From the Statehouse

Successful day for education bills

Half a dozen education measures, including bills that would exempt back-to-school purchases from state sales taxes and that would encourage wider use of students’ life experience for college credit, advanced Wednesday in the legislature.

Back to school sale illustrationBut House Bill 12-1069, the sales tax holiday, is limping along on a wing and prayer, and some members of the House Finance Committee who voted on the winning side of the 8-5 tally said they only were supporting the bill “for now.”

The measure, sponsored by Democratic Reps. Joe Miklosi and Dan Pabon of Denver, would suspend state sales taxes during the first weekend of August on certain school-related purchases, such as school supplies, clothing, sports equipment and some electronics. (There would be a per-item price ceiling on items purchased.)

The bill came up as late afternoon was turning to early evening, and it consumed 90 minutes of committee time as panel members and witnesses debated whether the measure would cost the state tax revenue or increase tax collections, whether the bill would be a boon to big chain retailers and a headache for small businesses and other issues.

Pabon and Miklosi were clearly eager to do whatever they could to get the bill out of committee. They offered an amendment – which the committee accepted – that would lower the price ceiling for exempt items and also reduce the potential cost of the bill.

An analysis by legislative staff estimates the bill could cost the state about $5.8 million in lost revenue. The amendment supposedly would reduce that to $4.4 million. (Chris Howes, head of the Colorado Retail Council, testified in support of the bill and, gently disputing the staff analysis, said the tax holiday actually would increase state revenue, based on the experience of states that have such laws.)

Some Democratic members of the committee criticized the bill for potentially threatening state funding of schools. (Nobody mentioned that $4-$6 million is a tiny fraction of total school support of more than $5 billion.) Some Republicans were nervous about the bill’s possible effect on small businesses.

Summing up, Pabon promised that if he and Miklosi can’t find a way to pay for the bill, he would personally move that it be killed in the House Appropriations Committee.

That apparently convinced some members, although three of the eight yes voters said they were only supporting the bill “for now.”

Get college credit for your life

A bit earlier in the day the House Education Committee took up House Bill 12-1072, which would direct the Colorado Commission on Higher Education and the state’s colleges and universities to develop a system for giving adult students college credit for life experiences and learning, such as that gained in the military and the workplace.

Some state campuses already offer such programs, and there’s an established set of tests run by the College Board to assess life and professional experience. (The College Board’s lobbyist testified in favor of the bill.) But the idea here is to encourage greater use of the idea – and thereby perhaps increase graduation rates in the state higher ed system.

The committee did approve an amendment that would have the effect of requiring individual colleges to do more of the work developing the program, rather than the CCHE and the Department of Higher Education. The idea behind that change was to eliminate any new costs and thereby avoid sending the bill to the dreaded House Appropriations Committee.

House Ed members voted 12-0 to pass the bill to the floor.

The committee also considered House Bill 12-1043, a measure that would expand concurrent enrollment options for students who are still in high school but want to take college classes. The measure would add to current double enrollment options by requiring school districts to help students take courses as the college of their choice – and pay for part of the cost.

School district lobbyists have pushed back at the bill because of potential costs. Sponsor Rep. Kathleen Conti, R- Littleton, on Wednesday proposed an amendment – which the committee approved – that would reduce some of the perceived burden on districts.

But, like the sales tax-holiday bill, HB 12-1043 has uncertain future prospects. Even committee chair Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, who voted for the bill, told Conti she needs to do more work on the measure. The bill passed 8-4.

Compliments all around in Senate Ed

The Senate Education Committee Wednesday gave 7-0 approval to House Bill 12-1001, which would ratify the regulations issued by the State Board of Education to implement Senate Bill 12-191, the educator evaluation law.

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver / File photo
SB 10-191 gave the legislature special review powers over the regulations, a compromise Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, inserted into the bill in order to placate the Colorado Education Association and its legislative supporters. The idea was that the legislature could be the backstop on any proposed rules that might be seen as punitive on teachers.

But the rules, crafted over two years by the State Council for Educator Effectiveness, the Department of Education and the State Board of Education, have gained support from every segment of the education community. So, legislative approval has become kind of a pro forma process.

Still, Johnston, the father of SB 10-191, marked Wednesday’s committee approval as a notable moment.

And Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, said, “We probably anticipated at that time that we would not have this kumbaya moment.”

(The State Board of Education Wednesday started the approval process for a subset of the SB 10-191 rules, those involving teacher appeals of ineffective ratings – see story.)

Senate Ed also approved Senate Bill 12-061, a measure designed to improve and standardize the processes of charter school authorizing and dealing with failing charter schools. The committee did a little in-the-weeds tinkering with the measure, but the original core of the bill remains. The bill is being pushed by the Colorado League of Charter Schools, is supported by the Colorado Association of School Boards and stems from the recommendations of a study panel that recommended improvements in charter school standards and authorizing.

Metro name bill introduced

The only education bill introduced Wednesday was Senate Bill 12-148, which would change the name of Metro State to Metropolitan State University of Denver.

For the record

The following education bills of interest (but of less interest than the ones noted above) advanced in the legislature Wednesday:

  • House Bill 12-1090, which would move the annual Oct. 1 student enrollment count day if a religious holiday fell on that date. Received preliminary House floor approval.
  • Senate Bill 12-145, which caps current-year transfers from state school lands revenues into annual school funding. Passed by Senate Education.

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

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.”