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.


Keep Out

What’s wrong with auditing all of Colorado’s education programs? Everything, lawmakers said.

Students at DSST: College View Middle School work on a reading assignment during an English Language Development class (Photo By Andy Cross / The Denver Post).

State Rep. Jon Becker pitched the idea as basic good governance. The state auditor’s office examines all sorts of state programs, but it never looks at education, the second largest expenditure in Colorado’s budget and a sector that touches the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. So let the auditor take a good, long look and report back to the legislature on which programs are working and which aren’t.

The State Board of Education hated this idea. So did Democrats. And Republicans. The House Education Committee voted 12-0 this week to reject Becker’s bill, which would have required a systematic review of all educational programs enacted by the legislature and in place for at least six years. Even an amendment that would have put the state board in the driver’s seat couldn’t save it.

As he made his case, Becker, a Republican from Fort Morgan in northeastern Colorado, was careful not to name any specific law he would like to see changed.

“I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, he’s coming after my ox,’” he told the House Education Committee this week. “I know how this works. And that’s not the intent of this bill. It’s to look at all programs.”

But members of the committee weren’t buying it.

State Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, pressed school board members who testified in favor of the bill to name a law or program they were particularly excited to “shed some light on.” If there’s a law that’s a problem, he asked, wouldn’t it make more sense to drill down just on that law?

They tried to demur.

“I feel like you’re trying to get us to say, we really want you to go after 191 or we really want you to go after charter schools,” said Cathy Kipp, a school board member in the Poudre School District who also serves on the board of the Colorado Association of School Boards. “That’s not what this is about.”

Kipp said committee members seemed to be “scared that if their pet programs get looked at, they’ll be eliminated. Why be scared? Shouldn’t we want these programs to be looked at?”

But proponents’ own testimony seemed to suggest some potential targets, including Senate Bill 191, Colorado’s landmark teacher effectiveness law.

As Carrie Warren-Gully, president of the school boards association, argued for the benefits of an independent evaluation of education programs, she offered up an example: The schedules of administrators who have to evaluate dozens of teachers under the law are more complicated than “a flight plan at DIA,” and districts have to hire additional administrators just to manage evaluations, cutting into the resources available for students, she said.

The debate reflected ongoing tensions between the state and school districts over Colorado’s complex system for evaluating schools and teachers and holding them accountable for student achievement. The systematic review bill was supported by the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Association of School Executives, and the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance.

Lawmakers repeatedly told school officials that if they have problems with particular parts of existing legislation, they should come to them for help and will surely find allies.

Exasperated school officials responded by pointing to the past failure of legislation that would have tweaked aspects of evaluations or assessments — but the frustration was mutual.

“Just because people don’t agree with one specific approach doesn’t mean people aren’t willing to come to the table,” said committee chair Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat.

There were other concerns, including the possibility that this type of expansive evaluation would prove expensive and create yet another bureaucracy.

“When have we ever grown government to shrink it?” asked state Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. “There’s a paradox here.”

And state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican who is also a former teacher and school superintendent, questioned whether the auditor’s office has the expertise to review education programs. He also asked what standard would be applied to evaluate programs that are implemented differently in more than 170 school districts across the state.

“If it’s effective more often than not, will they keep it?” Wilson asked. “If it doesn’t work in a third of them, it’s gone?”

State Board of Education members had similar questions when they decided earlier this year that this bill was a bad idea. Many of Colorado’s education laws don’t have clear measures of success against which their performance can be evaluated.

The READ Act, for example, stresses the importance of every child learning to read well in early elementary school and outlines the steps that schools have to take to measure reading ability and provide interventions to help students who are falling behind their peers.

But how many children need to improve their reading and by how much for the READ Act to be deemed effective or efficient? That’s not outlined in the legislation.

Proponents of the bill said outside evaluators could identify best practices and spread them to other districts, but state board members said they already monitor all of these programs on an ongoing basis and already produce thousands of pages of reports on each of these programs that go to the legislature every year. In short, they say they’re on the case.

“The state board, I can assure you, are very devoted and intent to make sure that we follow, monitor, and watch the progress of any programs that go through our department and make sure they’re enacted in the best way possible within the schools,” board member Jane Goff said.

safe bet

Disputed money in Colorado education budget will go to school safety measures

DENVER, CO--JUNE 167TH 2009--The Colorado State Capitol Wednesday afternoon. THE DENVER POST/ANDY CROSS

Colorado lawmakers will take $7 million in “extra” education money they’ve been wrangling over and put it toward bills that improve school safety.

The money isn’t officially designated for a specific bill, but $7 million happens to be the amount of money that state Sen. Don Coram, a Montrose Republican, has requested in a bill that would provide grants to schools that want to buy radio technology that allows them to communicate more directly with emergency responders. Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat, is a co-sponsor of the bill.

At a Senate Education Committee hearing last month, administrators from rural school districts that already use the hand-held radios said they would be an immense help in a school shooting, but they also get daily use for more mundane problems, like dealing with broken-down buses and irate parents.

The bill calls for the Department of Public Safety to make $7 million in annual grants available to schools for five years. Grant recipients would be able to use the money to provide training in how to communicate effectively with first responders in an emergency, to update school crisis management plans, and to make improvements in their communications systems.

The bill doesn’t identify a specific funding source. The compromise reached late last week allows the money to go toward a range of school safety needs, not just the radio technology bill.

Republicans in the Senate and Democrats in the House had been fighting over how to adjust the 2017-18 appropriation for K-12 education after roughly 900 fewer students enrolled in Colorado schools than had been forecast.

Democrats had wanted to keep total spending the same and give schools a little bit extra per student. Republicans wanted to keep per-pupil spending the same and put the extra money into the general fund.

The debate over an amount that represents less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the state’s $6.6 billion education budget was symbolic of the larger budget debate hanging over this legislative session.

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, the Lakewood Democrat who chairs the House Education Committee, had pushed for more money to go to schools, but she said this week that the deal is a reasonable compromise.

“It keeps the money in schools and supports schools in ways that they’re really struggling,” she said.

The state Senate and House have both signed off on the compromise proposal, which comes as the Joint Budget Committee prepares to discuss the 2018-19 education budget.