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.

rules and regs

New York adds some flexibility to its free college scholarship rules. Will it be enough for more students to benefit?

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

New York is offering more wiggle room in a controversial “Excelsior” scholarship requirement that students stay in-state after graduating, according to new regulations released Thursday afternoon.

Members of the military, for example, will be excused from the rule, as will those who can prove an “extreme hardship.”

Overall, however, the plan’s rules remain strict. Students are required to enroll full-time and to finish their degrees on time to be eligible for the scholarship — significantly limiting the number who will ultimately qualify.

“It’s a high bar for a low-income student,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “It’s going to be the main reason why students lose the scholarship.”

The scholarship covers free college tuition at any state college or university for students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. But it comes with a major catch: Students who receive Excelsior funding must live and work in New York state for the same number of years after graduation as they receive the scholarship. If they fail to do so, their scholarships will be converted to loans, which the new regulations specify have 10-year terms and are interest-free.

The new regulations allow for some flexibility:

  • The loan can now be prorated. So if a student benefits from Excelsior for four years but moves out of state two years after graduation, the student would only owe two years of payments.
  • Those who lose the scholarship but remain in a state school, or complete a residency in-state, will have that time count toward paying off their award.
  • Members of the military get a reprieve: They will be counted as living and working in-state, regardless of where the person is stationed or deployed.
  • In cases of “extreme hardship,” students can apply for a waiver of the residency and work requirements. The regulations cite “disability” and “labor market conditions” as some examples of a hardship. A state spokeswoman said other situations that “may require that a student work to help meet the financial needs of their family” would qualify as a hardship, such as a death or the loss of a job by a parent.
  • Students who leave the state for graduate school or a residency can defer repaying their award. They would have to return to New York afterwards to avoid having the scholarship convert to a loan.

Some of law’s other requirements were also softened. The law requires students to enroll full-time and take average of 30 credits a year — even though many SUNY and CUNY students do not graduate on time. The new regulations would allow students to apply credits earned in high school toward the 30-credit completion requirement, and stipulates that students who are disabled do not have to enroll full-time to qualify.

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 Davison, 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,” Davison 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.”