Unless you’re a political junky or simply enjoy the sensation of beating your head against the wall, you may not be following the ins and outs of the Colorado legislature.

When it comes to school issues, I must admit I find myself averting my eyes when I see coverage of endless committee meetings and squabbles over the state’s relatively small share of the K-12 budget. In case you didn’t know, Colorado ranks 35th in the nation when it comes to funding its public schools.

I do realize money seems to be at the root of pretty much everything that goes on – or fails to happen – in a Colorado classroom. But the headlines regarding school budgets are either too depressing or prone to so many changes that I find myself ignoring them.

So, with this blog post, I am enlightening myself about legislative issues coming up in 2012 that public schools parents might just want to pay attention to.  (Thanks to EdNews Colorado’s crack legislative reporter, Todd Engdahl, my job became much easier. Read his preview story in EdNews Colorado.)

Money, money, money (sing with Abba)

Nothing can make your eyes roll like a conversation about school finance. It’s dull. It’s complicated. I’d rather pull out my fingernails. OK, it’s not that bad. But, generally speaking, I think the time involved understanding every little nuance of school finance is better spent getting involved at my daughter’s school (if one has to make a choice). But here’s the deal: It’s really important.

empty school desk on a dollar bill - budget cutsEdNews Colorado informs us that Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, will offer up a major school finance reform proposal. As of yet, specific details of this initiative to secure funding and boost school reform remain elusive. But it will be worth our while to watch what Sen. Johnston does.

Note, however, there is sure to be resistance to sweeping change before the Lobato school funding case is resolved in the Colorado Supreme Court, so we’ll see if Johnston or anyone else can get any traction.

And, regardless 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. That’s where things are sure to get dicey.

According to EdNews, “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.”

To that, I say “Yea!”

But wait, I forgot to read the fine print. Gov. 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. However, 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.

Ouch. (This is why I hate reading school budget stories….)

Parent notification of school employee arrests 

A state board rule requiring prompt notification of parents when school workers are arrested for certain crimes was – for all practical purposes –  killed by a legislative legal review committee last month (see story). But there’s an interest in bringing the issue up again.

Parents taking charge of failing schools

Last session, a bill was introduced that would have allowed parents to petition to conversion or closure of failing schools (see story). The measure failed, but a new and improved version is said to be in the works in 2012.

Politicians and kids, sharpen your No. 2 pencils!

More than likely, there will be talk of standardized testing and proposals to limit the amount of testing that our children undergo. Did you know that Colorado tests in more grades and on more subjects than required by federal law?

testing bubble sheet with pencilThe CSAP program has ended, replaced this year and next with the TCAP (Transitional Colorado Assessment Program) tests. I think my main beef is that state officials couldn’t have come come up with a cuter acronym. What about TCUP? (However, I’m not sure what the “u” could stand for. Ideas?)

Actually, I have more serious concerns about standardized testing – the main one being the effect high-stakes tests have on the rest of the school curriculum. Let’s add art, music and sport to the core curriculum to ensure those don’t get lost in the shuffle. At the end of the day, it was my experiences in band that taught me pretty much everything I needed to know to be a well-rounded adult. (No snickers, please). Or, better yet, reduce the number of tests kids have to take. By high school, they know TCAPs – or whatever they’re called – have no bearing whatsoever on their academic records and don’t take them seriously anyway.

Sparking innovation in entrenched bureaucracy

I always wonder how to spark change and creativity in heavily bureaucratic public school systems. To that end, legislation also is expected to be introduced 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.

Sounds like a great idea, right? Problem is – not everybody thinks so.

The majority of innovation schools are in the Denver Public Schools. Recent district interpretation of the law has triggered a lawsuit by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (see story).

I guess that part about “teacher buy-in” is serious business. This again highlights the difficulty all stakeholders face in making substantive change in what happens in our state’s public schools.

To preschool, and beyond!

Got a preschooler? Then you will be glad to learn that the big new education policy issue in 2012 is early childhood education.

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

A bill in the works 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. Yes, reading is pretty darned important. I can’t really dispute that.

Going to school in your jammies

Senate 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).

Another bit of proposed legislation could make it easier for school districts to offer “blended” programs that include both online and in-class instruction. This sounds reasonable.

Other stuff

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

  • Greater transparency in school district contracting;
  • Tax credits for private school tuition costs;
  • Restrictions on snack foods in schools and on trans fats in school foods;
  • Physical education;
  • Restrictions on automatic salary increases for teachers who earn master’s degrees.

So, stay tuned, folks. I’ll try to stay up on at least a few of the items that parents will want to know about.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.