Colorado CapitolThe 2011 session of the Colorado General Assembly won’t go down in history as one that had a significant impact on education policy. But even quiet legislative sessions have consequences for the state’s schools and colleges.

Since the session adjourned May 11, Education News Colorado has been shifting through the bills that passed and the bills that failed to determine what impacts the session’s work might have on teachers and administrators, students and parents, school districts and college campuses.

Some themes were apparent even before the session convened Jan. 12. Budget cuts would be the top education issue, and there was little or no appetite for major education reform legislation while the state is broke and still digesting big initiatives enacted from 2008 to 2010.

But other patterns sometimes are hard to see during the hurly-burly of the session. Looking back, it turned out that noteworthy legislation affecting higher education and school safety were important parts of the legislature’s 2011 work.

Getting bills passed always involves compromise. But it seemed a little harder than usual to get bills passed intact in 2011. Virtually no bill of note passed this year without significant amendments, plenty of bills were amended almost beyond recognition and the percentage of education measures that died was somewhat higher than in 2010.

Several factors contributed to that, including split partisan control of the House and Senate, the reluctance to push new initiatives, lack of money for new programs and the fact that a new governor and lots of newly elected lawmakers were learning the ropes.

Here’s a review of what happened – and what didn’t happen – this year on key education issues:

Budget dominates the session

It took a lot of maneuvering, but the 2011 legislature did manage to cut K-12 spending less than had been feared and to keep higher education cuts within a range that colleges and universities had been planning for.

Total K-12 program funding for 2011-12 will be $5.21 billion, down $228.9 million, about 4.2 percent, from this year’s level. Average per pupil funding will drop about $344, from $6,811 this year to $6,497.

In February, Gov. John Hickenlooper had proposed a $332 million cut, setting off a frenzy of handwringing and efforts to shrink the reduction. There were a lot of jokes about “looking for spare change in the sofa cushions.”

Legislators floated all sorts of ideas to raise school cash, including a state match for school districts whose voters raised local taxes and even a beverage container deposit. Neither of those survived.

Two ideas that did survive include a tax amnesty next fall for delinquent taxpayers, raising an estimated $9.7 million for the State Education Fund (Senate Bill 11-184). The second proposal started with Senate Democrats as Senate Bill 11-001 but was realized by GOP Rep. Tom Massey, chair of the House Education Committee, and minority House Democrats as an amendment to the annual school finance act (Senate Bill 11-230).

Under that provision, an additional $67.5 million may be available to districts in early 2012 – if the 2010-11 state surplus is larger than expected after the budget year ends on June 30. That money would be available to districts to compensate for enrollment growth, increases in numbers of at-risk students and drops in local tax revenues, all things that won’t be calculated until next fall.

State colleges and universities were just happy they escaped without greater damage than they did. System leaders originally requested $555 million in state funding for 2011-12 but figured they could manage with any amount greater than $500 million.

Hickenlooper recommended $519 million, and that’s what the legislature approved as part of the main budget bill (Senate Bill 11-209).

That amount is $125 million below current year funding and $187 million less than the most recent high – $706 million in 2009-10.

Colleges and universities receive only about a quarter of their funding from the state; the majority now is raised from tuition, fees, federal funds and grants. Total higher ed spending of about $2.2 billion will be down modestly from the current level.

Budget bills that passed

  • Senate Bill 11-109 – Creation of a tax form check off to provide fund the state preschool program
  • Senate Bill 11-184 – Authorizing the tax amnesty
  • Senate Bill 11-209 – The long appropriations bill, including higher ed funding and basic K-12 support
  • Senate Bill 11-218 – Sweeping various small Department of Education funds into the State Education Fund
  • Senate Bill 11-226 – Additional transfers from various cash funds
  • Senate Bill 11-230 – The 2011-12 school finance act

Budget bills that died

  • House Bill 11-1247 – Imposition of a beverage container deposit to raise money for schools
  • Senate Bill 11-001 – Use of surplus revenues for schools (the concept was recycled into SB 11-230)
  • Senate Bill 11-233 – Gaming expansion for college scholarships
  • Senate Bill 11-259 – State match for certain district property tax increases

Performance funding in higher education

The most important policy bill that passed this year may be Senate Bill 11-052, the higher education performance-funding bill.

Colorado State University campus
Colorado State University campus in Fort Collins

But – and this is a big but – the system wouldn’t kick in until base state funding returns to $706 million a year and won’t go into effect until 2016-17 at the earliest. For now, the measures sets in motion an 18-month process of creating a new higher education master plan and a new system of performance contracts negotiated between the Colorado Commission on Higher Education and individual colleges and universities.

In a sense, the bill is a continuation of Senate Bill 10-003, the 2010 law that authorized a strategic planning committee whose work now leads into the new master plan. SB 10-003 also started a five-year period during which trustees and the CCHE, not the legislature, have control over tuition rates.

As originally drafted by Massey and Democratic Sen. Rollie Heath SB 11-052 would have phased in performance funding more quickly and didn’t contain a floor for base state funding. Higher ed leaders and lobbyists weren’t at all comfortable with that, and the final version of the bill is a good example of the kind of compromises that were necessary to get legislation passed this year.

Other higher ed bills passed this session continue trends that have been building for several years.

House Bill 11-1301, which surfaced late in the session with the backing of the University of Colorado, gives state college and universities additional management flexibility in a variety of areas, including setting and handling of student fees, creating non-profit auxiliaries, hiring, purchasing, employee benefits, technology management and construction. (This bill also required some compromises, specifically softening of provisions relating to the purchase of office furniture from correctional industries and to opting out of state health insurance plans.)

Other legislation passed this year ratified the changed roles of some state colleges, including a measure changing the name of Mesa State College to Colorado Mesa University, and a bill updating the graduate missions of Colorado State University-Pueblo and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

The higher ed bill that drew the most notice this year was Senate Bill 11-126, the emotion-laden proposal to grant undocumented students a form of resident tuition. The bill, pushed by Democratic Sens. Angela Giron and Michael Johnston, passed the Senate for the first time ever but died in a Republican-controlled House committee on a party-line vote.

Higher ed bills that passed

  • House Bill 11-1155 – Allows Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia to also serve as director of the Department of Higher Education
  • House Bill 11-1301 – Higher education financial flexibility
  • Senate Bill 11-052 – College and university performance funding
  • Senate Bill 11-100 – Continues the Council of Higher Education Representatives, the body that oversees credit transfer agreements in the state system
  • Senate Bill 11-204 – CSU-P and UCCS role and mission
  • Senate Bill 11-265 – Mesa State name change (Metro State also wanted to be in this bill but is delaying its proposed named change to Denver State University because of concerns by the University of Denver)

Higher ed bills that died

  • House Bill 11-1057 – Due process for adjunct faculty
  • House Bill 11-1168 – Increased state stipends for some private college students
  • House Bill 11-1184 – Study of higher education financing
  • Senate Bill 11-011 – Creation of voting student members on CSU board
  • Senate Bill 11-070 – Services for disabled college students
  • Senate Bill 11-126 – Undocumented student tuition

Safety, health & discipline: Bullying in spotlight

It wasn’t a coordinated push by any education interests, but once the dust had settled it turned out that several education bills passed this year related to school safety, health and discipline.

Finger printsThe highest-profile measure was House Bill 11-1254, the bipartisan anti-bullying bill. The measure’s original version proposed a lengthy set of requirements on school districts, but those were quickly amended out. As finally passed, the bill would expand the legal definition of school bullying, require school districts to update existing bullying policies and create a donation-funded grant program for district anti-bullying programs.

The bill was pushed by groups partly concerned about bullying against gay and lesbian students, something that caused quiet heartburn for some conservative Republicans. But HB 11-1254 didn’t spark the kind of cultural and moral debates that surrounded a civil unions bill.

The other high-profile safety proposal was House Bill 11-1121, the measure that tightens up on hiring of felons for non-licensed school jobs. Freshman GOP Rep. Robert Ramirez, a member of House Education, was prime sponsor.

While existing state law bans people with a variety of criminal convictions from teaching and other licensed positions, school boards have had some flexibility in hiring for non-teaching jobs. The bill would bar employment of people convicted of violent crimes and sexual felonies. It also includes drug and domestic violence offenses, but there’s a five-year “statute of limitations” on those. The drug-crime provision also applies to teachers and other licensed staff.

HB 11-1121 was yet another measure that needed lots of compromises to pass. Its original title – the Felon-free Schools Act – even was dropped to gain some Democratic support. A related measure, Senate Bill 11-226, requires background checks on employees of school contractors.

Other measures that drew some attention were Massey’s House Bill 11-1069, which requires elementary schools to provide minimum levels of physical activity for students, and Senate Bill 11-040, which requires youth sports coaches to take annual training in recognition of concussion symptoms and set standards for handling of youth athletes who’ve suffered such injuries. Republican Sen. Nancy Spence and Democrat Linda Newell pushed this one.

Both bills are as much about symbolism as substance. HB 11-1069 defines physical activity broadly and codifies what many believe is existing practice. SB 11-040 doesn’t contain any reporting or enforcement provisions.

Health & safety bills that passed

  • House Bill 11-1053 – Encourages school districts to seek incarceration as a last resort in truancy and contempt cases
  • House Bill 11-1069 – Elementary school physical activity requirements
  • House Bill 11-1121 – Limits on school employment of felons
  • House Bill 11-1169 – Allows expanded sharing of information about possible threats between college campus police and administrators
  • House Bill 11-1254 – Updates anti-bullying laws and creation of a grant program
  • Senate Bill 11-012 – Creates more flexibility in school district policies on self-administration of prescription drugs by students
  • Senate Bill 11-040 – Concussion recognition and safety measure
  • Senate Bill 11-173 – Encourages greater cooperation between school districts and emergency responses agencies
  • Senate Bill 11-133 – Commissions a legislative study panel to review school discipline policies and practices
  • Senate Bill 11-266 – Requires background checks on employees of school contractors

Accountability, regulation changes mostly modest

Of the major education reforms passed by lawmakers in the last four sessions, Senate Bill 09-163 is the one that’s been most fully implemented. It established a new accountability and ranking system for schools and districts, a system that ties various levels of improvement plans into the rankings of schools.

Teacher evaluationSome lawmakers, most notably Democratic Sen. Evie Hudak, tried this year to tinker with the system and other aspects of accountability, but most efforts made little headway.

House Bill 11-1277, championed by Massey and assembled by a group of education lobbyists, started out as an effort to generally reduce state mandates and reporting requirements on school districts.

Its most intriguing feature was a provision that would have banned the legislature from imposing new requirements on districts without providing funding. That provision was quickly discarded as politically impractical, replaced with language that merely gives school districts the chance to comment on the fiscal implication of some kinds of bills.

The bill ended up as a more limited measure involving primarily reporting requirements for special education and online schools. It also gives the commissioner of education more flexibility in reviewing school improvement plans and reduces the amount of improvement-plan paperwork that has to be filed by districts with fewer than 1,000 students.

Hudak and freshman Democratic Rep. Crisanta Duran made a push to require more transparency and parent involvement in school turnaround plans. A Duran bill on the issue was watered down to require parent notice and hearings for turnaround plans, and a much-amended Hudak bill on the issue died.

Two other bills that went nowhere were a proposal by freshman Republican Rep. Don Beezley to give a majority of parents at a failing school to force closure or conversion, and a Hudak bill to require state regulation of educational management organizations such as those that run some charter schools.

The state’s CSAP testing system was the subject of much chatter this session, but no bill was introduced. The governor’s office was interested in making some changes to high school testing, and Democratic Rep. Judy Solano was again pushing elimination of writing tests. But CDE and the State Board of Education resisted changes, and no compromise was reached before the session ended.

Accountability bills that passed

  • House Bill 11-1126 – Parent involvement in school turnaround plans
  • House Bill 11-1277 – Streamlining of some state mandates and reporting requirements

Accountability bills that died

  • House Bill 11-1270 – Parent vote to close or convert failing schools
  • Senate Bill 11-069 – Regulation of educational management organizations
  • Senate Bill 11-080 – Requirements for public input in some school improvement plans

Tinkering with pensions, teacher ed, licensing

Colorado escaped the acrimonious debates over employee rights and pensions that embroiled some other states this year, partly because of split partisan control. But there were some interesting undercurrents flowing at the Capitol.

Teacher and studentState and many higher education employees will continue to pay 10.5 percent of their paychecks to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association for one more year while the state and colleges will have to contribute only 7.65 percent of payroll. The measure was part of the 2011-12 budget-balancing package and will save the state $35 million in general fund spending.

Republican Rep. Brian DelGrosso proposed Senate Bill 11-074 to give school districts the option of making the same contribution swap, but that measure was killed in the horse-trading that led to the House-Senate budget compromise.

Also killed were measures that would have changed the membership of the PERA board to dilute employee and retiree membership, turn PERA into a defined-contribution system and a bill that would have allowed Mesa State classified employees to opt out of the state personnel system.

Two bills of direct interest to teachers passed. Of immediate impact is House Bill 11-1201, intended to help reduce the teacher-licensing backlog by streamlining CDE verification procedures and giving the licensing office more spending authority.

Senate Bill 11-245 may have longer-term impact. The bill requires CCHE to expand its regulation of teacher preparation programs to include evaluation of the effectiveness of programs and their graduates and gives the agency a Dec. 30, 2013, deadline to develop a new system for evaluating college-based teacher prep programs. The bill doesn’t affect alternative licensing programs, which are regulated solely by CDE.

Employee & pension bills that passed

  • House Bill 11-1201 – Streamlining of educator licensing
  • Senate Bill 11-076 – PERA contributions rate swap for state and higher ed employees
  • Senate Bill 11-245 – Changes in regulation of college teacher prep programs

Employee & pension bills that died

  • House Bill 11-1007 – Mesa State personnel system
  • House Bill 11-1248 – Changes in PERA board membership
  • Senate Bill 11-074 – Local option to change PERA contribution rates
  • Senate Bill 11-127 – Conversion of PERA to a defined contribution system

Etc. – charters, special education, gifted

Two measures of interest to charter schools passed. House Bill 11-1089 gives charters expanded freedom to apply for some federal and other grants without formal approval from their chartering districts, and Senate Bill 11-188 clarifies the procedures for handling troubled schools that have state-backed bonds. But House Bill 11-1055, intended to give charters easier access to vacant district buildings, didn’t survive, despite multiple amendments designed to make it more palatable.

House Bill 11-1077 rewrites state law to create separate sections covering developmentally disabled students and gifted and talented students. The change may make it easier in the future for G&T advocates to propose improved services for those students.

Senate Bill 11-029 updates the reporting requirements on the State Land Board to ensure the State Board of Education and the education committees receive such reports. The board manages state school lands.

Senate Bill 11-061 streamlines the current two-step special education appeals process and allows parents and districts to appeal directly to CDE rather than start with a hearing officer.

Senate Bill 11-111 creates a task force of legislators and education experts to study how to prevent students from falling behind at key points in their academic careers, such as the transitions from elementary to middle school and from middle to high school. The group is supposed to work in coordination with Hickenlooper’s yet-to-be-launched Education Leadership Council.

Assorted casualties – other bills that failed

Republican Rep. Spencer Swalm again tried to provide state tax credits for private and home school costs, but he asked that his House Bill 11-1048 be killed after he couldn’t muster sufficient support even in the Republican-controlled House.

Democratic Rep. Andy Kerr is a tireless advocate for energy efficiency, but he couldn’t get House Bill 11-1204, a fairly modest measure to encourage construction of energy-efficient school buildings, out of committee.

Spence thought she had a great idea to save money for strapped school districts. Her Senate Bill 11-079 would have required districts to study the costs of outsourcing non-instructional services and report the findings to district taxpayers. Actual outsourcing would have been left up to school boards, but the bill was killed in committee.

By the numbers

  • Education News Colorado this year followed about 90 measures in the Education Bill Tracker, including some, such as technical budget measures, that affected education in minor ways.
  • Our post-session review narrowed the list to about 60 proposals.
  • Of those, 38 percent were killed and another 20 percent were minor or housekeeping measures.