From the Statehouse

Legislature 2009: Spotlight on education

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.)

money matters

Why so negative? Colorado lawmakers seek to rebrand controversial tool that limits spending on schools

A student works at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado lawmakers are tired of hearing about the “negative factor.”

So they changed its name — at least in statute.

Going forward, the tool that budget writers will use to spend down the state’s financial obligation to public schools to balance the state budget officially will go by its original name: the “budget stabilization factor.”

The change was made when lawmakers passed the state’s annual school funding bill earlier this month.

The negative factor “has been used as a pejorative,” said state Sen. Kevin Priola, the Henderson Republican who put forth the idea of the name change. “The budget is never perfect. But these are the economic realities we have to deal with.”

Some education funding advocates are rolling their eyes. The term, they say, has become so well known and accepted that any attempt to change it will be difficult.

“You can change the name, but the debt’s the same,” said Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for more school funding.

The negative factor — oh, sorry, we mean the budget stabilization factor — is just one part of a much larger and complex formula used to determine school funding.

The budget tool was first created in 2009 when state lawmakers were forced to slash the budget after the Great Recession.

School advocates knew they couldn’t escape the cuts the rest of the state was facing. So a team of lawmakers, lobbyists, superintendents and financial officers helped developed the tool.

Here’s how it works: After lawmakers determine how much funding schools should receive based on a formula developed in 1994, they compare that amount to available tax revenue. The difference is that year’s “stabilization factor.”

At the time the tool was created, the group wanted the cuts to be systematic — applied equally across all schools — and transparent. As part of the compromise, the state was required to track how much money it was withholding from schools.

In 2014, funding advocates sued the state, claiming the negative factor was unconstitutional. But the state Supreme Court disagreed.

Since then, Republican lawmakers have become more critical about the provision that requires them to track how much money the state isn’t giving schools. They argue that other state services such as roads, hospitals and parks all share a burden when it comes to balancing the budget.

Lawmakers have withheld about $5.8 billion from schools since the budget balancing tool was created. However, funding has slowly crept up each year, just not as fast as school leaders would hope.

School Politics

Colorado schools were a hot topic at the state Capitol this year. Here’s what lawmakers did.

A teacher reads to her students at the Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado lawmakers this week are celebrating major education-related policy wins, including finding more money for public schools.

This year’s legislative session, which ended Wednesday, was marked by big compromises on issues that have befuddled policy makers for years: charter school funding, ninth-grade standardized testing and measuring the reading skills of the state’s youngest bilingual students.

With so many thorny debates behind them, lawmakers and Capitol observers are now looking toward other major policy questions they’ve put off for years, including reforming how the state pays for its public schools and making changes to Colorado’s school accountability laws and teacher licensure policies.

“The hope is now that the K-12 community can come together to focus on the big issues,” said Jen Walmer, Colorado state director of Democrats for Education Reform.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s look back at the last 120 days:

Lawmakers found more money for schools than anyone could have imagined.

Before the legislative session began, school districts were preparing for the worst. Despite the state’s booming economy, constraints on how much the state could spend meant schools could have gone without much of a funding increase.

State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican from Sterling, on the first day of the legislative session.

The forecast became even more dire midway through the session when lawmakers learned the local tax base that generates about a third of all state spending on schools was going to shrink drastically. The worst predictions had the state’s education funding shortfall growing to more than $1 billion.

State officials found a technical workaround, and lawmakers were able to send more money to schools. On average, schools will see about $242 more per student next year.

However, leaders in both parties are aware that the state’s problematic constitutional constraints, tax policies and school funding formula still exist. That’s why a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers led a successful effort to create a committee to study and propose changes to the way the state funds it schools.

“We have more work to do. We need to continue with what we’ve done this session: have tough conversations,” said Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat.

“How do we make sure that students, regardless of race, income, regardless of whether they have a disability, that they have the opportunity to succeed?” she said. “There is no doubt that we have structural decisions we have to make when it comes to our budget.”

Republican leaders said they’re also anxious to see the committee get to work. But they’re less likely to support an influx of cash to the state’s schools.

“If we’re going to look at real overhauls to the system and funding, we need to look at all the options — not just throwing more money at the system — a system that by many’s accounting is not working well or efficiently,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican.

He and other Republicans are encouraging the committee to look at how other states have focused their funding formulas on students rather than on a school’s size or geographic location, and used funding to expand school choice.

Lawmakers already have one option on the table: A proposal to set a statewide property tax rate, which was born out of the legislature’s budget office and floated early in the session. While there was a lot of talk behind the scenes, it failed to gain traction. Expect to hear a lot more about the idea.

The charter school funding compromise, which some called “historic,” was just one of many longstanding issues that were resolved this year.

The 2017 legislative session will likely be remembered as the most productive in a decade because of several big compromises.

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, sits alone on the House of Representatives floor as members of her own party filibustered her compromise on charter school funding. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Lawmakers grinned Thursday as they ticked off a long list of accomplishments to reporters, including one that could send more local money to charter schools. In return, charter schools will be required to post on their official websites more tax documents and will no longer receive two specific financial waivers.

The last-minute charter school funding bill — sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers that included state Reps. Brittany Pettersen and Lang Sias and state Sens. Owen Hill and Angela Williams — was the compromise no one saw coming.

“Anything is possible,” Pettersen said after the session.

Lawmakers had wrestled with the question of requiring the state’s school districts to share their locally approved tax increases with charter schools for two years. Despite vocal objections from several school superintendents, the legislature overwhelmingly supported the bill.

Early in the session, lawmakers eager to reduce the number of standardized tests reached another compromise with the governor’s office. High school freshmen will no longer be required to take the controversial PARCC English and math tests. Instead, they’ll take a test that is aligned to the college entrance exam, the SAT.

We kicked the PARCC test out of high schools,” said Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. “It’s gone!”

Other deals that were reached include the creation of a diploma seal of biliteracy for students who demonstrate proficiency in two languages and new regulations on how to monitor the reading skills of young English language learners.

Colorado schools will also see a financial boost for the next three years after lawmakers passed an omnibus bill that resolved a debate over a hospital fee that helps pay for the state’s health insurance program.

As part of the biggest compromise of the year, the state will raise taxes on recreational marijuana. Those taxes will send $30 million to rural schools next year and $40 million over two years to the state education fund, a sort of savings account for schools.

Rural schools flexed their muscles and blocked a bill to reform the state’s student suspension rules, but they didn’t get everything they wanted.

Not every piece of bipartisan legislation reached the governor’s desk.

Students at Merino Elementary School work during class.

A bill that aimed to reduce the number of preschool and elementary school students who are suspended was killed by a GOP-controlled committee at the request of rural schools, despite having overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans.

Rural school leaders said the bill attempted to create a statewide solution for a Front Range problem. A Chalkbeat analysis of suspension data, which rural superintendents refuted, showed otherwise.

Supporters of the legislation vowed to work with opponents this summer and fall and try again next year.

While rural schools were successful in blocking that mandate, they were dealt a setback when a bill that would have allowed them to remedy a teacher shortage by hiring unlicensed teachers was killed by its sponsors.

State Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican, said he couldn’t garner enough support for his effort. At least not this year.

“Like Arnold Schwarzenegger said, ‘I’ll be back,’” Wilson said.

Even though that bill failed, lawmakers did take steps to curb the state’s teacher shortage.

Stanley Teacher Prep resident Lily Wool works with kindergartner Samori McIntosh at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. Wood’s residency program is merging the Boettcher Teacher Residency program. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Prior to the session, education leaders at the Capitol had few if any plans to take on the state’s teacher shortage. But retired teacher and freshman state Rep. Barbara McLachlan pushed to address the issue.

The Durango Democrat partnered with a host of other lawmakers from both parties to sponsor legislation to study the shortage and provide solutions. She also sponsored a bill that would allow rural schools to hire retired teachers without penalizing their pension. Both bills were sent to the governor.

Two other bills, including one to create multiple teacher preparation pilot programs, failed to advance. But with the issue on the legislature’s radar, expect it to come back.

“That’s the most pressing issue, next to funding,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat.

Despite newfound freedom from Washington, lawmakers didn’t make any bold changes to the state’s school accountability system.

Several lawmakers early in the session seemed eager to take advantage of new flexibility from the federal government.

While the state education department was busy putting together a mandated statewide plan to adopt the new Every Student Succeeds Act, lawmakers were debating how they could update the state’s school accountability laws.

But only two bills making minor tweaks advanced.

A HOPE Online student works during the day at an Aurora learning center. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

One requires elementary schools that receive low quality ratings to address the needs of students in preschool through third grade.

The second bill requires the state to measure how well high school students are meeting updated graduation requirements. As part of the new requirements, which go into effect in the year 2021, high schools must adopt a list of options students can use to prove they’re prepared for college or a career.

Those options include the SAT exam, which all Colorado juniors are required to take; passing a concurrent enrollment college-level course; passing a Advanced Placement test; or completing a college thesis-like capstone project demonstrating knowledge of a subject.

“This bill is a really clever way to allow school districts to say, ‘This is what we care about, and this how we’re going to do it,’” said Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform group.

Some of the most anticipated school-accountability bills of the session never materialized.

One would have provided more clarity on what happens to schools that consistently receive low quality ratings from the state.

“This was a big undertaking, and the bill’s sponsors needed more time,” Ragland said.

It’s another issue Capitol-watchers can expect to see return next year.

As Ragland put it, “The lack of clarity at the end of the state’s accountability clock is bad for everyone.”