The question of paying for education innovations, put off for another day when the legislators passed the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids in 2008, was back on the table Friday as lawmakers and state education officials wrestled with future K-12 funding.

Department of Education officials (foreground) met with legislators at a JBC hearing Dec. 11, 2009.
Department of Education officials (foreground) met with legislators at a JBC hearing Dec. 11, 2009.

A phalanx of Colorado Department of Education brass met with nearly two-dozen legislators for the annual hearing at which the department is supposed to answer budget questions from the Joint Budget Committee.

Gov. Bill Ritter has proposed a 6.1 percent cut in state aid to schools in 2010-11, and that unprecedented proposal has sparked a debate about the interpretation of Amendment 23 and has school districts scrambling to weigh increasing class sizes, laying off teachers, freezing salaries, closing schools and more.

But the hearing focused less on budget details and more on issues like the value of the federal Race to the Top program; well-worn arguments on high-stakes testing and education reform, and the unknown future costs of education innovations set in motion by the legislature in 2008.

The CAP4K program passed that year requires formal descriptions of both school readiness and postsecondary and workforce readiness, adoption of new state content standards, selection of a new statewide testing systems, alignment of local high school graduation requirements with the state standards and coordination of college entrance requirements with the new K-12 system. Implementation is scheduled to stretch into 2014.

The measure (Senate Bill 08-212) didn’t include any funding but did require that a professional three-part study of potential costs be conducted. The first part of the report is due next March, but the full cost study won’t be done until October 2011.

Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder
Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder

JBC Chair Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder, said, “We bypassed that [funding] process in this bill. … We never should have done that.”

Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton, said, ‘I don’t really see how our state in our current financial condition can afford to complete CAP4K … is there talk of suspending or delaying parts of it?”

Much of the legislative heartburn over CAP4K costs seems to center on the potential cost of a new testing system. (The readiness descriptions have been written, and the State Board of Education adopted the new standards on Thursday. And, CDE staff and a task force are hard at work on new tests, which must be adopted by SBE in a year.)

A Nov. 20 memo to JBC staff from CDE Deputy Commissioner Ken Turner (who’s since left the department for an education job overseas) said, “On the low side the estimate may be $50 million. One the high side it could run to $80 million” to launch a new testing system and train teachers how to use it.

Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs
Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs

And Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs and chair of the House Education Committee, zeroed in on current testing costs, asking “If we were to get a waiver and suspend CSAPs for a year, what would it save us?”

Solano, House Ed vice chair and the legislature’s leading CSAP critic, concurred, asking, “Is that possible?”

Rich Wenning, CDE associate commissioner, said the state spends about $19 million a year on CSAPs, with $5.6 million of that covered by the federal government. Obtaining a waiver would probably take as much time as it will to get a new test in place, he said.

SBE member Elaine Gantz Berman, D-1st District, responded, “I would think that if we were going to pursue a waiver around testing we would be sending a very mixed message … and it would affect our Race to the Top application. … You can’t have accountability without some sort of annual test. … We’d have to look at how badly do we want Race to the Top. I’m not sure it [requesting a waiver] is a risk we want to take.”

Member Randy DeHoff, R-6th District, noted that the new testing system is envisioned to include more than the once-a-year snapshot provided by the CSAPs.

Pommer was not persuaded, commenting, “I find it difficult to believe another test will help teachers teach better.” (Pommer also was dismissive of R2T, saying, “It’s almost entirely political and ideological … it’s just a bribe.”)

Speaking with EdNews after the meeting, Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, downplayed talk about delaying CAP4K implementation. Romer was one of the prime sponsors of the legislation.

“I believe we need to move further, faster, quicker on CAP4K, and we should not use the budget challenges to slow that transition down.”

“I did not hear any voices from CDE or the state board” saying we should slow the process down. “I heard the same familiar voices [of legislators] who don’t believe in standards-based education.”

Romer continued, “I understand they are frustrated by the cost of assessments,” but he predicted the actual costs “will be fraction of” the $80 million figure, and “We clearly are going to get money from the feds to pay for a large portion of those new assessments.”

“I’m sure that the governor won’t support [delaying CAP4K] nor will I nor a majority of the Senate.”

Education Commissioner Dwight Jones (left) and Bob Schaffer, chair of the State Board of Education, prepare for a JBC hearing on Dec. 11, 2009.
Education Commissioner Dwight Jones (left) and Bob Schaffer, chair of the State Board of Education, prepare for a JBC hearing on Dec. 11, 2009.

Back to budget woes

There was a little time during the three-hour meeting to discuss the immediate budget crisis.

“School districts have never experienced a reduction on the level proposed,” Jones said, a comment seconded by Vody Herrmann, CDE’s school finance expert.

Herrmann also noted that in the current, 2009-10 budget school districts likely will have to absorb more than a long-expected $110 million, or 2 percent cent. She was referring to the potential cost of higher-than-projected pupil counts and a dramatic rise in the number of at-risk students.

Pommer said, “I think we’ve made it pretty clear that the $110 million is gone.” While it’s “hard for us to know” if cuts will be higher, Pommer added, “I think it’s safe to say we won’t be adjusting for the number of students or for at risk.”

As background, Herrmann noted that about 95,000 additional students have entered schools around the state since the start of the decade, and that the number of at-risk students has grown by 104,000. “Every child that’s come into our school system in the last 10 years basically could be considered poverty level … it just raises more challenges for school districts.”

Last word

Pommer gave Jones the final chance to speak, after various legislator questions and comments on property taxes, what makes a good teacher and childhood obesity had been exhausted.

The commissioner, who’d opened the meeting by saying “traditional road maps haven’t gotten us where we want to go” and that the education system “requires immediate and urgent transformation,” closed by saying, “We can’t go backwards.”