Equal funding for charter schools failed to gain enough traction in the 2016 legislative session. But Republican state Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, wants another crack at it in 2017.
And this time he’s got the backing of one of the nation’s heaviest hitters in conservative education reform — former Reagan Secretary of Education William Bennett.
Bennett and Hill held a conference call with Colorado reporters Tuesday to discuss the agenda for conservative education reform in 2017, a movement now bolstered by the election of President-elect Donald Trump and his pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos.
Bennett is the founder of Conservative Leaders for Education, or CL4E. He is attempting to rally support among state lawmakers and legislative education committee chairs, with a focus on making sure conservative ideas are included in state policy decisions. That would include implementation of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor to No Child Left Behind.
Bennett told reporters Tuesday that Hill was the first to sign up for the campaign. So far, lawmakers from nine states have joined, including the chairs of legislative education committees in Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Utah and Wisconsin.
Hill was among seven people CL4E recommended for Secretary of Education, a list that also included DeVos. The recommendation noted Hill homeschools his four children. “What a refreshing choice he would make!” the campaign said in a Nov. 18 news release.
The release also quoted Hill on the current education system, which he said should be focused on efforts at the state level, rather than by the federal Department of Education. Those efforts, as Hill sees it, should include “thousands of local community laboratories,” backed by private support, that can solve economic development needs as well as solve problems at the K-12 and higher education level. “Those ideas are transforming education,” Hill told The Colorado Independent Wednesday, which “flies in the face of how the federal government does things.”
He cited as examples two programs in the Colorado Springs area where local business supports training efforts at schools and community colleges, which, in turn, produce technicians and other trained staff who can work in those industries.
Karen Nussle, executive director of CL4E, said 2017 will bring in a “new paradigm” for how education policy will be set, with more accomplished at the state level than at the federal. Hill will play a major role in that, Nussle indicated. “We have been watching him for some time,” she said. “He was known among colleagues and thoughtful and caring about educational experience for all constituencies.”
Bennett believes CL4E will be at ground zero for education reform in 2017.
“I’ve never seen Washington do a good job of giving power back to the states,” Hill said during the conference call. “This isn’t a Democratic or Republican idea.” he went on to say, noting that he recently spent a week in Washington, and walked away frustrated that everyone was focused on telling states how to do their jobs on education.
“We’ve got a window” of opportunity to put more decision-making power back into the hands of teachers, parents and students, Hill said.
That includes continuing the push for school funding that will follow children, regardless of where they go to school, be it a charter, online school or traditional public school, Hill said. “If we’re willing to spend $12,000 per year on a child, it should be spent [where the child goes] no matter where they go.” Currently, charter schools received the same per-pupil funding from the state as traditional public schools. But charter schools don’t get a proportional share of per-pupil dollars that local school districts get from property taxes, bonds or mill levies. The Colorado League of Charter Schools estimate that charter schools must use about $660 per student to cover that gap, mostly to pay for school facilities.
Hill was careful to say that allowing dollars to follow the child does not include tax dollars going to private or religious schools. But that may be on the horizon, too. Bennett has been one of the nation’s leading advocates for the privatization of public education for the past 30 years, DeVos and her husband, William DeVos, have also been part of that movement.
Hill said he hopes to focus on rewarding good teachers, and also has ideas on how to solve the state’s teacher shortage. The Colorado Department of Education earlier this month reported the state is in the 6th year of a decline in the number of graduates in teacher education programs from the state’s colleges and universities. The number of graduates is down more than 24 percent in the last six years, the report said.
Hill noted that he can teach college-level economics – he holds a PhD in economics – but argued that he still can’t teach in a traditional neighborhood school. “We need to open that up to qualified motivated teachers,” he said. Teachers in charter schools aren’t required to be licensed by the state. The schools obtain waivers that allow anyone with a college degree to teach. Those waivers also can be obtained by traditional schools, and alternate licensure is also available to those who want to go into teaching.
The federal government has a role in education, particularly in the enforcement of federal law, Bennett said. But not, he said, in education performance. That, he said, should take place locally, in the hands of parents, teachers, administrators and other people “close to the ground,” such as state lawmakers.
Photo: State Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs