first day of school

Budget battles likely to overshadow education issues as Colorado legislature convenes

DENVER, CO - January 10: Opening day of the second session of the 71st General Assembly in the House of Representatives at the Colorado State Capitol. January 10, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post)

Colorado lawmakers started the day Wednesday with pledges of bipartisanship and odes to the Colorado way. 

Then Republicans in the state Senate promptly sent a Democratic bill that would fully fund all-day kindergarten to a kill committee, while Democrats in the House dispatched a Republican bill that would allow concealed-carry permit holders to take their guns onto school grounds.

And so began the 2018 session of the Colorado General Assembly, a session that many observers expect to be stickier and messier than the 2017 session, which saw major compromises on budget issues, construction defects reform, and charter school funding. The big issues for this session are expected to be reform of the state pension fund and transportation funding, and both will have implications for education.

Colorado lawmakers are in an unusual position this year of having plenty of money to spend. Colorado’s economy continues to do well, and state economists predict that changes in federal tax law will cause Coloradans to pay more income tax to the state. Lawmakers also have more money to spend this year after passing a bipartisan bill last year that eased some spending restrictions.

Many Republicans are pushing for the lion’s share of that extra money to go toward transportation after a bipartisan bill to ask voters to approve a tax increase for roads and transit failed last year. That precludes spending it on other needs, including education.

Democrats, on the other hand, want to spread that money around.

“Let me be clear: Transportation funding is a priority,” Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran said in her opening day remarks. “Our Colorado students are also a priority. We will have the opportunity to address chronically low funding for K-12 and higher education.

“During this session, we will be reviewing every part of the state budget to assure that it balances the priorities and needs of the people of Colorado.”

That was about as specific as Duran got, though she also called out the need for more affordable child care options so that parents could pursue work opportunities.

Republican Minority Leader Patrick Neville said his party would work with Democrats on bills that offer “real hope for educational success,” but he pushed back against the idea that more money was necessary.

“We’ve spent a great fortune on K-12 education, but we haven’t gotten a great result,” he said. “The time has come for us to have an open mind to new approaches to education. Instead of spending that fortune to empower bureaucracies, why don’t we try to empower students and parents?”

The amount the state spends on education goes up every year with inflation and growth in the student population, and the governor’s budget calls for a 4.5 percent increase in per-pupil spending. Lawmakers also have reduced the state’s education funding shortfall that was created after the Great Recession. The shortfall is the amount of money the state should pay to local school districts under the state constitution but doesn’t because it can’t afford it. However, Colorado remains in the bottom tier of states when it comes to education funding, and doesn’t pay for full-day kindergarten.

The Democratic bill that was doomed on arrival would have found the money for kindergarten by asking voters to let the state keep money collected above a constitutional spending cap. State Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican, is working on a different kindergarten funding bill that would find the money by not paying districts for high school seniors who are taking multiple study halls or less rigorous electives. At Chalkbeat’s legislative preview, he said he hoped to make the bill revenue-neutral to make it more likely to pass.

On opening day, members of both parties praised a bill last year that requires districts to equitably share revenue from voter-approved local tax increases with charter schools. An interim committee on school finance is only halfway through its work and isn’t expected to produce recommendations until after this session is over. Any bills out of that committee would be taken up in 2019, by a new set of lawmakers.

Senate President Kevin Grantham, aCañon City Republican, did not call out any education issues as priorities for his caucus, but he did join Minority Leader Lucia Guzman, a Denver Democrat, in stressing the importance of expanding internet access in rural areas as a tool for both education and economic development. Gov. John Hickenlooper has repeatedly identified rural broadband as a priority, but legislative efforts have failed in past years.

“We have an opportunity to advance the education, economic growth, and healthcare systems of Colorado by ensuring that every corner of our state is effectively connected to the internet,” Grantham said. “Whether it’s the fifth grader in Dove Creek trying to get his homework done or the business owner in Creede wanting to sell his goods online or a hospital in Hugo researching life-saving solutions for their patient, there are few opportunities that can bring so much benefit to so many Coloradans.”

Guzman struck a similar note.

Far too many rural and mountain communities across Colorado remain isolated from the growing opportunities offered by broadband services,” she said. “Many students in schools across Colorado are falling behind because of the lack of access to reliable Internet.”

Guzman also called for campaign finance reforms that would reach into school board elections that have seen large influxes of outside money from teachers’ unions, charter school proponents and other interests.

Down to business

Here’s a look at the first education bills to hit the floor in Colorado

DENVER, CO - January 10: The Pledge of Allegiance in the House of Representatives on opening day of the second session of the 71st General Assembly at the Colorado State Capitol. January 10, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post)

These are some of the education and child care-related bills that caught our eye on the first day of the Colorado General Assembly’s 2018 session.

Some make tweaks to existing laws and policies, some tackle long-standing deficiencies, and some are message bills doomed to die an early death. The bills are loosely organized based on a non-scientific assessment of how interesting they are. Bills with bipartisan support and support from legislative leadership are closer to the top.

HB18-1002 Rural School District Teaching Fellowship Programs

This bill from state Rep. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican, and state Rep. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat, would create a fellowship program with a $10,000 stipend to lure students in their last year of a teaching program to rural school districts. The state would pay half the cost for 100 teaching fellows each year, and districts and institutions of higher learning would also contribute. Fellows who were offered full-time employment and turned it down would have to pay back the money. To qualify, districts need to have a history of being unable to fill teaching positions, among other criteria. These lawmakers from rural districts, who both serve on the Joint Budget Committee, have a history of teaming up on education issues with mixed success.

SB18-011 Students Excused from Taking State Assessments

This bill with bipartisan sponsorship would prevent districts from issuing consequences to students whose parents excuse them from state assessments. State law already bars punishment for not taking the tests, but this bill defines what that means. Students couldn’t be barred from activities or prevented from receiving awards.

HB18-1070 Additional Public School Capital Construction Funding

This bill from state Rep. Cole Wist, a Centennial Republican, and Rep. Dave Young, a Greeley Democrat, would increase the amount of money available under the Building Excellent Schools Today Act through two mechanisms. It would increase the annual lease payments allowed for under lease-purchases agreements authorized by that bill, and it would dedicate more retail marijuana tax money to school construction.

HB18-1004 Continue Child Care Contribution Tax Credit

This bill with bipartisan sponsorship takes an existing tax credit for people who donate to child care providers and extends it for five years past its expiration in 2020. 

SB18-013 Expand Child Nutrition School Lunch Protection Act

This bill with bipartisan sponsorship would expand an existing state subsidy that lets kids who would otherwise pay for a reduced-price lunch get the lunch for free. The program currently covers children in preschool through fifth grade. This bill would provide between $500,000 and $750,000 a year to subsidize free lunches for kids in grades six through eight.

SB18-012 Military Enlistment School Performance Indicator

This bill from state Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, and state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, would make enlistment in the military within one year of high school graduation an indicator of school performance, with equal weight to enrollment in college. Hill and Pettersen chair the education committees in their respective chambers.

HB18-1005 Notice to Students of Postsecondary Courses

Current law already requires school districts and charter schools to tell parents and students about opportunities for concurrent enrollment in postsecondary courses. This bill from state Rep. Jon Becker, a Fort Morgan Republican, and state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, would require that notice to include information about the benefits of taking college or technical school classes while still in high school and timelines that could affect enrollment decisions.

SB18-008 Reward Access to Arts Education in Public Schools

This bill from state Sen. Michael Merrifield, a Colorado Springs Democrat, would add a performance indicator to reward schools for the degree to which they provide access to arts education, including dance, music, theater and visual arts. It has bipartisan sponsorship.

SB18-004 Funding for Full-Day Kindergarten

This bill with a single Democratic sponsor, state Sen. Andy Kerr, went straight to a kill committee, but it might not be the only effort this session to finally find the money for this long-standing deficiency. This bill would refer a measure to the voters asking them to authorize spending above the cap imposed by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. Previous efforts to get taxpayers to pay more statewide have not been successful.

HB18-1019 Kindergarten Through 12th Grade Accreditation Weighted Factors

This bill from state Rep. Mike Foote, a Lafayette Democrat, would require the state board of education to create a weighted accreditation system that gives more credit for graduation rates to high schools with more rigorous curriculum.

HB18-1037 Concealed Handguns on School Grounds

This Republican-sponsored bill would allow concealed-carry permit holders to bring their firearms on school grounds. It went straight to a kill committee in the Democratic-controlled House.

HB18-1014 Social Studies Assessment in High Schools

This bill from state Rep. Perry Buck, a Windsor Republican, would get rid of the requirement to do a social studies assessment for high school students.


hurdle cleared

Indiana’s federally required education plan wins approval

PHOTO: Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Education
State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick greets elementary school students in Decatur Township.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has signed off on Indiana’s federally required education plan, ushering in another era of changes — although not exactly major ones — to the state’s public school system.

The U.S Department of Education announced the plan’s approval on Friday. Like other states, Indiana went through an extensive process to craft a blueprint to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was signed into law in 2015.

“Today is a great day for Indiana,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement. “Our ESSA plan reflects the input and perspective of many stakeholders in communities across our state. From the beginning, we set out to build a plan that responded to the needs of Hoosier students. From our clear accountability system to our innovative, locally-driven approach to school improvement, our ESSA plan was designed to support student success.”

The federal government highlighted two aspects of Indiana’s plan. One is a pledge to close achievement gaps separating certain groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, from their peers by 50 percent by 2023.

Another is a staple of other states’ plans, as well: adding new ways for measuring how ready students are for attending college or starting their careers. Indiana education officials and lawmakers have made this a priority over the past several years, culminating in a new set of graduation requirements the Indiana State Board of Education approved late last year.

Under Indiana’s plan, high schoolers’ readiness will be measured not just by tests but also by performance in advanced courses and earning dual credits or industry certifications. Elementary school students will be measured in part by student attendance and growth in student attendance over time. Test scores and test score improvement still play a major role in how all schools are rated using state A-F letter grades.

In all, 35 states’ ESSA plans have won federal approval.

Advocates hope the law will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

Indiana officials struggled to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, such as graduation requirements and diplomas.

Under the state’s ESSA plan, A-F grades would include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and, in the case of chronic absenteeism, attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

Because the Indiana State Board of Education passed its own draft A-F rules earlier this month — rules that deviate from the state ESSA plan — it’s possible Hoosier schools could get two sets of letter grades going forward, muddying the initial intent of the simple A-F grade concept parents and community members are familiar with.

The state board’s A-F changes include other measures, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan. The state board plan also gets rid of the test score improvement measure for high-schoolers.

While that A-F proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

The state can still make changes to its ESSA plan, and the state board’s A-F draft is also expected to see revisions after public comment. But the fact that they conflict now could create difficulties moving forward, and it has led to tension during state board meetings. Already, the state expected schools would see two years of A-F grades in 2018. If both plans move forward as is, that could continue beyond next year.

Read: Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Find more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.