From the Statehouse

Can Colorado afford education reform?

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.”

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.”