The 2012 legislative session has some big clouds of uncertainty hanging over it, but those haven’t prevented lawmakers from drawing up a long list of education bills to pitch to their colleagues.

LogoObservers predict 2012 will be a busier session for education issues than was 2011. It looks like there will plenty for virtually every education interest group to love – or hate – in this year’s crop of bills.

Major education proposals are expected to include school finance reform, early childhood literacy, testing, charter and innovation schools, and regulation of online schools.

But there are questions about how much significant education policy will be made this year, given three worries hanging over the session:

  • Budget: The state budget situation remains tight, although modest revenue increases make things look a bit less bleak than in recent years.
  • Lobato: A district judge’s ruling against the state in the Lobato school funding lawsuit, which is being appealed, will be on lawmakers’ minds.
  • Partisanship: Party conflict may be more intense this year in the General Assembly, where each party controls a chamber. Not only is 2012 an election year, but partisan sensitivities have been heightened by redistricting of legislative districts.

In light of all that, some observers believe it will be difficult to pass major, costly or controversial initiatives.

Here’s an issue-by-issue look at education in 2012, based on interviews with a wide selection of lawmakers, lobbyists, executive branch officials and others.

School finance and the Lobato ruling

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, promises a major school finance reform proposal, based on recommendations still to be finalized by leaders of the Colorado School Finance Partnership, a study group organized by the Colorado Children’s Campaign and others. (See background story on the partnership.)

Johnston says “there are no decisions” yet on the details of the proposal but that it will be “something that’s a long-term vision for school finance in Colorado. … This would include a long-term plan for both funding and reform.

“Our goal is that this bill would be responsive to the Lobato lawsuit,” Johnston says, but he adds, “We would have had the same conversation without the Lobato decision. (Get background in the Education News Colorado Lobato archive.)

Other lawmakers may have different opinions about the wisdom of passing school finance reform while Lobato is pending before the Colorado Supreme Court. “The situation is not yet ripe for us,” says Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins and chair of the Senate Education Committee. “It’s watchful waiting in this session.”

But there is wide agreement that the case will be hanging over the 2012 session.

“I think it will have an effect in the sense that anything that we do [on education] will have to be fully funded,” says Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs. Massey, chair of the House Education Committee, is expected to be a central figure on education this year. Because of term limits, both he and Bacon are in their final session.

“I do think it’s going to be a pervading issue,” says Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards.

And Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, the Hickenlooper administration’s leading voice on education issues, says Lobato “is something that will be hanging over all the decisions in the governor’s office and the legislature.”

Budget issues complex despite improving revenues

Photo illustration of piggy bankRegardless of what happens with long-term school finance reform, legislators must approve a state budget and school funding allocations for the next fiscal year, 2012-13.

Lawmakers and school leaders all breathed a sign of relief on Dec. 20 when quarterly forecasts showed improved state revenues, allowing Hickenlooper to withdraw his previous proposal for an $89 million cut in basic school aid for 2012-13 (see story).

“Obviously the prognosis is much better,” says Massey. “We do see a stability that we have not been able to see in the past.”

But the budget picture may not be that simple. For one thing, Hickenlooper’s budget plan is built on the assumption that the legislature will continue suspension of a $100 million property tax break for senior citizens, known as the senior homestead exemption.

Leaders of the House Republican majority have said they want to allow the exemption to go back into effect in 2012-13. If that happens the $100 million needed to balance the budget will have to be found elsewhere – probably by cutting K-12 spending.

The fate of school funding “depends on the senior homestead exemption,” says Bacon.

Republicans, particularly on the JBC, also have differences with Hickenlooper over spending on Medicaid, the fastest growing part of the state budget, and that could complicate overall budget discussions.

School spending is determined by the main state budget bill and the school finance act. Massey, who will be carrying that latter bill this year and starting it in the Republican-controlled House, says he wants to set aside about $1 million to finance a suspended state regional services program that serves rural school districts, and there may be other attempts to tap into the finance act.

Testing debate gets more complicated

Image of pencil erasing a multiple-choice test answer.During nearly every session over the past several years the legislature has debated but rejected proposals to reduce the scope of the CSAP testing system. (Colorado tests in more grades and on more subjects than required by the federal government.)

Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton, has led those efforts and says, “Of course I’ll have my annual testing bill.”

But the testing debate is complicated this year by money. The CSAP program has ended, replaced this year and next with TCAP (Transitional Colorado Assessment Program) tests. The Department of Education has asked the legislature for $26 million to create new permanent tests that would launch in the spring of 2014.

But the Hickenlooper administration does not support that request, preferring to wait until 2015 for multi-state – and perhaps cheaper – tests.

The $26 million is “a price tag we just can’t afford right now,” says Garcia. “We think working with other states is logical.”

Massey calls the issue “am extremely tough one,” and Bacon says he’s concerned about spending money on tests that otherwise would go to the classroom. Some key education interest groups are still sorting out their positions but are united in not wanting the $26 million to “come off the top” as a deduction from total program funding, the basic state and local support of schools.

Johnston backs the governor’s point of view, saying, “I’m a strong believer that we want to be a part of” multi-state tests. Johnston says he doesn’t believe that one more year of transitional tests will disrupt the deadlines set by the 2008 Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids and 2010’s educator evaluation law, which Johnston authored and pushed through despite significant opposition.

The testing system could come under assault from other directions as well. Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, is pushing hard for a bill that would require all high school students to take the Accuplacer test – and have the state pay for it. He’s talked about trying to cut back some 10th grade CSAP testing in order to create savings to pay for his plan.

“There are so many balls in the air I don’t know where it will come out,” says Solano, but “I think we actually have a chance to come to a big agreement.”

Solano is leaving the House after this session because of term limits and says, “I can’t go out without trying one more time.”

Resident tuition rates for undocumented students

IllustrationSen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, and Johnston again will sponsor a bill to reduce tuition rates for undocumented students at state colleges and universities. A 2011 version of the idea passed the Senate but died on a 7-6 party-line vote in the Republican-controlled House Education Committee (see story).

Johnston said the 2012 bill proposes a third class of tuition rates for undocumented students, somewhere between resident and non-resident rates. A key change this year is a provision that would allow individual colleges to decide whether to offer the new rate.

“We actually have a lot of folks who want to be House sponsors,” says Johnston, predicting the bill will get further in the House than the idea did last year.

Charter and innovation school legislation

The Colorado League of Charter Schools has a full legislative agenda in a year when many other interest groups are more focused on playing defense.

The league is pushing bills to update a wide range of application and authorization procedures as well as standards for charter school operations. (A number of the proposals are based on the recommendations of a commission that studied improved standards for schools and authorizing districts.)

One proposal of interest would require that only non-profit charter school boards could contract with districts or the state to run schools, not for-profit charter management companies. A charter boards could continue to contract with any management company to operate a school.

King says he’s working on legislation to update and some ways expand the powers of the state Charter School Institute.

Legislation also is expected that would modify the 2008 innovation schools act, which allows districts and schools to seek exemptions from a wide variety of state regulations and union contract requirements if they develop detailed innovation plans and have the formal support of school constituencies, including teachers.

The overwhelming majority of innovation schools are in the Denver Public Schools, and recent district interpretation of the law has drawn a lawsuit from the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (see story). Proposed legislation is expected to give districts more flexibility, and also is expected to draw careful scrutiny from Colorado Education Association lobbyists.

But Johnston says, “I think there is a way to fix this that is in the spirit of the original act.”

Improving early childhood education

Photo illustrationEarly childhood education is looking to be the fresh education policy issue of 2012, as standards and testing, school ratings and educator evaluation were in recent sessions.

The Hickenlooper administration has made improving third-grade literacy one of its education priorities, and Massey is preparing a major bill on the subject. The issue also is a focus for business groups like the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and Colorado Succeeds and for Stand for Children.

The issue generated significant presession controversy because early versions of the idea proposed mandatory retention for third graders who didn’t meet certain proficiency standards.

That brought immediate backlash from educators as Massey shopped the bill around at various meetings and no longer is on the table, reportedly on the guidance of the governor’s office. “A mandatory retention requirement will not be in the bill,” says Garcia. Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Summit County and a former superintendent, is cosponsoring the bill with Massey.

The bill is expected to include steps to improve reading assessments and interventions for young children as well as other elements of the Colorado Basic Literacy Act. Massey says, “We’re still actively massaging” the bill draft. “It’s getting close.”

The Early Childhood and School Readiness Interim Commission, an all-legislator panel is proposing a bill that would create a new office of Early Childhood and Youth Development in the state Department of Human Services, consolidating several programs and funding sources now scattered across multiple state departments. (Read bill text.)

The proposal originated with an executive branch advisory group, the Early Childhood Leadership Commission, and the idea is a legislative priority for the Hickenlooper administration.

While early childhood literacy is expected to be a high profile issue, few expect a full overhaul of the CBLA law. “We really don’t have funding for that,” says Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock.

Higher education may have a higher profile

Colorado State University campusThe state’s higher education system typically doesn’t get the same level of attention as K-12 does during a legislative session, but at least two substantive bills are in the hopper for 2012.

One would attempt to tinker with the state aid formula for colleges and universities to create incentives for both students and institutions to complete college degrees and complete them faster. Massey and Bacon are carrying this measure, but – as with so many other bills – details remain to be worked out. Noting financial challenges, Bacon says the idea may have to be tested as a pilot program or put on a delayed implementation timetable.

The second measure would update state regulation of for-profit colleges that offer associates, bachelors and other degrees. Some of those institutions currently are caught in kind of a regulatory limbo between the Division of Private Occupational Schools, which regulates vocational schools, and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, which has some oversight over public and private non-profit institutions that grant degrees.

Garcia, who’s also director of the Department of Higher Education, says the state needs to gather more data about private for-profits because they serve an ever-increasing number of students and grant ever-larger numbers of degrees.

Noting that increasing Colorado’s college completion rate is a key administration priority, Garcia says, “We can’t do it with just the non-profit schools.”

Other bills to address the college completion concern include a measure that would make it possible for students to earn associate’s degrees with a combination of credits earned at community and four-year colleges and one that would allow adults to apply “life experience” toward college credits.

High college remediation rates are expected to be the focus of other bills, including measures to give four-year schools a greater role in remediation, now primarily the responsibility of community colleges, and to make it easier for colleges to use flexible, targeted remediation methods instead of just requiring students to take full-semester remedial courses.

College name changes also are expected to be on the legislative agenda. Adams, Metropolitan and Western state colleges all are considering asking lawmakers to approve new, to-be-decided names that include the word “university.”

Mesa State College got upgraded to Colorado Mesa University last year. Name changes can be touchy as colleges are sensitive these days about their “brands.” Metro withdrew a proposal last year because of objections from the private University of Denver, and Mesa reportedly is eying Western’s plans closely.

Hickenlooper is proposing to take direct state support of higher education to below $500 million in 2012-13, a plan colleges have accepted. The brighter December revenue forecasts have enabled the governor to cancel plans to cut the $100 million state financial aid budget by $30 million.

Online education regulation

Testing illustrationSenate President Brandon Shaffer, rebuffed last fall in getting a legislative audit of online programs, vowed to introduce legislation to “rein in” online schools (see story).

An EdNews examination last year found serious questions about funding of online schools, student achievement and state oversight (read series).

But Shaffer has kept any plans close to his vest.

A bill with any serious “rein in” provisions might face a tough challenge, many observers say. The online industry has seasoned lobbyists, many lawmakers support online schools and – perhaps most importantly – Shaffer is seeking the Democratic nomination in the 4th Congressional District.

It’s widely felt that Republicans who control the House won’t want to give a legislative victory to a bill that has Shaffer’s name on it.

Massey is planning to sponsor separate legislation to make it easier for school districts to offer “blended” programs that include both online and in-class instruction. He’s also working hard to keep that bill clear of entanglements with any online regulation bill.

“I think we need to clearly differentiate between our full-time online programs” and blended efforts, he says.

King said he’s thinking of legislation to address the concern about online schools receiving state funding for students based on the annual Oct. 1 enrollment count but then letting large numbers of students return to district schools, which don’t get funding for them. King said he’s considering providing funds to districts based on a count of students who take state tests in the spring.

Nobody likes zero tolerance, but …

Chalkboard photoA study committee of lawmakers, educators and law enforcement officials worked over the summer to come up with proposed changes to Colorado laws and procedures on school discipline.

The effort was driven by concerns about the “zero tolerance” philosophy that has been the foundation of school discipline policies, use of mandatory expulsions and suspensions that keep students of the school and ticketing and arrests of students by police for on-campus infractions.

The panel produced a proposed bill, but the process didn’t lead to consensus on all the details, and discussions have continued since the committee finished its formal work in October.

School districts are concerned that the proposed bill is too prescriptive and includes too many reporting requirements, and they would like as simple a bill as possible.

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster and a prime sponsor of the measure along with Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, says the bill that gets introduced likely will be a “substantial rewrite” and isn’t sure when it will surface.

BEST program in the spotlight

The Building Excellent Schools Today construction program, passed by the 2008 legislature with large bipartisan majorities, has continued to enjoy wide support since then as it has helped fund projects worth more than $500 million in nearly 100 school districts.

But BEST “definitely has a target on its back” this year, as one observer puts it, for financial reasons. The program draws its revenue from revenues generated by state lands and from the Colorado Lottery, along with matching funds from school districts that have won grants.

Because the payments on lease-purchase agreements created by BEST have grown, the program soon will reach the point where it will have less money for new projects.

There’s an emerging difference among lawmakers, some of whom think BEST revenues ought to be capped so more revenue can flow into the school lands permanent fund, whose earnings can be used for schools. Some members of the Joint Budget Committee are leaning in that direction. (See story about a JBC analyst’s recommendation on the issue.)

Other lawmakers think BEST revenues should be increased. Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass, is preparing legislation along those lines.

“We’ll just have to wait and see what the proposals are,” says Hudak.

There’s also expected to be legislation proposed by King to give charter schools, particularly those authorized by the state Charter School Institute, more flexibility in raising matching funds for BEST grants. The matching formula laid out in the original law puts charters at a disadvantage, a sore point for the Colorado League of Charter Schools and a problem the Division of Capital Construction Assistance has been working on.

Senate Bill 10-191 regulations

Teacher evaluationPart of the compromise that helped lead to passage of the educator effectiveness law during the 2010 session was a requirement that the 2012 legislature could separately review the regulations issued by the State Board of Education to implement the law. (Typically all regulations issued by all state agencies during a year are approved through passage of a single bill each session.)

The rules were approved by the state board last fall after a year of work by the State Council for Educator Effectiveness and further work by Department of Education staff. (Get details on the rules and the process.)

All that consultation seems to have paid off, and key lawmakers and most lobbyists expect legislative ratification of the rules to be non-controversial.

“I think that state board did a good job,” says Massey. Murray notes, “It seems to me that all the stakeholders came together.” Bacon adds, “It’s my best guess that it’s going to be fairly routine.”

One wild card in the process might be the appeals process for teachers who lose non-probationary status because of weak evaluations. No such process is included in the rules, and the educator effectiveness council is designing one now. Given the legal timetables for issuing regulations, the state board might not be able to send proposed appeals rules to lawmakers until very late in the session, when things get a little chaotic at the Capitol.

So it’s unclear whether the appeals process will be part of the rules reviewed this session.

But wait, there’s more

The budget, testing, early childhood education, online schools and other big issues by no means make up the full list of education topics that will occupy lawmakers this year.

Among other expected bills are new versions of ideas that failed in past sessions, pet projects of individual lawmakers or interest groups, bills that legislators want to promote in campaign literature even if they don’t pass and bills that don’t have bipartisan sponsorship and so may pass in one house but die in the chamber that’s not controlled by the sponsor’s party.

Here are some issues to watch for:

Parent notification of school employee arrests: A state board rule requiring prompt notification of parents when school workers are arrested for certain crimes essentially was killed by a legislative legal review committee last month (see story). SBE Chair Bob Schaffer said he’d look for a legislator to introduce a bill on the issue, and Rep. Don Beezley, R-Broomfield, has indicated an interest.

Parent trigger law: Last session Beezley unsuccessfully pushed a bill that would have allowed parents to petition to conversion or closure of failing schools (see story). Beezley says he’ll be back with a variation on the idea this year. Other parents’ rights bills also are reportedly in the works.

Pensions: A core of Republican members have issues with the operations of the Public Employees’ Retirement Associations, which manages pensions for all Colorado teachers and thousands of higher education employees. Expect repeat versions of several GOP bills, including perhaps a measure that would allow school districts to save money by reducing their pension contributions while requiring employees to kick in more money.

It’s also possible that the 2012 session will see bills proposing or affecting:

  • Campaign contribution limits in school board elections
  • Greater transparency in school district contracting
  • A proposed study of how the Gallagher Amendment affects local government revenues
  • Tax credits for private school tuition costs
  • Restrictions on snack foods in schools and on trans fats in school foods
  • Physical education
  • Protections for adjunct faculty
  • Restrictions on automatic salary increases for teachers who earn master’s degrees
  • Delays in deadlines for the State Board of Education to adopt high school graduation guidelines and requirements for specialized diplomas

Predictions about any legislative session can be dicey, and education issues now on the radar now may fade into insignificance before the session ends. And surprises always pop up.

And education obviously isn’t the General Assembly’s only focus this year. Jobs and the economy are top priorities for both parties and both houses, and a myriad of other issues will be raised in the 500-600 bills expected to be introduced.

Refresh your memory

Take a look at what the 2011 session accomplished on education in this EdNews story – and compare that with our 2011 preview, published a year ago.