From the Statehouse

Panel kicks off higher ed flex debate

The Long-Term Fiscal Stability Commission Wednesday came up with some additions to the 2010 legislature’s already heavy burden of financial issues.

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, (left) and Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, at the final meeting of Longterm Fiscal Stability Commission on Nov. 4, 2009.
Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, (left) and Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, at the final meeting of Longterm Fiscal Stability Commission on Nov. 4, 2009.

The commission recommended measures to give state colleges and universities more financial flexibility (but not power to set tuition), create a commission to study the fiscal provisions of the state constitution, establish a state rainy day fund and launch an outside examination of state and local taxes.

The 16-member, ideologically diverse panel was created by the 2009 legislature to examine the state’s long-term fiscal condition. The bills and resolutions it recommended at its final meeting Wednesday are subject to review by the Legislative Council, which meets next week.

Given the budget crisis facing higher education, the issue of financial flexibility for colleges and universities has been expected to be on lawmakers’ 2010 agenda.

The bill proposed by the commission may provide an initial frame for that discussion, but it’s impossible to discern now the direction the debate will take. Legislation to give institutions more flexibility failed during the 2009 session.

The original draft of the bill recommended Wednesday was developed by Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, and a group of college presidents he met with recently.

“Obviously there are many other perspectives” to be heard on the issue, Morse said. “This is really the first cut at it.” He predicted that the text of the bill would be changed completely once it starts through the legislative process next year.

“The one section you will not see in the bill is tuition flexibility … the governor at this point would not permit a bill to become law that had tuition flexibility in it,” Morse explained.

Annual tuition increases now are controlled by ceilings the legislature sets. Given the steady decline in tax support for colleges and universities, many college presidents have argued that individual colleges should be able to control their own charges and financial aid, which would allow them to raise more revenue through tuition hikes and then offset the higher costs for needy students with financial aid.

Gov. Bill Ritter has said no major changes should be made in tuition policy until participants in a higher ed strategic plan have studied the issue. That process is due to kick off shortly.

After some occasionally snippy back and forth between Morse and Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, about what should be in the recommended bill, the panel unanimously approved a version that would:

  • Require the higher ed system to come up with common requirements for five degree programs by 2011, with additional coordination of degrees after that.
  • Allow some institutions to enroll unlimited numbers of foreign students separate from their ratios of in-state and out-of-state students.
  • Give schools the power to set their own financial aid eligibility policies.
  • Exempt colleges from state financial and information-technology rules.
  • Reduce the amount of financial data colleges have to report to the state and give colleges greater control over their own construction projects.

Dropped from the bill were provisions allowing universities to exempt new employees from state personnel rules, make it easier for retired college and university staff to return to work without affecting their PERA pensions and that would ease the rules on colleges hiring their own lawyers rather than using the attorney general’s office. Those were the subject of the Morse-Gerou debate.

Text of the proposed bill (sections 8-10, 12 and 14-16 were dropped).

After all the back and forth, commission member Cris White, COO of the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority, quipped, “Politics in action is a fascinating thing to watch.”

Several members, both legislators and citizens, expressed disappointment that tuition policy was off the table.

The commission had an equally lively debate over the proposal by panel chair Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, to create a special commission that would study and possibly propose changes in the financial provisions of the state constitution.

The complex process first would require the 2010 legislature, by a two-thirds vote, to propose the plan to voters in November 2010. The ballot proposal would create a 19-member commission with the power to study and recommend changes in financial constitutional requirements. The body would be exempt from the single-subject rule that limits the scope of ballot measures.

If the voters approve the idea, the 19-member bipartisan panel would be appointed by legislative leaders, the governor and the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

The commission’s proposal would be subject to legislative review in 2012 and go to the voters in November 2012. Lawmakers would make a recommendation on the plan but couldn’t prevent it from being placed on the ballot, nor would the commission be obligated to accept the legislature’s recommendations.

After a lengthy discussion of constitutional issues – conservative members opposed creating a third way to place amendments on the ballot – the panel passed the proposal 4-2, with majority Democrats supporting and Republicans voting no. (Text)

The third major proposal made by the committee would create a state rainy day fund equaling 15 percent of the general fund. The panel voted 5-1 to approve a version by Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver, that would take considerably longer to reach 15 percent than would have an alternative proposal by Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray. That was rejected 2-4.

The committee also unanimously proposed conducting a study of the state and local tax system. Also a Heath idea, the privately funded study would be done by University of Denver experts.

Otherwise, the four commission Democratic legislators killed a Gerou proposal to extend for another five years a five-year funding program for highways and state buildings that was established by the 2009 legislature.

And the committee approved a proposed bill that would make it easier for state agencies to contract with non-profit groups as a way to provide less-expensive state services.

Before the formal vote on each measure, the non-legislator members of the panel were asked informally how they would vote on each bill. (Only the six legislative members were allowed to vote formally.) In most cases the majority sentiment of the non-legislators agreed with the formal vote tallies, although it did make for a long, talky day.

The Legislative Council, the administrative panel composed of legislative leaders and some other lawmakers, meets next Tuesday to consider the bills proposed by all 2009 interim committees. The council can reject a bill if it concludes the proposal went beyond a particular interim committee’s assignment.

The commission’s proposal are expected to become part of the larger – and difficult – debates the 2010 legislature will face over cutting the state budget to meet revenue shortfalls, protecting higher education from further cuts, reducing state K-12 aid and shoring up the Public Employees’ Retirement Association.

Do your homework

rules and regs

New York adds some flexibility to its free college scholarship rules. Will it be enough for more students to benefit?

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

New York is offering more wiggle room in a controversial “Excelsior” scholarship requirement that students stay in-state after graduating, according to new regulations released Thursday afternoon.

Members of the military, for example, will be excused from the rule, as will those who can prove an “extreme hardship.”

Overall, however, the plan’s rules remain strict. Students are required to enroll full-time and to finish their degrees on time to be eligible for the scholarship — significantly limiting the number who will ultimately qualify.

“It’s a high bar for a low-income student,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “It’s going to be the main reason why students lose the scholarship.”

The scholarship covers free college tuition at any state college or university for students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. But it comes with a major catch: Students who receive Excelsior funding must live and work in New York state for the same number of years after graduation as they receive the scholarship. If they fail to do so, their scholarships will be converted to loans, which the new regulations specify have 10-year terms and are interest-free.

The new regulations allow for some flexibility:

  • The loan can now be prorated. So if a student benefits from Excelsior for four years but moves out of state two years after graduation, the student would only owe two years of payments.
  • Those who lose the scholarship but remain in a state school, or complete a residency in-state, will have that time count toward paying off their award.
  • Members of the military get a reprieve: They will be counted as living and working in-state, regardless of where the person is stationed or deployed.
  • In cases of “extreme hardship,” students can apply for a waiver of the residency and work requirements. The regulations cite “disability” and “labor market conditions” as some examples of a hardship. A state spokeswoman said other situations that “may require that a student work to help meet the financial needs of their family” would qualify as a hardship, such as a death or the loss of a job by a parent.
  • Students who leave the state for graduate school or a residency can defer repaying their award. They would have to return to New York afterwards to avoid having the scholarship convert to a loan.

Some of law’s other requirements were also softened. The law requires students to enroll full-time and take average of 30 credits a year — even though many SUNY and CUNY students do not graduate on time. The new regulations would allow students to apply credits earned in high school toward the 30-credit completion requirement, and stipulates that students who are disabled do not have to enroll full-time to qualify.

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”