Members of the House Education Committee spent a free-wheeling 90 minutes Monday afternoon raising questions about – and criticizing parts of – Department of Education plans for future state tests and for implementing the educator evaluation law.

Rep. Robert Ramirez, R-Westminster
Rep. Robert Ramirez, R-Westminster
A top CDE official, summoned by the department lobbyist, had to hustle across East Colfax Avenue to the Capitol and take the witness chair to answer committee questions in the middle of the meeting.

The discussion is by no means over and could resume as early as Wednesday.

The unusual session was sparked, at least indirectly, by the SMART Government Act, a new law that allows all legislative committees to make recommendations to the Joint Budget Committee about the budgets of relevant state departments. (So the two education committees can make recommendations about the departments of education and higher education, and other committees make them for other agencies.)

The agenda for Monday afternoon’s House Ed meeting was devoted solely to that SMART Act assignment, prompting a free-form discussion and complaint session of the kind that usually doesn’t happen during a normal committee meeting, when members have bills to consider and parliamentary procedure to follow.

Chair Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, opened by telling his colleagues they were “under no obligation” to make formal recommendations. “We can just punt this back to the JBC and tell them to take care of it.”

Panel members took him at his word – no formal motions were offered – but the chatter made clear what some members think about two key issues – the $25.9 million cost of designing a new state testing system and $7.7 million in proposed spending for implementing the new educator effectiveness and evaluation system.

Part of the discomfort is sparked by the fact that the executive branch is sending mixed signals on those two issues. The State Board of Education and CDE have asked for the $25.9 million, but Gov. John Hickenlooper doesn’t want to spend the money. The governor, in turn, asked for the $7.7 million. But that wasn’t part of CDE’s formal 2012-13 request, although the department supports Hickenlooper.

“Those interested persons should get together,” said Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton and a longtime critic of the state testing system. “I think there needs to be more discussion” within the executive branch.

Other committee members agreed with her, but Massey noted gently that the costs and timing of multi-state tests, the alternative to buying a Colorado-only set of tests, are unknown.

The discussion detoured into a round of test bashing before Rep. Robert Ramirez, R-Westminster, took aim at the $7.7 million request for implementation of the education evaluation system.

(To add to the confusion, there are various amounts of money in play here. CDE wants about $425,000 in 2012-13 to continue paying current staffers who are working on the program. There’s Hickenlooper’s $7.7 million ask. And the state recently won a $17.9 million federal Race to the Top grant that will be split between CDE and school districts to help implement the evaluation system.)

“The money is really beyond what’s necessary,” said Ramirez, citing his experience as a corporate trainer to stress the project could be done for a lot less money. “I just really think they’re going about it the wrong way.”

“There’s got to be more discussion about the cost of implementing,” chimed in Solano.

“Just because we got the [R2T] money it doesn’t mean we have to spend it all,” Ramirez said.

Jill Hawley, Colorado Department of Education
Jill Hawley, Colorado Department of Education
After about half an hour of this, Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, interjected to say, “I just feel like we need to hear from CDE to defend themselves.”

CDE lobbyist Anne Barkis, cell phone in hand, left the room, and 10 minutes late Jill Hawley, department policy chief, showed up with her arms full of binders and settled in at the witness table.

“At this point we’ll let Miss Hawley be grilled,” said a smiling Massey.

Hawley, composed and smiling herself, launched into a detailed explanation of how the R2T money will be used for creating key elements of the evaluation system that can be used by districts. The $7.7 million will be needed for outreach to and training in school districts, she said.

Ramirez listened intently but didn’t seem convinced. He said the funding was “a lot of top-heavy money in terms of directors, executive directors and office space. … This can be done a lot less expensively,” throwing out an estimate of $700,000.

“It’s complicated,” Hawley offered.

Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Summit County and a former superintendent there, said, “The implementation is a huge cultural shift” for schools, “So I’m not surprised it’s going to take time and money.”

The back-and-forth continued with a discussion about whether the legislature was uninformed or misinformed about costs when it passed SB 10-191, but Hawley finally was able to escape after about 45 minutes of grilling.

“Thank you for jumping into the fire,” said Hamner.

Things may warm up again on Wednesday morning, when the House and Senate education committees have a previously scheduled session with CDE leaders to talk about implementation of various recent reform initiatives.

That session will be followed later in the morning when the two committees are scheduled to meet with JBC members to talk about the SMART Act.

Members of Senate Education had their own problems with the SMART Act and testing costs at a meeting late last week (see item).

Although the budget requests from the Hickenlooper administration and CDE have been public since last Nov. 1, and the department has provide extensive briefing papers about its plans, Monday’s meeting made clear that the department has a more to do to bring lawmakers up to speed.

🔗For the record

Speaking of the educator effectiveness law, the House Monday gave 64-1 final approval to House Bill 12-1001, which ratifies the regulations issued by the state board to implement SB 10-191. The bill has generated zero controversy in the legislature. The only no vote was Rep. Ed Casso, D-Adams County.