Colorado lawmakers agreed to pay for full-day kindergarten, put $100 million toward reducing the state’s outstanding obligations to school districts, approved a slew of grants to address students’ mental health needs, and stepped up efforts to improve student reading.

With a new governor pushing an aggressive education agenda and Democratic control of both chambers, Colorado schools and students scored some big wins during the 2019 legislative session.

At the same time, the session was also notable for what didn’t happen.

With a blue wave sweeping progressive legislators into office, many observers wondered if the bipartisan education policy forged over a decade in Colorado might erode. But lawmakers did not make major changes to teacher evaluations or school accountability, did not take back money promised to charter schools, and did not make it harder for districts to outsource certain services.

The institutional structures and political assumptions that govern education in Colorado remain largely unchanged.

Some of the session’s most contested bills also touched on the classroom: a comprehensive sex education measure and tougher requirements for vaccine exemptions. The first one, even with amendments to appease critics, was one of the last bills debated Friday evening. The second died without a Senate vote in the face of vocal opposition and the likely prospect of a veto.

Here’s a look at what Colorado lawmakers did on education this year.

Full-day kindergarten

Gov. Jared Polis campaigned on making full-day kindergarten free for families and pushed it from his opening-day speech all the way through the legislative process, with the enthusiastic support of state Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican and former superintendent.

Starting this fall, the state will pay the same rate for kindergarten students as for older ones, and school districts will no longer be allowed to charge parents tuition. The move frees up millions of school dollars that can go toward other needs, and puts hundreds of dollars a month back in the pockets of many families.

Early childhood

Polis also campaigned on expanding access to preschool for 4-year-olds. The kindergarten bill frees up 5,000 spots in the Colorado Preschool Program.

But lawmakers said they didn’t have the money for 3,000 more spots that Polis requested.

On the second-to-last day of the session, the Colorado Senate emphatically rejected a proposal to raise nicotine taxes, with proceeds to double the state’s preschool investment, among other uses.

Lawmakers approved income tax credits for preschool teachers, to give a slight boost to their notoriously low salaries, and tax credits to help low-income families pay for child care. As in many states, tax policy has become a common way to address early childhood education priorities.  

And a bipartisan bill to let local voters create taxing districts to fund early childhood care faces a lawsuit from a taxpayer group.

School finance

Higher local property values will help the state pay the $175 million price tag on full-day kindergarten and supports more generous school spending.

The $7.4 billion education bill sets average per pupil funding at $8,476, up about 4.3 percent from the current year. The measure also includes $100 million to pay down money owed to districts after recession-era budget cuts, a $20 million special allocation for rural districts, and $22 million for special education students with more significant disabilities, along with saving $40 million for a rainy day.

The bill also contains grants to support physical education and to reduce the dropout rate by supporting at-risk ninth-graders.

Lawmakers also put more marijuana money toward school construction grants and set aside $25 million to cover transitions costs associated with full-day kindergarten.

Nonetheless, lawmakers are still holding back more than $500 million compared to what the state constitution requires them to spend, a move known as the budget stabilization factor.

This fall, voters will be asked to let Colorado keep all the revenue generated by existing taxes, with any extra money to be shared between K-12, higher education, and transportation.

Lawmakers did not take up a major tax reform that has the potential to free up hundreds of millions for schools, but a special committee working on long-term school finance issues received permission to meet for one more year. This question could come back next year.

Literacy

Alarmed by persistently low reading rates, lawmakers revamped the state’s READ Act to require better accounting of money granted to help struggling readers and more training for teachers. The bill intends to improve the quality of reading instruction in Colorado schools.

Lobbying from parents of students with dyslexia helped pass a pilot program to test more struggling readers for dyslexia in select schools and a study group to recommend policy changes.

Both bills are more modest than some advocates had hoped, but they set the stage for future changes.

Beyond ABCs

Democrats made students’ social and emotional well-being a top priority this session and passed a host of new grant and pilot programs to add nurses and social workers to schools, and give students better access to mental health care.

Key legislation includes:

Lawmakers also created an official definition of a community school and made community schools a type of innovation school, eligible for waivers from certain state rules. The hope is that schools will qualify for federal grants to develop services that help students and their families with needs outside the classroom, boosting achievement along the way.

Governance and accountability

Lawmakers laid out new ways for school districts that are struggling financially or academically to reorganize without voter approval. School boards will be able to hold closed sessions to prepare for union negotiations.

Online schools will have to report more information about student turnover and progress.

Lawmakers will put state money toward local experiments in school accountability and school improvement that have been pioneered by rural districts. That could generate recommendations for changes.

Lawmakers restored a provision of state law that requires school districts to get permission before sending school buses into neighboring districts. This had been undone by a last-minute amendment to another bill last year, which in turn became the subject of a lawsuit. This maintains school district authority over their boundaries and limits students’ ability to exercise school choice.

A proposal to change Colorado’s teacher evaluation system didn’t make it out of committee, but it could lead to more serious conversations during the off-season about making evaluations more meaningful and less burdensome.

Early childhood discipline

Suspensions and expulsions would be limited for students in grades 2 and below. Experts argue that forcing children out of school for discipline reasons creates long-term harm, and some schools already are successful using other approaches to manage behavior in the classroom.

Culturally relevant education

Government and history lessons in Colorado will need to include the contributions of all Americans, adding Asian Americans, LGBTQ people, and religious minorities to a list that already included African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and American Indians.

The measure — intensely debated at every stage — also creates a commission to make recommendations for such classes.

Upward and onward

Lawmakers held tuition at public universities flat and adopted a number of measures to improve access to advanced classes in high school and to higher education beyond:

  • Computer science education grants aimed at girls and students of color will distribute $250,000.
  • Districts could receive grants to enroll more students of color in advanced classes.
  • High schools could apply for about $130,000 worth of innovative learning program grants. This program would let districts send students to workplace learning opportunities without losing money to “seat time” requirements.
  • School counselor corps grants will now include training to help students and their families apply for college financial aid. Colorado students currently leave tens of millions in federal student aid on the table.
  • Colleges will be encouraged to phase out remedial classes and instead offer students assistance in regular courses. This approach has shown more success in helping students achieve their goals.
  • And high school students would get more opportunity to earn both high school and college credits simultaneously, under a bill requiring expanded use of concurrent enrollment programs.

Teacher shortage

Building on efforts from the 2018 session, lawmakers passed a series of bills that aim to attract more teachers to hard-to-fill positions and support those already in the field.

  • Teachers who take jobs in remote districts could qualify for as much as $25,000 in loan forgiveness if they stay on the job for five years.
  • More rural teachers pursuing additional education to get better at their jobs will qualify for stipends.
  • Another bill seeks to improve the quality of teacher preparation programs and provides $2,000 stipends to “mentor teachers” who get certification to work with student teachers.
  • Yet another bill provides mentoring and training for principals. Many teachers who leave the profession cite problems with leadership, while principal retention is a challenge in its own right.