up from about $25 million) for the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program.

state of the state

Whitmer: Michigan needs ‘bold’ changes to fix schools — not just more money

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her first State of the State address on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Michigan’s new governor called for “bold” changes to the way schools are funded — though she’s not saying what those changes could be.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who took office last month, devoted a large part of her first State of the State Address on Tuesday night decrying a “crisis” in education defined by alarming declines in childhood literacy.

Those declines can’t be blamed on students or schools, she said.

“Our students are not broken,” she said. “Our teachers are not broken. Our system has been broken … And greater investment alone won’t be enough.”

Whitmer offered no specifics about the reform she wants to see, but said she didn’t think incremental changes would be enough to fix Michigan schools.

“Phony fixes won’t solve the problems,” she said.

“A government that doesn’t work today can’t get the job done for tomorrow,” she said. “That ends now. As a state, we must make the bold choice so we can build a stronger Michigan.”

Whitmer is expected to propose her first state budget next month. She said that budget will “give our frontline educators the tools they need to address the literacy crisis.”

Her comments come amid a growing chorus from education and business leaders across the state who have called for funding schools differently, giving schools more money for students who cost more to educate, such as those who are learning English or living in poverty. That would be a departure from Michigan’s current system of giving schools largely the same amount per student, regardless of that student’s needs or background.

A report from Michigan State University last month found that Michigan had seen the largest education funding decline in the nation since 2002 and currently has one of the nation’s lowest funding levels for students with disabilities.

Changing school funding could pose a challenge to a Democrat working with a Republican-controlled legislature.

Whitmer’s hourlong speech was greeted warmly by Democrats who cheered her policy proposals but drew less support from people across the aisle.

At one point, she seemed concerned that only Democrats stood to applaud a line about “generations of leadership” failing Michigan children.

“I know Republicans love education, don’t you?” she asked.  

Whitmer invited Marla Williams, who teaches special education at Detroit’s Davison Elementary School, to the speech. She praised her for “tireless” advocacy that includes visiting children when they’re sick and doing their laundry.

“That’s because she — like so many Michigan educators — knows teaching is more than a career. It’s a calling,” Whitmer said. “I want to send a message to all the devoted educators across Michigan: You’re not failing us. We have been failing you.”

Detroit teacher Marla Williams waves during Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address.

The only specific education policy proposals Whitmer offered in her speech involved helping high school graduates attain career certificates or college degrees.

She proposed a scholarship program called MI Opportunity Scholarship that would guarantee two years of debt-free community college to qualified high school graduates.

Whitmer said this would make Michigan the first midwestern state to guarantee community college to all residents, but the impact would be minimal in the 15 cities — including Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo — that already offer free community college through Promise scholarships.

Whitmer’s proposed scholarship would also provide two years of tuition assistance to students seeking four-year degrees at nonprofit colleges and universities. She said the option would be available to all Michigan students who graduate with a B average.

The Detroit Promise scholarship pays the four-year tuition for students who earn a 3.0 grade point average and score above a 21 on the ACT, or a 1060 on the SAT.

Whitmer’s scholarship proposal bears some similarities to a popular Michigan scholarship called the Michigan Merit Award that gave scholarships to students who earned high scores on a state exam. That program was cut from the state budget over a decade ago.