From the Statehouse

Critics pan arts education mandate

Senate Ed’s big day
Outdoor ed grants
Bicycle helmets

The Senate Education Committee Thursday cut Rep. Mike Merrifield’s big legislative finale down to a word of encouragement and a few lines of advice to the State Board of Education.

But, faced with big choruses of witnesses on both sides of the issue, dealing with House Bill 10-1273 took the committee two hours, about as long as a high school production of “Our Town.”

And, that debate was only one part of a five-act committee meeting that stretched out for 5 ½ hours, longer than some Wagner operas.

PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, listened to Senate Education Committee debate on his arts education bill on April 1, 2010.

Merrifield, a retired music teacher, is chair of the House Education Committee and is serving his last term. He’s long been a critic of the shrinking amounts of time and money schools are able to devote to the arts and other parts of a well-rounded curriculum.

As Merrifield originally unveiled the bill, which he titled “Concerning Improved Workforce Development Through Increased Participation In Arts Education In Public Schools,” it would have required all schools to offer arts and made demonstrated proficiency in visual and performing arts a condition of high school graduation.

Merrifield’s misfortune was to introduce the bill in a year when state revenues were plummeting and legislators had no choice but to cut basic school aid.

So, school board interests, always touchy about what they see as infringements on local control, have been on heightened alert for any bill that might impose additional costs on districts.

Merrifield trimmed his sails even before the bill left the House, changing the proficiency requirement to mere completion of an arts class, and defining class as broadly as possible.

That wasn’t enough for the Colorado Association of School Boards, which helped craft an amendment that said schools districts are “strongly encouraged” to provide arts courses. In the original bill the verb was “shall.” The new language also directs the State Board of Education to recognize the importance of the arts in development of future graduation guidelines.

The amendment ultimately was approved by the committee, but not until after CASB lobbyist Jane Urschel said, “We think this bill is bad policy” and then detailed everything she saw that was wrong with the bill without the amendment.

“Jane, Jane, Jane,” responded Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, who’s carrying the bill in the Senate. “I don’t mean to be confrontational, but I think your testimony was more antagonistic than I expected. We’ve already said uncle.” (A few moments earlier, Spence and cosponsor Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, had made it clear they’d accept the amendment.)

“I didn’t mean to offend anyone, but many of my members were offended by the bill,” Urschel responded.

There were many more witnesses who spoke before the amended bill passed 7-1.

Merrifield sat through the hearing, something that sponsors don’t often do when their bills are being considered in the other House. Spence said Merrifield “reluctantly” supported the amendment.

Get those kids outdoors

The committee voted 5-3 to pass House Bill 10-1131, which is being championed by Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien. She made a brief appearance at the witness table to say, “We hope kids will get real involvement in the Colorado experience. It’s also good for Colorado economic development.”

Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien testified in favor of an outdoor education bill April 1, 2010.

The bill would set up a grant program – dependent on private donations and still-in-the-future federal grants – that would award money to programs that involve kids in outdoor activities and environmental education programs.

Sponsor Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne, had lined up a big cast of witnesses to support the bill, ranging from economic development executive Tom Clark to a ski resort spokesman and lots of outdoor education and recreation types.

As was the case in the House Education Committee, Republican senators were unhappy with the bill’s reliance on federal cash and seemed suspicious about the agenda of environmental education programs.

The bill passed on a 5-3 party-line vote.

Get helmets on those kids

The committee also split 5-3 to pass House Bill 10-1147, which would require kids aged 2 to 18 to wear helmets when using non-motorized vehicles – tricycles, bikes, skates, scooters, skateboards and the like – on public streets.

The bill proposes no penalties for kids or parents; it’s meant to be an encouragement for wearing helmets and a way to educate the public. Other provisions of the bill require the Department of Education and other state agencies to help provide safety education materials to schools.

The witness list was shorter for this bill, with testimony highlighted with accident statistics and the effects of crash injuries on children.

This bill wasn’t an education issue in the House, where the transportation committee handled the measure. The only Senate sponsor right now is Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, and he’s chair of Senate Ed.

The committee Thursday also approved nominations of some college trustees and discussed but took no action on a charter schools bill.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.

Colorado's 2017 General Assembly

Colorado students could earn biliteracy credential on diploma

A 2010 graduation ceremony of Denver's Bruce Randolph School (Hyoung Chang/ The Denver Post).

Colorado high school graduates next year likely will be able to earn a new credential that proves to colleges and employers they can communicate in at least two languages.

The House Education Committee on Monday approved Senate Bill 123, which lays out the criteria students must meet to earn a biliteracy endorsement.

The bill already has won support from the state Senate and faces one last debate in the House of Representatives before going to the governor’s desk.

Three school districts began issuing their own bilingual endorsements in 2016.

Last year, the State Board of Education rejected a resolution that would have encouraged more schools to develop their own seal of biliteracy. Republicans on the board voiced concern about a lack of statewide criteria and that the endorsement would be handed out unevenly.

If this bill becomes law, that would change.

For a students to earn the seal, they would need to prove they’ve mastered both English and another language by earning at least a B in all of their language classes, earning high marks on the English portion of the SAT, and pass both an English and foreign language test provided by either the Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs.

If such a test doesn’t exist for a language the student has studied, the school may either create a test that must be vetted by the state education department or the student may submit a sample of work for review.

Ella Willden, a seventh grader at Oberon Middle School in Arvada, told Colorado lawmakers she and her fellow students are excited for the chance to earn the diploma seal, and that it would mean a better shot at a good college or career after high school.

“I know many of my classmates will jump at the chance to earn this seal if given the opportunity because they want to get into some of the top schools in the nation and they want every advantage they can get,” she said. “Whether I go to college or I go to work, this seal will open doors for me throughout the state.”


Lawmakers take first step to ease testing burden for young English language learners

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/Denver Post
Justin Machado, 9, reads on his iPad during his 3rd grade class at Ashley Elementary in 2015.

State lawmakers from both political parties are seeking to undo a controversial State Board of Education decision that called for schools to test thousands of Colorado’s youngest students in English — a language they are still learning.

House Bill 1160 cleared its first legislative hurdle Monday with unanimous support from the House Education Committee.

The bill would allow school districts to decide whether to use tests in English or Spanish to gauge whether students in kindergarten through third grade enrolled in dual-language or bilingual programs have reading deficiencies.

The bill is sponsored in the House of Representatives by Reps. Millie Hamner, a Frisco Democrat, and Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican.

If the bill becomes law, it would overrule a decision by the State Board of Education last year that required testing such students at least once in English. That meant some schools would need to test students twice if they wanted to gauge reading skills in a student’s native language.

Colorado’s public schools under the 2012 READ Act are required to test students’ reading ability to identify students who aren’t likely to be reading at grade-level by third grade.

The bill is the latest political twist in a years-long effort to apply the READ Act in Colorado schools that serve a growing number of native Spanish-speakers.

School districts first raised concern about double-testing in 2014, one year after the law went into effect. The state Attorney General’s office issued an opinion affirming that the intent of the READ Act was to measure reading skills, not English proficiency. The state board then changed its policy to allow districts to choose which language to test students in and approved tests in both English and Spanish.

But a new configuration of the state board in 2016 reversed that decision when it made other changes in response to a 2015 testing reform law that included tweaks to early literacy testing.

The board’s decision at the time was met with fierce opposition from school districts with large Spanish speaking populations — led by Denver Public Schools.

Lawmakers considered legislation to undo the board’s decision last year, but a committee in the Republican-controlled Senate killed it.

Capitol observers believe the bill is more likely to reach the governor’s desk this year after a change in leadership in the Senate.

Some members of the state board, at a meeting last week, reaffirmed their support for testing students in English.

Board member Val Flores, a Denver Democrat who opposed the rule change last year, said she opposes the bill. In explaining her reversal, Flores said she believes the bill would create a disincentive for schools, especially in Denver, to help Spanish-speakers learn English.

“If the district does not give the test in English, reading in English will not be taught,” she said.

Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, said he still believes the intent of the READ Act was to measure how well students were reading in English.

“I think this is a serious departure from what the legislature intended initially,” he said last week. “The READ Act had everything to do with reading in English.”

Hamner, one of the sponsors of House Bill 1160, also sponsored the READ Act in 2012. She disagrees with Durham and told the House committee Monday that the intent was always for local school districts to decide which language was appropriate.

“We’re giving the local educators and districts the decision-making authority on what’s best for the students,” she said.

Multiple speakers on Monday said the requirement to test native Spanish speakers in English was a waste of time and money, and provided bad information to teachers.

“A teacher who teaches in Spanish will not be able to use data from an English assessment to drive their instruction, much like a hearing test would not give a doctor information about a patient’s broken arm,” said Emily Volkert, dean of instruction at Centennial Elementary School in Denver.

The bill only applies to students who are native Spanish speakers because the state has only approved tests that are in English and Spanish. Students whose native language is neither English nor Spanish would be tested in English until the state approves assessments in other languages.

“The question is can you read and how well,” said bill co-sponsor Wilson. “We’re trying to simplify that.”