Statehouse roundup

Online bill started with study, now proposes yet another study

Key bills related to online education and gifted and talented programs ran into headwinds Wednesday as nearly two dozen education bills were in play on the floor and in committee at the Capitol.

The day’s frantic pace of activity highlighted the perils some bills face and the surprises that pop up as lawmakers scramble to work through long calendars at the end of the session.

Sponsors of House Bill 14-1382, who saw the breadth of concern about their bill during a hearing earlier in the week, returned to the House Education Committee with a rewrite designed to soften objections.

“We hope we have captured their concerns and addressed them,” said Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley.

The major issue with the original bill by Young and Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, was a recommendation that the Department of Education be stripped of its authority to certify multi-district online schools and instead set requirements for and oversee school districts that authorize online programs. (See this story for more details about the bill and about Monday’s hearing on the measure.)

The Young/Wilson rewrite, which the committee approved 8-5, now merely would set up a task force to study authorization of multi-district online programs. Ironically, the bill itself largely was the product of small task force that Young, Wilson and two senators convened in late January to come up with possible legislation this year. Now it looks like the issue will be tossed to the 2015 legislature – if HB 14-1382 survives another House committee, floor debate and review by the Senate – all in the next two weeks. (Read the amended version of the bill here.)

Regulation of online education is a notoriously tricky issue, given the vocal and competing interest groups and the skilled lobbyists involved. There are longstanding concerns about the quality of some online programs, but no new legislation on the issue has been passed in several years, despite repeated promises by some lawmakers to pursue reforms.

Other bills stand on shaky ground

No education bills were killed Wednesday, and none took quite the haircut HB 14-1382 experienced, but other measures do face uncertain futures.

Some witnesses in the Senate Education Committee had plenty of criticism for House Bill 14-1102, a proposal that would increase funding for gifted and talented programs, require screening of all Colorado students for gifted and talented eligibility and require all districts to have certified coordinators for such programs.

Representatives from the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Association of School Executives, the Colorado Education Association and the Colorado BOCES Association were out in force, urging the bill be defeated.

“Our schools don’t need more mandates, they need more resources,” said Michelle Murphy, a lawyer who represents CASB.

Sponsor Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, announced before the hearing started that the committee wouldn’t vote Wednesday because he’s still working on amendments. (Kerr also chairs Senate Education.) The committee next meets on Thursday. Get more details on the bill in this legislative staff summary.

House Education passed two bills whose futures are uncertain.

House Bill 14-1376, a recently introduced measure, would require the Department of Education to analyze student “opportunity gaps” by gathering and reporting data on how students, broken out by ethnicity and other characteristics, are assigned to and perform in various core high school courses. (Get details on the bill here.)

The committee passed the bill 7-5. District lobbyists would like the bill at least to be amended so that it’s voluntary, not mandatory. Because most of the key lobbyists were tied up in Senate Education opposing the gifted and talented bill, they hope to amend or kill House Bill 14-1376 in the House Appropriations Committee or in the Senate.

House Education also voted 12-1 to send House Bill 14-1139 to the appropriations panel. The measure would require the state convert to the average daily membership method of counting enrollment. Approval of the bill is considered to be a courtesy to sponsor Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, by his fellow education committee members, and the bill isn’t expected to survive appropriations. Average daily membership originally also was part of House Bill 14-1292, the Student Success Act, but that’s been stripped from the bill, and ADM is considered to be a dead issue this session.

Amid the hubbub, other bills advance

Senate Education did pass three bills Wednesday.

House Bill 14-1287 would allow earmarking of some Building Excellent Schools Today funds for schools damaged by natural disasters, House Bill 14-1175 would require a study of minority teacher recruitment and retention, and House Bill 14-1294 would impose various student data security requirements on the Department of Education.

Some Republicans – and citizen activists – don’t think that bill goes far enough, but the legislature isn’t expected to pass anything more stringent this year.

About half a dozen education-related bills were laid over Wednesday, some because there wasn’t time during floor sessions or for additional work on amendments.

GOP senators oppose toothless immunization bill

The amended version of House Bill 14-1288 doesn’t impose any requirements on parents who choose not to have their children vaccinated, but that didn’t prevent a couple of Republican senators from seeing a threat to freedom in the measure.

Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, even appeared to question the science behind vaccinations, using phrases like “scientifically unproven,” “not actually serving the best interests of our kids” and “somehow assuming the science is settled” in urging colleagues to vote no.

Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, was skeptical of the bill’s requirement that the Department of Public Health and Environment set up an immunization information website. “The information I see from health officials is not complete … it gives you half the story.”

Several Democrats spoke in support of the bill, which in its current form sets up the education website and also requires schools collect and report data about the percentages of students who aren’t immunized. A Senate committee earlier stripped a provision that required parents who choose to opt out receive educational information before doing so.

With the rhetoric exhausted, the Senate voted 19-16 to pass the bill, with Sen. Ellen Roberts of Durango the only Republican yes vote. The bill now returns to the House, where sponsor Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, said he won’t fight to keep the education requirement on the measure, according to The Associated Press.

All 17 Republicans voted against two other measures up for final consideration Wednesday, but the bills passed with support from all 18 Democrats.

Senate Bill 14-182 would require that school boards keep executive session minutes that include the subjects discussed and the amount of time spent on each. (An earlier bill that also included requirements for audio recording passed he House but was killed in a Senate Committee because of lack of support.)

Senate Bill 14-185 would create the Pay for Success Contracts for Early Childhood Education Services Program which would allow the Office of State Planning and Budgeting and school districts to contract with providers of early childhood development services – and then pay them later with savings realized from the program’s success.

On the way to the governor

The Senate gave 35-0 final approval to two House bills that weren’t amended in the Senate, so they now go directly to the governor for consideration. They are:

House Bill 14-1314 would require that charter schools be formally involved in district planning for tax override elections. But the measure leaves the final decision to school boards on whether to share new revenues with charters. The bill mirrors existing law requiring charters to be involved in planning for bond issues.

House Bill 14-1204 is intended to give small rural districts some modest relief from Department of Education paperwork requirements. Primarily it would allow such districts that are in the two highest state accreditation categories to file performance plans every two years instead of annually.

Civil action

Detroit school board to protesters: Please remain civil. Protesters to school board: You’re naive

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore speaks with her supporters from the stage at Mumford High School. Her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to the meeting's abrupt ending.

A day after the Detroit school board abruptly ended a meeting that was disrupted by protesters, the meeting is being rescheduled, while the board president is making an appeal for civility.

“The board is extremely disappointed that the regularly scheduled meeting tonight was adjourned early due to extreme disruptive behavior from several audience members,” school board president Iris Taylor wrote in a statement issued late Tuesday, several hours after the meeting’s chaotic end.

“It is our hope moving forward that the community will remain civil and respectful of the elected Board and the process to conduct public meetings. We must be allowed to conduct the business the community elected us to do.”

The drama Tuesday night came from a large group of parents and community members, led by activist Helen Moore, who packed the board meeting to raise concerns about a number of issues.

Moore had sent the school board an email requesting an opportunity to address the meeting Tuesday on issues including her strong objection to the news that Taylor and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti had attended a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan and leaders of city charter schools to discuss the possibility of working together.

The mayor, in his state of the city address last week, discussed the meeting, calling it “almost historic,” and said district and charter school leaders had agreed to collaborate on a student transportation effort, and on a school rating system that would assign letter grades to Detroit district and charter schools.

When Taylor told Moore during the meeting that she would not be allowed to give her presentation Tuesday night, saying she had not gotten Moore’s request in time to put it on Tuesday’s agenda, Moore and her supporters angrily shouted at the board and proceeded to heckle and object to statements during the meeting.

The meeting was ultimately ended during a discussion about the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, a school whose classes are being relocated to other district buildings for the rest of the year because of urgent roof repairs and the possibility of mold in the building.

As Moore shouted over Vitti’s discussion about the school, Taylor ordered that the 81-year-old activist be escorted from the Mumford High School auditorium where the meeting was being held. That triggered an angry response from her supporters and ultimately brought the meeting to a close.

The current Detroit school board came into existence a little over a year ago when the state returned city schools to Detroiters after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

The board’s swearing-in last January was heralded as a fresh start for a new district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — that had been freed from years of debts encumbered by the old Detroit Public Schools.

Since then, meetings have been interrupted by the occasional heckler or protester, but they’ve largely remained orderly, without a lot of the noise and drama that had been typical of school board meetings in the past.

In her statement Tuesday night, Taylor lamented that the new school board wasn’t able to get to most of the items on its agenda.

“Detroiters have fought long and hard to have a locally elected board to govern our schools,” Taylor wrote. “It would be shameful to have our rights revoked again for impediments. It sets a poor example for the students we all represent, and it will not be tolerated by this Board.”

Wednesday morning, Moore said she plans to continue her vocal advocacy, even if it’s disruptive.

“If that’s the only avenue we have to get our point across, when they don’t allow us to speak, then we must take every avenue,” Moore said. “Time is of the essence with our children. And they spend too much time with distractions, listening to the mayor, listening to the corporations, and not listening to people who have children in the public schools.”

Moore, who is active with an organization called Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition and with the National Action Network, said she fought for years for Detroiters to again have a locally elected school board. City residents did not have control of their schools for most of the last two decades.

“We worked like crazy,” Moore said, but she asserts that most school board members are “naive.”

“They don’t know the history,” she said. “They need to be educated and that goes for Dr. Vitti too. We need to educate them and that was a first start.”

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 12:30 p.m. Thursday at its Fisher Building headquarters where it can return to its unfinished business from Tuesday.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore waved to her fellow activisits from the stage at Mumford High School. She returned to the room after her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to a school board meeting’s abrupt ending on March 13, 2018.

parent voice

It’s not enough just to stay open, say Memphis parents of their struggling elementary school

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Sonya Smith, a longtime community organizer in Memphis Frayser, speaks to parents at Hawkins Mill Elementary School on Thursday during a community meeting about state intervention plans.

For six years, Hawkins Mill Elementary School has been on the state’s radar because of students’ low scores on standardized tests — an issue cited again last month when Tennessee officials urged local leaders to close the Memphis school.

Shelby County Schools is passing on that recommendation, but agrees with the state on one thing: Hawkins Mill faces big challenges, including declining enrollment and a mostly impoverished student population.

Now the question is what to do about it. Among the issues is whether Principal Antonio Harvey should stay on for a sixth year, and if the district’s first $300,000 investment in Hawkins Mill went toward the right interventions this school year.

During a Thursday evening meeting, about 50 parents and community members got their first opportunity to ask questions about competing visions for their Frayser school.

What parents like

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Antonio Harvey, front, and parents listen to a Shelby County Schools presentation on the state’s new accountability model.

Parents applauded the district’s stance to keep Hawkins Mill open, in defiance of the state’s recommendation, in order to give their school a fair chance to improve.

Many also spoke in favor of Harvey, describing him as a stabilizing and nurturing force who has ushered in new opportunities in the arts, sports, and other extracurricular activities. The school’s suspension rate also has declined in recent years, except for a slight uptick last year.

“I saw how he took unruly, disrespectful kids and they shake his hand now. He sits down and talks to them. … We’re constantly adding programs,” said PTA member Sharanda Person. “Doing things that way makes me think he cares about the kids.”

Several spoke favorably of their children’s school experience.

“Since she’s been here, I’ve seen exponential growth,” said Tonyas Mays, who transferred her daughter from a state-run school last August. “My child’s potential has been recognized here and she’s testing out of (special education) now.”

What parents didn’t like

A presentation on the low percentages of students on grade level in reading and math drew moans from parents as the data was explained by Antonio Burt, the district’s assistant superintendent for its lowest performing schools.

Notes: 2013-14 science and 2014-15 social studies test scores were not listed in the state report card. Elementary students did not take TNReady in 2015-16. The 2016-17 social studies test did not count toward school accountability measures.

But some questioned the validity of the state’s new test called TNReady, which has been marred by technical glitches in administration and scoring during its first two years.

“The state of Tennessee has made excuses as to why the test wasn’t ready. They get a pass while our children don’t,” said Sonya Smith, a community organizer. “Every time our children meet the test, they tell us that test was no good.”

Another disappointment is declining enrollment. Hawkins Mill had 357 students when Harvey started in the fall of 2013. Last month, enrollment was at 314.

What parents aren’t sure of

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Antonio Burt, assistant superintendent for low-performing schools, speaks to parents.

Burt said some assessments and attendance data show “some positive trends” this school year.

His presentation was void of nitty-gritty detail on progress as outlined under the school improvement plan that went to effect this school year. However, information provided to Chalkbeat on Friday showed that student growth this school year was higher than average in reading and math — a measure key to showing whether students can catch up. Also, the school’s suspension rate so far this school year is about 4 percent of students, compared to almost 13 percent at this time last year.

Several parents asked whether Harvey would remain as principal, worrying that a new leader could set the school back because of the adjustment in getting to know the students and faculty.

Burt responded that leadership is being reviewed, but that no decisions have been made. “To be completely transparent, we have to reassess everything,” he said.

Because Hawkins Mill is a priority school on track for state intervention, the state Department of Education must approve any plan outside of its recommendation to close.

The school is slated to continue under Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them. District leaders are still discussing the amount of new funding and where to invest it.

Burt thinks the district’s plan has a “50/50 chance” of state approval since it’s new.