From the Statehouse

Big four topped 2010 education agenda

The issues
School finance
Pensions
Tuition
Administrative
Charters
ECE
Health
At risk
Higher education
The losers

Four key issues – educator effectiveness, pension reform, school spending and tuition policy – dominated the education debate during the 2010 session of the Colorado legislature.

Pensions and school finance were decided relatively early in the session; educator effectiveness and higher education financial policy weren’t resolved until the closing hours.

Senate Bill 10-191, the educator evaluation and tenure bill, took center stage in the session’s final month, and it has the potential to be the most far-reaching measure passed this year. But, its impact will be much less immediate than that of legislation in the other three areas. (See this separate article for a detailed explanation of SB 10-191.)

School finance

The first piece of 2010 school finance legislation (Senate Bill 10-065) reduced school funding right out of the gate. Introduced Jan. 14 and signed into law two weeks later, the measure took back $130 million in state aid that school districts had hoped to receive in the current school year.

Later in the session, the 2010-11 school finance act (House Bill 10-1369) and the main state budget bill (House bill 10-1376) set total state and local funding at about $5.4 billion for the budget year that starts July 1. That compares to a little less than $5.6 billion this year and is about the same as 2008-09 funding.

This year marks the first time that the legislature didn’t apply the full Amendment 23 formula to school spending, an historic change. It’s estimated full 2010-11 funding would have been about $5.8 billion.

Pensions

Reform of the state pension system, the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, was a key education issue because the system includes large numbers of education employees and retirees. The measure is designed to return PERA to solvency in 30 years. Senate Bill 10-001 was signed less than six weeks after it was introduced, just in time to wipe out a scheduled 3.5 percent annual benefit increase for retirees that would have kicked in March 1.

Future annual increases basically are limited to 2 percent. A class-action challenge to the law is pending in Denver District Court.

Tuition and financial flexibility

Senate Bill 10-003, the higher education financial flexibility legislation, was introduced Jan. 13 but didn’t become a live issue until April 30, when a significantly revised version had its first committee hearing.

In the meantime, the measure had gained a tuition provision that allows state colleges and universities to raise undergraduate resident tuition up to 9 percent a year for five years, starting in 2011-12. (That’s on top of the 9 percent allowed by the legislature for the upcoming 2010-11 school year.)

College boards can seek permission from the Colorado Commission on Higher Education for larger increases and have to submit detailed financial plans with their requests.

The bill also puts into law a higher ed master planning process started earlier by executive order. That plan is to be ready for consideration by the 2011 legislature. The measure also gives institutions more flexibility in use of financial aid and in their financial and administrative processes.

Beyond the big four issues, education measures passed during the 2010 session were a mixture of cleanup bills, pilot programs and hopes for the future.

About 100 education-related bills and resolutions were introduced. The Senate accounted for almost half of those, even though it has only 35 of the legislature’s 100 members.

Here’s a look at some of those measures:

Bureaucratic but interesting

  • HB 1013 – A cleanup bill mostly of note for the fact that it pushes back some Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids deadlines, chiefly the Dec. 15 deadline for the State Board of Education to adopt a new state testing system. That requirement doesn’t kick in until doing so is “fiscally practicable.”
  • HB 1036 – Creates a three-year period for school districts to post a variety of budget and financial information on their websites. This was interesting for its political undertones. Republicans, starting in 2009, tried to make government fiscal transparency a signature issue. Democrats and schools board make the issue of school district their own with this bill.
  • HB 1183 – This bill allows pilot-program studies of alternative ways to finance schools, perhaps planting the sees for future reform.
  • SB 205 – A just-in-case bill that allows districts to ask voters for bond issues whose proceeds could be used for operational costs. That’s a backup plan in case Amendment 61, the proposed restriction on government debt, passes in November. That amendment would shut down a state treasurer’s loan program that some school districts use like a line of credit.
  • SB 8 – Another hope-for-the-future bill, this authorizes a study of the average daily membership method of calculating school enrollment. Currently enrollment, a key factor in district funding, is calculated based on actual attendance during a brief period every October.

Charter schools

  • HB 1345 – Creates a procedure under which the commissioner of education can supervise charter schools in emergency situations, such as financial crises.
  • HB 1412 – Establishes a commission of experts from various fields that will study and recommend operational standards for charter school and best practices for school board when authorizing charters.
  • SB 111 – Allows charters authorized by the state Charter School Institute to contract for services with boards of cooperative education services and authorizes a study of designating institute schools as local education agencies.
  • SB 161 – Allows any charter school to apply for various kinds of federal and other grants through the institute.

Early childhood

A 2009 summer legislative study group suggested several bills, some of which died because funding couldn’t be identified. Others passed but are dependent on finding non-state funding.

  • HB 1026 – Creates an incentive grant program for quality early childhood programs – but the effort is entirely dependent on “gifts, grants and donations.”
  • HB 1028 – Sets up a system for creating a streamlined application process for families seeking educational, health, nutrition and other programs that serve young, at-risk children.
  • HB 1030 – Creates a scholarship program for people seeking associate degrees in early childhood education. But, it’s also solely dependent on “gifts, grants and donations.”

Healthy kids

  • HB 1131 – Establishes a grant program for agencies that involve kids in outdoor activities. This was a push by Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien. It also relies on “gifts, etc.”
  • SB 81 – Creates a task force intended to promote greater use of healthy, local food products by schools.

Troubled kids

  • SB 54 – Requires minimum education services for juveniles being held in adult jails. The measure was substantially watered down because of cost concerns.
  • HB 1274 – Requires notice to schools when students return after time in treatment facilities. This bill has been in the works for two sessions and only passed after extensive negotiations among a variety of interest groups.

Higher education

A variety of bills passed this year are intended to bolster state financial aid resources, ease student movement between colleges and provide greater opportunities to students in some parts of the state.

  • HB 1208 – Accelerates the process for designating community college classes that are transferrable to four-year schools.
  • HB 1383 – Shifts about $30 million from a CollegeInvest scholarship fund into general state funding for need-based scholarships.
  • HB 1428 – Takes at least $15 million from sale of a CollegeInvest loan portfolio into scholarships.
  • SB 64 – Makes it easier for resident students to establish eligibility for College Opportunity Fund stipends by just checking a box on college applications.
  • SB 79 – Allows expansion of some master’s degree programs at Mesa State College.
  • SB 88 – Permits community college students to declare the equivalent of majors in some fields of study.
  • SB 101 – Allows Colorado Mountain College to offer a limited selection of bachelor’s degrees.
  • SB 108 – Allows private and propriety colleges to have their courses reviewed for inclusion in the state program of common core course.
  • SB 202 – Lets adults open CollegeInvest savings plans to help pay for job-retraining programs. Also allows employers to contribute to employee accounts and take a tax deduction.

Didn’t make the cut

About a third of all education bills were killed. Most died in committee, some at the request of sponsors because of lack of support, lack of funding or overlap with other measures.

Others died in committee because they were Republican bills that had no chance in a Democratic legislature – measures that proposed barring felons from school employment, imposing new safety drills, high school exit exams, fiddling with Amendment 23, tax credits for private school tuition and a religious bill of rights for schools.

Only a handful measures lost on the floor, including HB 1271, which proposed contributions limits in school board campaigns, and SCR 2 and HCR 1002, the identical proposed constitutional amendments to free education-related taxes from TABOR restrictions.

Rep. Judy Solano’s annual CSAP cutback bill, HB 1430, died on the session’s last day when both houses refused to back down from their respective versions.

Here’s a quick rundown of some other bills that didn’t make it or were drastically amended.

  • HB 1015 – Proposed pilot alternative funding program for small districts
  • HB 1147 – Helmet requirement for kids on non-motorized vehicles (amended down to a safety education program)
  • HB 1206 – Voting power for student members of the CSU board
  • HB 1253 – Changes in gifted and talented programs
  • HB 1406 – Green construction requirements for new school buildings
  • HCR 1007 – Proposed constitutional amendment to divert some lottery revenues to education in tight budget years
  • SB 5 – Funding to ensure continuity of services from preschool to kindergarten
  • SB 17 – Creation of a pilot program to study weighted student funding
  • SB 107 – Requiring state approval for high schools to use Indian mascots
  • SB 131 – Financial incentives for school districts to provide full-day kindergarten
  • SB 210 – Pilot program to provide cash or prizes to at-risk kids for reading books
  • SB 215 – Expansion of video lottery terminals to fund college scholarships
  • SCR 4 – Keno-for-colleges, a proposed constitutional amendment to do the same thing as SB 215

A very routine measure to clarify state law on school buses, HB 1232, did pass. But, there was an entertaining floor fight one Friday morning in March when Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Boulder, attempted to expand the bill to include a mandate for shoulder belts on new buses. His idea was buried with 29 no votes.

One measure that shrunk a lot between introduction and passage was HB 1273, Rep. Mike Merrifield’s arts education proposal. The Colorado Springs Democrat, a retired music teacher, is leaving the legislature because of term limits, and the bill was seen as his swan song.

What started out as a requirement measure ended up as an encouragement to schools districts to include the arts in curricula and an instruction to the State Board of Education to include the arts in upcoming graduation guidelines for school districts.

What’s next

Gov. Bill Ritter has a little under a month to sign or veto bills. He’s already signed many education bills passed earlier in the session, and there aren’t any remaining bills seen as obvious veto targets.

(Normal Education News Colorado style for bills is to use their full numbers, as in Senate Bill 10-001. To save eyestrain in the lower portion of this article we’ve used the shortened version – SB 1.)

See the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts.

More grades?

Schools with lots of transfer students say A-F labels don’t fit

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Schools with large numbers of kids who transfer in or out should get an extra grade from Indiana’s A-F system, a legislative committee said Thursday.

The proposal, backed by both Democrats and Republicans on the House Education Committee, would give schools a second A-F grade based just on the scores of students who have attended for at least a year.

The goal is to account for schools with “high mobility,” common in poor neighborhoods where families move frequently and kids sometimes change schools several times in a single school year. When kids change schools, their test scores often sink. Lawmakers argued the schools where they end up on test day can be unfairly saddled with a low grade that doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of teaching at the school.

Even so, the schools will still be judged the same as all schools in Indiana on their first A-F grade.

The proposal was added as an amendment to House Bill 1384, which is mostly aimed at clarifying how high school graduation rate is calculated. The bill passed out of committee today, 8-4. It next heads to the full House for a vote, likely later this week.

The amended bill would require the Indiana State Board of Education to first define a “high-mobility” school. Then, starting in the 2018-19 school year, the board would assign those schools both the typical grade based primarily on state tests and a second grade that only considers the test and other academic data of students who have attended the school for one year or more.

The second grade could not be used by the state board to make decisions about state sanctions, the bill says. But it would help parents and others better understand the circumstances at the school, said Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author and chairman of the education committee.

“Especially in our urban centers, there are several schools … that have very high mobility rates,” Behning said. “We could all recognize that if you’re being moved from school A to school B to school C to school D in a year, it’s going to be very difficult for your performance to be where it needs to be.”

The bill also makes a similar change to high school graduation rates, which would help Indiana better comply with new federal law, Behning said. The bill would alter the graduation rate calculation so that students who drop out would only count in a school’s rate if they attended that school for at least 90 percent of the school year. Otherwise, their graduation data gets counted at the previous school they attended for the longest time.

Melissa Brown, head of Indiana Connections Academy, one of the largest online schools in the state, testified in support of the bill. She said the graduation rate change and second letter grade better reflect the work they’re doing with students.

“We really believe that if we can keep a student, we can help them,” Brown said.

Virtual schools have performed poorly on state tests, which some school leaders argue is because they serve a challenging population of students, including those who frequently move and switch schools, come to school far behind grade level and have other learning difficulties that make them more difficult to educate.

Read: The broken promise of Indiana’s online schools

Indiana Connections Academy sees about 20 to 25 percent of students come and go each year, Brown said. Other virtual schools, such as Hoosier Academies, have reported more than double that rate.

Although the rates for individual schools could vary widely, Beech Grove schools had the highest district mobility rate in 2015 in Marion County, where 20.1 percent of students left a Beech Grove school to go outside the district, according to state data. Franklin Township had the lowest, with 8.5 percent. Generally, transfer within districts was much lower.

In IPS, the rate was 18.4 percent for students leaving to attend a school in another district, and 8.2 percent of students left their home school to attend another in IPS.

Brown said she thinks the second school grade could help all schools that see high turnover, but it also could dispel some misinformation about what virtual schools are for — it’s not a “magic pill” for kids who are far behind, she said, a scenario she encounters frequently.

“At the end of the day, it’s really about what’s best for the kid,” Brown said. “And it’s not best to send a student to another school with two weeks left in the semester expecting a miracle to happen.”

new plan

Lawmakers want to allow appeals before low-rated private schools lose vouchers

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Rep. Bob Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee, authored HB 1384, in which voucher language was added late last week.

Indiana House lawmakers signaled support today for a plan to loosen restrictions for private schools accepting state voucher dollars.

Two proposal were amended into the existing House Bill 1384, which is mostly aimed at clarifying how high school graduation rate is calculated. One would allow private schools to appeal to the Indiana State Board of Education to keep receiving vouchers even if they are repeatedly graded an F. The other would allow new “freeway” private schools the chance to begin receiving vouchers more quickly.

Indiana, already a state with one of the most robust taxpayer-funded voucher programs in the country, has made small steps toward broadening the program since the original voucher law passed in 2011 — and today’s amendments could represent two more if they become law. Vouchers shift state money from public schools to pay private school tuition for poor and middle class children.

Under current state law, private schools cannot accept new voucher students for one year after the school is graded a D or F for two straight years. If a school reaches a third year with low grades, it can’t accept new voucher students until it raises its grade to a C or higher for two consecutive years.

Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, the bill’s author, said private schools should have the right to appeal those consequences to the state board.

Right now, he said, they “have no redress.”  But public schools, he said, can appeal to the state board.

Behning said the innovation schools and transformation zones in Indianapolis Public Schools were a “perfect example” for why schools need an appeal process because schools that otherwise would face state takeover or other sanctions can instead get a reprieve to start over with a new management approach.

In the case of troubled private schools receiving vouchers, Behning said, there should be an equal opportunity for the state board to allow them time to improve.

”There are tools already available for traditional public schools and for charters that are not available for vouchers,” he said.

But Democrats on the House Education Committee opposed both proposals, arguing they provided more leeway to private schools than traditional public schools have.

“Vouchers are supposed to be the answer, the cure-all, the panacea for what’s going on in traditional schools,” said Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary. “If you gave an amendment that said this would be possible for both of them, leveling the playing field, then I would support it.”

The second measure would allow the Indiana State Board of Education to consider a private school accredited and allow it to immediately begin receiving vouchers once it has entered into a contract to become a “freeway school” — a type of state accreditation that has few regulations and requirements compared to full accreditation.Typically, it might take a year or so to become officially accredited.

Indiana’s voucher program is projected to grow over the next two years to more than 38,000 students, at an anticipated cost — according to a House budget draft — of about $160 million in 2019. Currently in Indiana, there are 316 private schools that can accept vouchers.

The voucher amendments passed along party lines last week, and the entire bill passed out of committee today, 8-4. It next heads to the full House for a vote, likely later this week.