Several significant pieces of education legislation were introduced in the Senate Tuesday, covering such issues as charter schools, coordination of early childhood services and use of revenues from state school lands.

Legislature 2012 logoHere are snapshots of the latest proposals:

Senate Bill 12-130 – The measure would create an Office of Early Childhood and Youth Development in the state Department of Human Services, consolidating oversight of several programs now part of various agencies.

An initiative of the Hickenlooper administration and a legislative study group, the bill is seen as a first step in improving the quality of early childhood programs and making better use of existing funding. The administration had hoped to pay for faster improvements with a Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge grant, but Colorado didn’t make the cut in that competition.

A report on early childhood initiatives, compiled from a statewide “listening tour” late last year, is expected this month from the office of Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia.

Senate Bill 12-145 – This plan, sponsored by the Joint Budget Committee, would clamp down on the recent practice of funneling revenue from state school trust lands into the annual School Finance Act, rather than letting the money flow into what’s called the permanent fund. (Only interest from the permanent fund can be spent.) Because school land revenue has helped soften, at least slightly, recent school budget cuts, this bill may raise concerns for some lawmakers and lobbyists.

Senate Bill 12-106 – Sponsored by Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, the bill would add college remediation rates to the performance indicators used to rate school districts and high schools. The measure also would add early colleges to the list of institutions that have a guaranteed transfer of core course credits to public colleges. Accredited early colleges would be given the authority to award degrees.

Colorado has only a few early college programs, which are kind of a hybrid high school and community college. King is the administrator of Colorado Springs Early Colleges, a charter school overseen by the state Charter School Institute. King, who’s not running for reelection this year, is a tireless evangelist for the concept and says he wants to replicate it in Douglas County and Fort Collins.

(Of concern to some lobbyists is the fact that the bill has an extremely broad title – “Concerning Education.” That would allow any number of amendments on any number of subjects to be added. King’s nickname in the legislature is “the Amendment King.”)

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs
Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs
Senate Bill 12-121 – This one is sponsored by King and Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs and chair of the House Education Committee. The measure would change the matching funds requirement applied to charter schools under the Building Excellent Schools Today program and create a state loan program under which charter schools could receive up to 50 percent of their matching funds through loans.

The bill also proposes multiple changes in law regarding the charter institute schools, including a provision allowing the institute to authorize charter schools within school districts that are accredited with turnaround plans. (Current law only allows the institute to approve schools in districts that do not have exclusive chartering authority.) The bill also would give the institute greater financial flexibility.

Senate Bill 12-103 – Sponsored by Sen. Bacon, D-Fort Collins and chair of the Senate Education Committee, the bill would change some of the accounting procedures between school districts and their charters that involve numbers of at-risk students. Charters get different reimbursement rates now based on when they opened. The bill would create a a uniform rate. Bacon is the sole sponsor for now, and the bill will be opposed by charter advocates.

Senate Bill 12-119 – This is the seventh bill relating to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association that has been introduced by various Republican sponsors. It would require the PERA board to adjust retiree benefits to ensure that each of PERA’s divisions remain on 30-year amortization schedules. (Benefits could be adjusted by individual division.)

The legislature would be barred from increasing employee and employer contributions in order to meet amortization schedules. PERA, which covers all Colorado teachers and many higher education employees, and how it operates are major targets for legislative Republicans.

But not radical changes are expected to survive in the Democratic controlled Senate. On Monday Senate Bill 12-016, which would have allowed some local governments to decrease their PERA contributions while requiring employees to kick in more, was killed by a Senate committee.

There was a large dump of bills in the House on Monday, including House Bill 12-1201, a JBC bill that increases 2011-12 school funding by about $18 million to cover the costs of higher-than-predicted enrollment. The increase would be covered by local tax revenues, which didn’t decline as much as predicted, and state support actually will be cut back slightly.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information. As of Tuesday the Tracker included 57 bills affecting schools and colleges or of interest to the education community.

What’s still to come

Last Friday was the deadline for introduction of bills in the Senate (obviously that got extended), and Wednesday is the House deadline.

Deadlines are flexible things in the Colorado legislature, given what’s known as “late bill status,” a designation awarded by legislative leadership for a variety of reasons, some practical and some political.

Bills have yet to be introduced on such key issues as regulation of online schools, school finance reform, revenue adjustments for the BEST program, updating the Innovation Schools Act, improving third-grade literacy, modernizing regulation of for-profit colleges and mandatory parent notification when school employees are arrested.

It’s possible some of those bills will surface on Wednesday’s House deadline.

Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs
Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs / File photo
One of those could be the literacy bill, sponsored in the House by Massey and Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Summit County. Senate sponsors are Sens. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, and Nancy Spence, R-Centennial. The bill is backed by a coalition of education reform and business groups. Early literacy also is a Hickenlooper administration priority

Early drafts of the legislation suggested mandatory retention of third graders who were functionally illiterate, an idea that caused a lot of heartburn among educators. The bill reportedly will require parents, teachers and principals to consider whether struggling third graders should be held back, and for superintendents to approve a student being retained in grade.

Other bills may not surface for weeks. For instance, Johnston says his school finance reform measure won’t be ready until mid to late February at the earliest.

Mostly slow going for minor bills

The House on Tuesday spent half an hour on three low-level education bills and approved two of them.

House Bill 12-1013 is a purely advisory measure that urges school districts to provide intervention services for middle school students that show risk factors for dropping out. But discussion got drawn out a bit over an amendment that proposed to add “restorative justice” to the list of suggested interventions. The amendment was defeated, and the bill got preliminary approval.

Things got stickier with House Bill 12-1061, which would require the Department of Higher Education to work with other state agencies to produce an annual report on state workforce needs and how they match up with the kinds of degrees and certificates produced by the state higher education system.

Sponsor Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Englewood, is promoting the bill as a jobs measure, and House Democrats have touted it as part of their economic development package.

Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock
Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock
But Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, asked, “Why do we need to pass a bill for something the Department of Higher Education is already performing.” Using a $10,000 grant, the agency already is working on such a report.

And Rep. Don Beezley, R-Broomfield, said, “We’re doing something that sounds kind of good … but ultimately will it achieve anything?”

The bill ended up being laid over because of confusion over whether it would cost anything and thereby require the dreaded “fiscal note,” a legislative staff analysis of potential costs. Bills with fiscal notes attached end up being assigning to the appropriations committee, where they can languish for weeks.

The House did take only about a minute to give a preliminary OK to House Bill 12-1081, a catch-up measure that would give the Auraria Higher Education Center the same financial and administrative flexibility that has been granted to state colleges and universities in recent years.