Early Childhood

At legislative kickoff, lawmakers ponder preschool, state board and Common Core

LegisOrgDayHouse
On Organization Day, Indiana legislative leaders annually gather for a mostly ceremonial start to the upcoming legislative session.

Will 2014 be another big year for new education laws? That’s hard to say.

As lawmakers began to pitch ideas today for the 2014 legislative session, opinions diverged on how much could be accomplished on hot education issues like the Common Core, preschool funding and discord on the Indiana State Board of Education.

Senate Education Committee chairman Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, doesn’t think education will be a big focus this time.

“I don’t have any priorities for education for session 2014,” he said. “I think we passed some pretty significant bills the past three years and I think it’s time to take a rest.”

But across the statehouse, House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said improving early childhood education and addressing the “skills gap” that he said leaves high school graduates ill-prepared for work and college, were two of his four top priorities for 2014.

He also hinted the legislature could wade into a dispute among state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, Gov. Mike Pence and the Indiana State Board of Education over who directs education policymaking.

“Our state’s constitution clearly gives that task to the elected legislative bodies in this chamber and the senate,” Bosma said.

The legislature officially began the new session Tuesday with its annual “organization day,” a mostly ceremonial event. Lawmakers begin their work in earnest when they next meet in early January.

Because 2014 is not a budget year — the two-year state budget is created in odd-numbered years — lawmakers said it is likely to have less action overall than 2013. But even without the ability to approve new spending initiatives it is possible the legislature could change direction, or move further ahead, on some education priorities.

Since 2011, education has been one of the hottest legislative issues. Many of the major changes over three years have come as lawmakers expanded charter school sponsoring, created and then expanded a private school voucher program, limited teacher union bargaining, overhauled teacher evaluation, ordered a reexamination of K-12 academic standards and changed A to F grading for schools.

Kruse said that’s enough, that he wants to focus on “minor issues” and avoid “heavy lifting.”

But Bosma said there was particular interest in exploring ways to expand preschool in the state. He and Kruse also elaborated how the saw lawmakers potentially addressing Common Core standards and the battle for control of the Indiana State Board of Education.

Here’s a look at what Bosma and Kruse had to say about three big issues for the legislature going into the session:

Preschool

Several key Republican leaders, and outside supporters such as the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, pushed hard in 2013 for the state to launch a small preschool pilot program that would have been a first.

Indiana is one of only 11 states that provides no state funding for preschool. The modest proposal called for $7 million per year over two years to pay for preschool for 1,000 low income children in five counties and study their success.

Bosma said he expected a similar proposal in 2014, this time with strong support from Gov. Mike Pence, who has said several times over the past few months that he is interested in exploring the issue.

“It’s particularly interesting to the governor,” he said. “We may be close to being on the same page.”

The bill containing the pilot program got off to a strong start, passing the house by a 93-6 vote last February. But when the bill emerged from the Senate Education Committee it had been stripped of all direct state funding for the pilot. The proposal ultimately was dropped in favor of a smaller program with a different design. At the time, Kruse said Republican committee members were wary about adding new funding for preschool and felt it was a lower priority than other education initiatives.

Screen Shot 2013-11-19 at 5.12.46 PM
PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat
House Speaker Brian Bosma

But Bosma said the pilot program could help prove the value of preschool to doubters among his colleagues.

“People throw roadblocks up here,” he said. “One of them is ‘it doesn’t help these kids and any improvement is gone after the third year.’ My thought was to generate data, show it to our folks and say this is making a difference in these kids’ lives.”

Even in a non-budget year in 2014, Bosma said he still thought there was a way to revisit the establishing the pilot.

“There’s a means to do it,” he said. “You can make it effective outside the budget cycle.”

State board

Bosma also suggested that the legislature could also step into the raging battle among Ritz, Pence and the state board. At the center of the tensions between Ritz and Pence is the Center for Education and Career Innovation (CECI), a center that Pence created after he was given funding by the legislature last year.

Pence created CECI to coordinate among the state board, the Education Roundtable and other education agencies in the state, using money that was redirected in part from the budget of the Ritz-run Indiana Department of Education in last year’s budget bill. Those dollars have helped fund a separate staff for the state board. Ritz chairs the  board and leads the education department. Since the creation of CECI, Ritz and other board members have battled over who can place items on the board’s agenda, call for reports and decide whether motions should be heard.

The tension exploded last week when Ritz abruptly ended a state board meeting and walked out rather than allow a vote on board member Brad Oliver’s resolution. Ritz said the resolution would have given CECI control over standards setting, a move she described as illegal.

“My first choice is, by agreement, we have everybody come together and say, ‘this is how we’re going to govern,’ ” Bosma said. “If we’re not going to be able to do that it is the legislature’s responsibility to set down those defining lines.”

For his part, Kruse was reluctant to see the legislature get involved in the state board controversy.

“I don’t think we should do anything,” he said. “I think we should let them work it out. They should man up, solve their differences and move forward.”

Ritz declined to comment.

Common Core

In the 2013 session, House Republicans resisted a push from the Senate to stop implementation of Common Core standards, academic guidelines that Indiana and 44 other states have agreed to follow. The state board made the Common Core Indiana’s official standards in 2010 without fanfare or controversy and the state has been phasing them in starting with low elementary grades. But opposition to the Common Core has built in the legislature over the past two years.

In a compromise last spring, Common Core was implemented along with Indiana’s old standards up through second grade while lawmakers ordered a yearlong reconsideration as to whether the state should stick with Common Core, return to its old standards or create new standards. Public hearings will be held next spring with a state board vote on what standards Indiana will follow must come by July.

Indiana critics of Common Core say the standards are less rigorous in some areas than the state’s well-regarded former standards. Others say adopting Common Core abdicates too much control over education to the U.S. Department of Education, which supports the new standards but didn’t have a formal role in creating them. Another criticism is that Common Core could lead to expanded standardized testing.

But supporters say the standards are better than what Indiana had before, that the state has flexibility under Common Core to keep elements of its prior standards if it wishes and that the state must adopt them to remain competitive, as college entrance exams will soon be aligned to the new standards.

Bosma advocated for Common Core standards with House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, last spring. But he told reporters Monday that the state needed to “move on” from the question of whether it should or should not adopt the Common Core.

Kruse, a former Common Core supporter who turned against the standards earlier this year, echoed that sentiment Tuesday, saying the process the legislature set in 2013 should play out, but he expected the state would be informed by the Common Core but create its own standards in the end.

“I think we want to have Indiana be independent and be in charge of our own education standards and even our own education tests,” he said.

NOTE: This post was updated to clarify that the preschool pilot program proposed in 2013 was implemented with a different design.

listening tour

We asked six Colorado school board members what they want from the state’s next governor. Here’s what they said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Late last week, nine candidates for Colorado governor came together to talk education, addressing an annual fall conference of school board members.

Now, we’re giving some of those audience members a chance to speak up.

Before the gubernatorial hopefuls took the stage, Chalkbeat recorded interviews with a half-dozen school board members who represent districts across the state. Our question to them: What are the big education questions you hope the next governor will take on?

Not surprisingly, funding challenges came up time and again.

One school board member asked for a more predictable budget. Another asked for schools to get their fair share of annual increases in new tax dollars. One went so far as to say the next governor would be a chicken if he or she didn’t take on reforming the state’s tax code.

We also heard a desire for leadership on solving teacher shortages, expanding vocational training and rethinking the state’s school accountability system.

Here are the six gubernatorial wishes we heard from Colorado’s school board members:

Reform TABOR to send more money to schools

Wendy Pottorff, Limon Public Schools

Since the Great Recession, Colorado schools have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while the state legislature has tried to close its education funding shortfall, lawmakers haven’t been able to keep up. Getting in the way, Pottorff says, is the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

Change the conversation about public schools


Paul Reich, Telluride School District

Reich says public schools are under attack under the false premise that they’re failing — and that isn’t helping the state recruit bright young teachers. He said the next governor must change the conversation about schools to make teaching a more desirable profession.

Provide a clear budget forecast

Anne Guettler, Garfield School District

Approving a school district’s budget is one of the many responsibilities of a Colorado school board. That’s a tall challenge when the state’s budget is constantly in flux, Guettler says. She hopes the next governor can help provide a clearer economic forecast for schools.

Rethink school accountability to include students and parents

Greg Piotraschke, Brighton 27J

Colorado schools are subject to annual quality reviews by the state’s education department. And it’s time for the state to rethink what defines a high-quality school, Piotraschke said. He suggested the governor could help rethink everything from how the state uses standardized tests to how to incorporate parents and students into the review process.

Give schools more resources to train the state’s high-tech workforce

Nora Brown, Colorado Springs District 11

In light of Colorado growing tech sector, several gubernatorial candidates have come out in support of more technical training for Colorado students. But that costs money, Brown says. The Colorado Springs school board member said promising better job training for high school students without more resources is empty.

Remember there’s a difference between urban and rural schools

Mark Hillman, Burlington School District

Crafting statewide policy is an onerous task in Colorado, given the diversity of the state’s 178 school districts. Hillman said the next governor must remember that any legislation he or she signs will play out 178 different ways, so they must be careful to not put more undue pressure on the state’s smallest school districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Five things we learned when Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates got on the same stage to talk about education

Colorado Republicans running for governor addressed some of the state's school board members at a forum hosted by the state's association of school boards. From left are George Brauchler, Steve Barlock, Greg Lopez, Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Nine Republicans and Democrats hoping to become Colorado’s next governor offered contrasting views Friday of the state’s public schools to an audience of more than 100 local school board members.

Most of the five Republicans told the crowd of locally elected officials — who are charged by the state’s constitution with governing Colorado’s public schools — that their programs were in need of improvement and innovation, and that they were there to help.

The four Democrats hoping to succeed fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, pledged to reform the state’s tax code to send more money to schools.

The candidates spoke at the annual fall delegation conference of the state’s association of school boards.It was the first forum of its kind to address education issues exclusively this election election cycle.

Unlike previous elections, Colorado’s public education system has been a key policy debate early in the campaign. Several candidates, especially Democrats, have worked on education issues before.

Here are our five takeaways from the forum:

The Republican candidates didn’t pull any punches when they said the state’s public schools were in need of improvement — and several said that they were the ones to do it.

From District Attorney George Brauchler to businessman Doug Robinson, every Republican candidate said one part or another of the state’s school system needed to do better.

“Education is life itself,” said former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell. “And there is no greater challenge facing our state than 50 percent of our at-risk kids who graduate can’t complete college-level course work.”

Both Mitchell and Robinson pointed to their experience as entrepreneurs as evidence that they could help set the state’s schools free of what they consider unnecessary red tape. Brauchler called for empowering teachers and parents.

Every Democrat and several Republicans agreed that the state’s schools were in a “funding crisis.” But they offered very different paths forward.

It was an easy question for Democrats. Businessman Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne were in lock-step that the state’s schools are in need of more money.

“If we don’t fundamentally solve this crisis, the rest of the issues don’t matter,” Johnston said.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne talk after a forum for gubernatorial candidates. Both are Democrats. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Johnston and Kennedy forcefully pledged to take on the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which limits how much tax revenue the state can collect and requires voter approval to raise taxes.

Lynne was more tempered. While she acknowledged tax reform was needed, she said wanted a legislative committee working on school finance to complete its work before suggesting any overhauls.

Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker and a small business owner, was the only GOP candidate who said he would take on the state’s complicated tax laws. If elected, he promised to establish a committee to send a reform proposal to voters.

Robinson and Brauchler acknowledged that schools were in a funding crunch. But they stopped short of saying they’d send more money to schools.

Mitchell said “he wasn’t sure” if there was a funding crisis, but added, “The system should be reformed before it’s fully funded.”

PERA, the state’s employee retirement program, could play a prominent issue in the election — especially for Republicans.

Earlier at the conference, school board members received a briefing on a proposed overhaul to the state’s retirement program, which includes school district employees.

While the situation is not as dire as it was a decade ago, the program’s governing board has become so increasingly worried about unfunded liabilities that it’s asking state lawmakers to pass a reform package to provide more financial stability.

Two Republicans, Brauchler and Steve Barlock, who co-chaired President Trump’s campaign in Colorado, said PERA was in crisis. Barlock warned school board members that their budgets were in jeopardy as lawmakers fiddle with the system.

Neither went into any detail about how they hoped to see the retirement program made more fiscally stable. But watch for this issue to gain greater traction on the campaign trail, especially as Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton ramps up his gubernatorial campaign, and as lawmakers begin to wrestle with PERA reforms next year. (Stapleton did not attend the forum.)

Some candidates offered careful responses to a question about school choice. Others, not so much.

Every Democrat and one Republican, Brauchler, said they respected a family’s right to choose the best school for their children. But that choice, they said, should not come at the expense of traditional, district-run schools.

“I’m concerned that we’d build a system where the success of some schools is coming at the expense of other schools,” Kennedy said.

Republicans strongly supported charter schools, and in some cases, vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools. Robinson called on creating new ways to authorize charter schools. Mitchell said he wanted to repeal a provision in the state’s constitution that has been used to rebuff private school vouchers.

There’s no party line over rural schools.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the state needed to step up to help its rural schools, which are typically underfunded compared to schools along the Front Range. They need more teachers, better infrastructure and fewer regulations, the candidates said.

“We need to get rural areas into the modern age,” Robinson said.