Financial worries dominated the 2009 session of the Colorado General Assembly, halting efforts to rebuild state college and university budgets and prompting attempts to nibble at the edges of Amendment 23’s guarantees for K-12 spending.

The most significant policy proposal of the 2009, Senate Bill 09-163, passed easily and with little examination outside of the House and Senate education committees. It will bring an end to the CSAP-focused system of evaluating schools and replace with a system based on student growth over time, and it will give Colorado a single accountability system to replace the three the state now has.

The combination of 2008’s Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids and SB 09-163 have the potential, over time, to create a different kind of K-12 education system for the state.

Education News Colorado this session tracked more than 100 bills, budget measures and resolutions of interest to the education community. About 50 of those were significant and passed; another dozen education bills of interest didn’t make it.

Here are the highlights what your legislators did – and didn’t – do on education issues.

Innovation and reform

SB 09-163 tops this list, but lawmakers also started the state down the path toward use of educator identifiers (HB 09-1065), standardized high school/college dual enrollment (HB 09-1319 and SB 09-285) and portability of teacher pensions across all districts (SB 09-282).

Charter schools

Charter school proponents made a big push this year for creating reliable sources of funding for charter facilities. Bills were introduced for that purpose, amendments were added to other bills and provisions were proposed on budget bills. The results were clearly mixed from the charter point of view. But, a measure to give charters better access to school district bond issues, Senate Bill 09-176, was passed.

Also passed was Senate Bill 09-230, which allows charter schools to become food service authorities, making them eligible for federal programs and able to provide meals to other schools.

Money for K-12

Facing a $1.5 billion revenue shortfall in what was left of the 2008-09 budget and in the full 2009-10 fiscal year, fund transfers and budget cuts were a major focus for lawmakers this session. Much of the “extra” education spending approved by the 2008 legislature, such as $35 million for full-day kindergarten facilities and extra per-pupil funding, was slashed.

K-12 education received the full funding called for by Amendment 23, but there was debate about what exactly A23 covers, a discusssion likely to revive if the legislature has to make cuts in a few months after the 2009-10 budget year starts, and when planning begins for the 2010-11 budget.

One small slice of the education funding increase , $110 million, is off limits for school districts until next January. The school finance act (SB 09-256) authorizes the legislature to pull that back if budget conditions warrant.

No money, at least from the state

Legislators like to do things – pass bills and create programs. That can be hard to do in Colorado, given constitutional spending limitations, and it’s even harder in tight budget times.

That didn’t stop lawmakers from creating a number of education programs and studies this year – and propose they be paid for with “gifts, grants and donations.” In a few cases, it’s hoped federal stimulus funds will be available.

Those GGD programs include dropout prevention (HB 09-1243), the educator identifier, the parent advisory council and parental involvement bill (SB 09-090), the healthy choices dropout prevention pilot (SB 09-123), the teacher of the year program (HB 09-1240) and the education innovation institute at the University of Northern Colorado (SB 09-032).

Health and safety

Bills to expand free lunches to some preschool students (SB 09-033) and require creation of school policies on food allergies  (SB 09-226) were passed, but it generally was a bad year for this kind of legislation. Bills to require school bus seat belts (SB 090029), physical activity in schools (SB 09-131) and healthy snacks in schools (SB 09046) all died.

Districts and schools

The legislature finally passed a bill making it easier for parents to get time off from work for school conferences (HB 09-1057), and lawmakers eased the zero tolerance rules on bringing any kinds of weapons to school (SB 09-257), responding to the case of a suburban high schooler caught with fake drill-team rifles.

Based on other legislation, school boards will have to record their meetings (HB 09-1082). But, they won’t have to post district check registers on the Internet because SB 09-057 died. School can’t offer incentives just to get students to enroll so schools can bulk up enrollment counts (HB 09-1125). And, schools will be able to get loans from the state treasurer to build alternative energy projects or buy alternative-fuel school buses (HB 09-1312).

Education interest groups, especially those representing school boards and administrators, were nervous about tight funding this year, so they made a full-court press to kill or weaken bills seen as imposing new duties on local districts without state funding.

Study, study, study

For many lawmakers, the 120-day session is more than enough. Others like to keep at it through the summer and autumn, working up new proposals for the next legislature. No fewer than four interim or study committees will be working on issues of interest to education.

  • There will be a major study of the state school finance system, under increasing pressure because of tight state revenues and growing interest in distributing money in new ways (HJR -09-1020).
  • Another panel will take a broader look at the state’s “fiscal stability,” an issue of growing concern because of revenue problems, the impending expiration of Referendum C and new legal theories about how the state can work around the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (SJR 09-044).
  • Yet another committee will study school safety, specifically the issue of how schools should handle students returning from detention or treatment (HJR 09-1025).
  • And, a permanent legislative “commission” on early childhood and school readiness issues was created by HB 09-1343.

One thing lawmakers won’t be studying is the possible merger of the departments of education and higher education – HJR 09-1013 was killed.

Data

The brave new world of school reform, alignment, new accountability measures and the Race to the Top requires data, and lots of it.

Two little-noticed bills on this subject were passed.

  • HB 09-1214 empowers the Education Data Advisory Council to review all proposed laws and rules requiring school data reports and advise the legislature or the appropriate agency on the cost and need for those requirements.
  • HB 09-1285 extends the state Government Advisory Board and creates an education data advisory subcommittee.

Higher education

It wasn’t a particularly happy session for higher education.

The biggest scare was over money. It took some doing, but state colleges and universities were saved from cuts that would have taken them below 2005-06 levels and were basically funded at no-growth levels. That, of course, will mean budget cuts at state colleges and universities, because costs rise even when revenue doesn’t.

Since the state has little money for higher ed, there was a push to give colleges and universities more financial flexibility, but that went only so far. A bill to streamline the approval process for cash-funded construction projects was passed (Senate Bill 09-290). A more expansive measure (SB 09-295) at various times contained provisions to give college control over tuition and financial aid, exemption from state fiscal rules and to permit community and four-year colleges to seek sales and property tax revenue. But it died in the closing hours of the session.

Bills to give tuition breaks to veterans (HB 09-1039) and to students whose parents take a job in Colorado (HB 09-1063), to encourage vets to become teachers (SB 09-062) and to provide more scholarship funding for National Guard members (HB 09-1290) did pass. But the measure to extend resident tuition to undocumented students (SB 09-170) was killed in the Senate.

(Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts. Right-click on the bill number to open in a new window; close that window to return to the Tracker. We’ll shortly be editing the Tracker so that it includes only bills that became law.)