For education, the 2013 session of the Colorado legislature was all about the money, with two major school finance bills dominating education debates.

LogoOther education bills passed with lower profiles, and the session didn’t feature a major policy bill like the ones that were debated in four of the five previous sessions of the General Assembly.

Other than finance, the highest visibility measure was the ASSET bill, which makes many undocumented students eligible for resident tuition rates. Passage of Senate Bill 13-33 ended more than a decade of efforts to pass such legislation. (Get more information about the bill in this EdNews story.)

Teacher licensing was expected to be the big new policy bill of 2013. But sponsor Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, had his hands full with ASSET and his school finance overhaul and decided against pushing a licensing reform bill.

Lawmakers had two finance bills on their plates. Johnston’s Senate Bill 13-213 proposes a major modernization of the state’s school funding formulas, with a significant shift of funding to at-risk students and English language learners. It passed both houses without the Republican support that he has enjoyed on past reform initiatives.

“Senate Bill 213 overshadowed the entire session,” said Democratic Sen. Evie Hudak of Westminster, chair of the Senate Education Committee.

The bill is extremely complicated, and it won’t go into effect unless voters approve a $1 billion tax increase. Advocates are currently deciding which tax proposal to submit to voters. (See this detailed EdNews summary of the bill, and get more information in this legislative staff summary.)

“I would have liked to have had bipartisan support” of SB 13-213, said Democratic Rep. Millie Hamner of Dillon, who carried the bill in the House and who also chairs the House Education Committe. But, she said, “The tax became a barrier” to possible GOP support for the policy in the bill.

Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, agreed that Republicans were concerned about the proposed tax increase but also felt the bill lacks provisions to really track whether increased K-12 spending will improve results. “There needs to be accountability for those funds.”

Quiet tussle over 2013-14 funding

The other head-hurting finance measure was Senate Bill 13-260, the bill needed to fund school districts in 2013-14.

As finally passed, and in contrast to recent budget-cut years, the bill provides an increase of 2.7 percent in average per-pupil funding. Total program funding, the combination of state and local revenue that pays for basic school operations, would rise to $5.5 billion, an increase of about $210 million. Average per pupil funding would move up from the current $6,479 to $6,652. The bill also provides additional funding for the Colorado Preschool Program and for special education. (Get more details in this EdNews summary and this legislative staff note.)

There was behind-the-scenes lobbying by some members, school districts and interest groups to put even more money in SB 13-260, but the Joint Budget Committee, legislative leadership and the governor’s budget office resisted that.

At issue was the amount of money available from the State Education Fund, a dedicated account used for both basic school support and special programs.

The fund is projected to have between $830 million and $1 billion in it at the end of the current 2012-13 budget year and a balance of $615 million to $775 million at the end of 2013-14. (Legislative and executive branch economists have different estimates.)

With that much money lying around, some lawmakers and lobbyists thought more cash could be devoted to SB 13-260 spending. But JBC members and the state budget office want to conserve education fund resources for use in future years, and that view prevailed.

Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley
Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley

“We could have done things with existing dollars” rather than wait for a tax increase to fund SB 13-213, said Sen. Scott Renfroe of Greeley, the ranking Republican on Senate Education. “They’d made their minds up,” he said of Democratic leaders who didn’t want to spend more from the education fund.

Even Hudak, a prime sponsor of SB 13-260, said she’d hoped the bill could have done more to work down the $1 billion in K-12 budget cuts over the last four years. (This is what’s known around the Capitol as the “negative factor.”)

Hamner diplomatically noted, “I kind of felt the path had been established” by others on the details of SB 13-260.

The bill made a small $40 million bite in that deficit; Hudak said she would have preferred $90 million.

Both Hamner and Hudak said they felt inclusion of $20 million additional special education funding in the bill was a major accomplishment, given that it frees up funds districts can use for other programs.

Higher ed increases also sought

Rising state revenues also sparked some maneuvering over higher education funding.

The big picture

Education didn’t dominate the 2013 session. Democrats pushed an aggressive agenda of bills on gun control, energy, election law, economic development, marijuana regulation, civil unions and other issues, and many debates were sharply partisan. Given scant or no GOP support, the ASSET and school finance reform bills became part of the Democratic agenda.

Early in the session lawmakers put an extra $9 million into current-year college budgets. Republicans also tried to take $28 million from a cigarette tax bill for college funding next year. That passed the House but was stripped in the Senate. House Democrats sided with the Senate as the session ended, sparking harsh but ineffective recriminations by Republicans late one evening.

There also was an attempt to put $3 million for merit scholarships in the main state budget bill, a gambit that didn’t work for both political and technical reasons. That $3 million popped up later in another measure, House Bill 13-1320. That bill proposed allowing state colleges to tweak ratios of resident and non-resident students in order to raise money from additional out-of-state students and use part of the revenue to support merit scholarships for top Colorado kids.

The bill passed, but the $3 million was stripped from it.

Other 2013 education issues

Here are the highlights of other 2013 education legislation, organized alphabetically.

Accountability – There was no major tinkering with the state’s district and school rating system, heading into its fourth year next school year. One bill, Senate Bill 13-217, does have the potential to give the State Board of Education more flexibility in determining the ratings of districts that have alternative education campuses, whose students often have low achievement. Accountability may be a bigger issue in 2014 as the five-year deadline for converting the lowest-performing schools and districts gets closer.

Data, of course, is key to any accountability system. Educators and administrators with an interest in data might want to checks changes affecting district reporting to the Department of Education (House Bill 13-1219), exchange of data between K-12 and higher education (Senate Bill 13-053) and tracking of adult students (Senate Bill 13-071).

Early childhood – The top education measure of 2012 was the READ Act, intended to improve reading skills in grades K-3 and allow holding back low-performing third graders. (That measure kicks in next school year for schools.)

The issue was fairly low profile during the 2013 session. A Hickenlooper administration bill to consolidate some early childhood agencies in the Department of Human Services passed (House Bill 13-1117). And a bill to revive a year-around legislative early childhood study committee survived despite having its funding stripped (House Bill 13-1007).

Evaluation – The new principal and teacher evaluation system created by a 2010 law rolls out statewide next fall. There were only two bills on the issue this year. House Bill 13-1220 clarifies that individual evaluations and data will remain confidential.

House Bill 13-1257 gives the Department of Education greater oversight of district principal and teacher evaluation plans. (Current law allows districts to use the state model system or develop their own systems if they meet state standards.) The bill allows the department to review district plans – or do so at the request of “any interested party” – and order compliance with state standards or use of the state system.

Landmark bills by year
  • 2008 – Content standards and testing
  • 2009 – School and district accountability
  • 2010 – Educator effectiveness and evaluation
  • 2012 – Early literacy
  • 2013 – School finance reform (but the voters have the final say)

Health – One of 2013’s hot-button issues was House Bill 13-1081, which sets new requirements for comprehensive human sexuality education programs in districts that use a new grant program to be run by the Department of Public Health and Environment, not CDE.

Debate over the bill surfaced lots of culture-wars anxieties over parent rights, abstinence, teen pregnancy, homosexuality and local control, especially among Republican lawmakers, but Democrats got the bill through. (Learn more about this bill in this legislative staff summary.)

Another bill that received a fair amount of attention was the breakfast after the bell measure, which requires schools with high percentages of free- and reduced-lunch students to provide breakfast to all students after school starts. But many school districts remain concerned that House Bill 13-1006 could impose additional start-up costs on them.

The other health measure of note was House Bill 13-1171, which allows (but doesn’t require) schools to stock epinephrine injectors to treat students suffering allergic reactions. Students with diagnosed allergies now can bring their own injectors to school. Advocates of the bill argued that schools should stock injectors for undiagnosed students who have reactions.

Parent involvement – Senate Bill 13-193 makes several changes in parent involvement laws. The measure requires school accountability committees to better promote parent involvement and to be more involved in school turnaround and priority improvement plans, requires each district to designate one staff member as a parent contact person, expands the role of the State Advisory Council for Parent Involvement in Education and allocates $150,000 for the Department of Education to hire a parent engagement specialist.

School boards – Lawmakers passed a measure to allow school board members to participate in meetings by phone or other electronic means (Senate Bill 13-009) but killed measures to eliminate residency requirements for board candidates and to require better record keeping of executive sessions. (That measure, House Bill 13-1313, was promoted by AFT-Colorado, which represents Douglas County teachers and has been feuding with the conservative school board, which spends a lot of time in executive session.)

School construction – Simmering legislator anxiety about potential financial liabilities of the Building Excellent Schools Today school construction program apparently have been laid to rest with passage of Senate Bill 13-214, which formalizes the program’s debt-payment reserve and gives a legislative committee final review over BEST’s annual project list.

There was less support for Senate Bill 13-279, which sets some energy-efficiency requirements for new school buildings and major renovations. But the bill passed after amendments partially satisfied some school district objections.

School security – Despite the spotlight on the Connecticut schools shootings and a Democratic push to tighten gun-control laws, school security wasn’t a big issue during the 2013 session.

Two Republican bills that would have allowed school boards to arm school staff were killed, and a Democratic bill that would have banned carrying of concealed weapons on college campuses was killed by its sponsor after it failed to gain support. The only measure to pass was Senate Bill 13-138, which is intended to better integrate school resource officers into school security planning.

Students – The major bill in this area was House Bill 13-1021, which makes several changes in state truancy law with the intent of keeping more students in school and reducing the jailing of truant students. The bill encourages districts to develop procedures for identifying students who are chronically absent, to work more closely with local with juvenile services agencies and to adopt policies for dealing with habitually truant students. The bill says districts should “minimize the need for court action” and take students to court “only as a last resort.” The bill also limits detention of a student to no more than five days at any one time. (This measure is complicated; read the full text here.)

A proposed expansion of English language learner services didn’t make it this session. House Bill 13-1211 would have updated standards for district ELL programs and for reporting to the state on those programs, and it would have given the Department of Education greater oversight of such programs. Current law allows districts to spend state ELL dollars on individual students for only two years. The bill would have changed that to five years. Most of the bill’s sponsors were freshmen, and in the end they didn’t have the clout to snap up he $7 million appropriation needed to fund the bill.

Workforce training – Majority Democrats made economic development a major priority, and some of those bills had an educational component.

The highest profile measure was Senate Bill 13-165, which would have allowed state community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees in a limited number of technical fields. The bill was killed in the face of opposition from most state universities, leaving some lingering hard feelings between the two systems and the likelihood that community colleges will try this one again in 2014.

Ironically, an idea billed as an alternative to the community colleges bill also failed. Senate Bill 13-218 proposed creation of a $500,000 fund that state colleges could tap to match with business donations to create training and degree programs in fields where industries need workers. It died as an apparent tradeoff for allowing House Bill 13-1165 to live. That $474,000 measure would provide funding for higher education institutions to create a “career pathway” for students seeking jobs in manufacturing industries.

Debated but doomed

Tale of the tape
  • EdNews tracked 83 education and related budget measures this year. Of those, 49 passed. See the full list and get links to final versions in the Education Bill Tracker

Lots of other education bills also didn’t make the cut. Most were Republican ideas.

The most interesting was House Bill 13-1172, which would have created a modified parent trigger option for failing schools and also would have created an A-F grading system for districts and schools. With no support from Democrats or education reform groups the measure was doomed. To make a point, sponsor Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, kept trying to amend the idea on to other bills, including Senate Bill 13-213, but those gambits went nowhere.

Three GOP variations on tax credits for private school expenses were killed, as were five bills that would have trimmed public employee union powers. Two Republican bills on the Public Employees’ Retirement Association met the same fate.

Also killed were a GOP bill proposing a sales tax credit for school supplies and a Democratic sales tax “holiday” on college textbooks.

Full archive of EdNews 2013 legislative stories