From the Statehouse

“Felon-free” bill gets panel endorsement

The Felon-Free Schools Act of 2011 got out of the Senate Education Committee Monday with only one vote against it, but not before losing its stern-sounding title.

A bill on parental involvement in schools also got House Ed approval – but it also was significantly amended. And it passed only when committee chair Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, sided with the committee’s six Democrats to create a 7-6 majority.

Among the day’s fatalities was House Bill 11-1057 in House Ed, which would have provided some due process rights to the estimated 10,000 adjunct faculty at state colleges and universities, In the Senate State Affairs Committee two bills designed to radically change parts of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association met with their expected demise.

Also at the Capitol Monday, the big package of 2010-11 budget balancing bills got final Senate approval and headed to an early morning date with the House Appropriations Committee Tuesday.

Felon-free schools fixed to almost everyone’s satisfaction

Freshman Rep. Robert Ramirez, R-Westminster, worked hard to blunt opposition to his House Bill 11-1121, and his work paid off when House Ed passed it 12-1.

The bill, an earlier version of which died in a House committee last year, mostly codifies existing school district practice in barring employment to people convicted of violent crimes and sexual felonies. Ramirez’ original bill added drug felonies to the list, but his key amendment limited application of that to a five-year window. So, if a teacher was convicted of a drug felony within the last five years, he or she can be fired. In the future, a teacher convicted of a drug felony can reapply for a teaching job after five years. (There’s also a five-year window for domestic violence convictions.)

The Colorado Association of Schools Boards supported the bill while the Colorado Association of School Executives softened its opposition to neutral because of Ramirez’ amendment.

But, witnesses representing legal groups, including the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar and the Colorado ACLU opposed the bill, saying the broader issue of denying felons access to employment needs to studied by the legislature.

That prompted several members of ask if the bill also should be considered by the House Judiciary Committee. Massey said he would talk to the chair of that committee.

Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton and the only no vote on the bill, also complained about the title. “It makes me feel like there are a lot of felons in our schools. … Would you mind amending that to just take that out?” she asked Ramirez. He was happy to oblige, and the title was stricken from the bill.

Parent involvement bill slenderized

Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver
Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver

As originally proposed by Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, House Bill 11-1126 would have required school districts to adopt parent involvement policies by July 1, 2012, and review those annually. The bill also required that if a school is designated for turnaround by the Colorado Department of Education the school must notify parents of that and hold a public meeting.

Witnesses representing a variety of education groups – the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition, Education Reform Now, the Colorado PTA, the Colorado Education Association and Stand for Children – testified in support, as did Arturo Jimenez, vice chair of the Denver school board.

The original draft of the bill, however, made some school districts nervous about potential costs, and Duran came armed with amendments, which the committee approved.

The key change was an amendment that merely encourages districts to develop formal parent involvement plan, softening the original mandate. The bill’s provisions for public notice at turnaround schools remain.

No go for adjunct faculty bill

Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins, offered a big amendment to his HB 11-1057, but that wasn’t enough to persuade House Ed. The original bill would have extended some due process rights to adjunct faculty when they were terminated. He proposed an amendment the left the bill requiring only that those instructors receive letters explaining why they were being let go.

The bill mustered only three yes votes before it was postponed indefinitely on a 7-6 vote, meaning some members who voted against the bill also voted against killing it. (There seemed to be a fair amount of confusion in House Ed Monday, with several members passing on roll call votes to gain time to make up their minds and some pausing several moments before casting their votes.)

The higher ed lobby worked hard against this one, concerned about the potential legal costs if it passed. The fiscal analysis by legislative staff estimated annual costs of $140,000 to $1.4 million, depending on how many of the estimated 2,000 adjuncts terminated annually filed appeals.

PERA bills get required hearing and no more

In each House the State Affairs Committee is where majority leaders send bills that they want killed. That was the case Monday in the Senate committee, where party-line votes of 3-2 killed Senate Bill 11-074 and Senate Bill 11-127.

The first would have allowed school boards and local governments to require higher PERA contributions from employees, offset by lower government contributions. The second would have required new PERA members to join a defined contribution plan rather than the traditional defined benefit system.

“Recess” bill moves along

The House Monday gave preliminary approval to House Bill 11-1069, the measure that would require elementary schools to provides students with 600 minutes a month of “physical activity” – broadly defined.

The bill was amended earlier in the House Education Committee to remove some aspects that school districts opposed, such as extensive reporting requirements.

Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs
Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs

Aside from three supporters speaking briefly in favor of the bill, consideration moved quickly, and there were no speakers in opposition. Prime sponsor Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, has estimated that 90 percent of elementary schools already provide the amount of activity called for in the bill.

The House also gave a quick preliminary OK to House Bill 11-1053, which encourages school districts to exhaust other alternatives before going to court to have truant students jailed. The bill leaves intact the ability of districts to go to court and of judges to jail students.

Budget balancing package moves quickly

The Senate this morning gave final approval to a package of 2010-11 budget balancing bill, including three of interest to education. Amendments to the package restored funding for the Colorado Counselor Corps and the Start Smart school breakfast program. A separate measure that proposed closing the Read-to-Achieve program (Senate Bill 11-158) and using its funds for budget balancing was killed at the request of Senate leadership.

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

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.”