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.

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 Davidson, 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,” Davidson 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.”


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.