From the Statehouse

Finance bill still a moving target

It looks like Sen. Mike Johnston’s proposed overhaul of Colorado’s school finance system will be formally introduced in the legislature next week, and it’s also likely the bill will be at least a bit different from the draft version that’s been circulating publicly for nearly two weeks.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Mike Johnston explains his school finance plan during a Feb. 28 meeting.

The Denver Democrat talked about the bill and his plans during a two-hour “public forum” Thursday at the History Colorado center, attended by about 150 people. The event was the last of some 150 meetings Johnston has held over the last two years to promote and build support for his plan.

Johnston’s proposal is intended to make the state’s school funding system more equitable by directing money to schools with the greatest needs and more adequate by increasing the amount of funding. Key elements of the plan include more funding for at-risk students, English language learners and special education students; full funding of preschool for at-risk students and full-day kindergarten; a shift in the state and local shares of school funding, and increased overall funding to partially compensate for recent cuts in K-12 support.

The proposal requires two steps – legislature passage of the new formula and voter approval next November of perhaps $1 billion in tax increases to pay for the plan. If voters say no the formula wouldn’t go into effect. (Get more details on the current draft of the proposal in this EdNews story.)

Thursday’s meeting highlighted some of Johnston’s plans for the bill and some of the questions and objections to the plan. The session included breakout groups in which Johnston and aides explained and answered questions about various parts of the proposal.

“That draft is already outdated,” Johnston said referring to this version. But neither he nor his aides gave details on specific changes that will be included in the version to be introduced in the Senate. (Another set of data yet to be released are district-by-district financial estimates of the plan’s impact.)

There were lots of questions about and some criticisms of the plan. The strongest was voiced by Randy DeHoff, a former State Board of Education member who now works for an online school. The plan is “a lot more money going into a 19th century system,” he said, “leaving the districts in charge and leaving out the students.”

Here are some of the concerns that emerged during Thursday’s discussion:

Charter schools: Several speakers complained that the plan does nothing to solve the funding inequities imposed on charter schools by current state law. “There’s nothing in the bill right now, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be,” said Johnston aide Will Gohl.

Participants at Feb. 28 school finance meeting.
Meeting participants listen to Sen. Mike Johnston.

The negative factor: Current state law includes a mathematical formula called the negative factor that allows the legislature to reduce annual school funding to an amount the helps balance the state budget, regardless of what school funding should have been. His bill doesn’t address that issue, and Johnston said it’s “politically impossible” to eliminate the negative factors, which has slashed an estimated $1 billion from school funding in the last four years.

The Lobato decision: One speaker complained that Johnston’s plan doesn’t meet the requirements of a district court decision in Lobato v. State, which found the state’s school finance system unconstitutional. The case is pending before the Colorado Supreme Court. Johnston said, “We don’t believe this [bill] solves the Lobato lawsuit, nor is it meant to. It is one step along the way.”

Nobody at the meeting raised this question, but some conservatives, primarily state Treasurer Walker Stapleton, have complained that the proposed bill doesn’t address the cost of teacher pensions under the Public Employees’ Retirement Association. Johnston basically dismissed that criticism, saying PERA’s future solvency has been handled by legislation passed in 2009. “That’s why we haven’t seen it as part of the school finance plan.”

Responding to concerns, Johnston and his legislative partner, Boulder Democratic Sen. Rollie Heath, had some tough love for critics.

“Doing nothing is not an option,” Johnston said. “Insisting on a proposal you know can’t pass is a version of doing nothing.”

Heath was even more plain-spoken.

“This is put-up or shut-up time. … We can’t solve every problem everybody wants to solve. … Please understand you’re not going to get everything you want.”

Colorado's 2017 General Assembly

Colorado students could earn biliteracy credential on diploma

A 2010 graduation ceremony of Denver's Bruce Randolph School (Hyoung Chang/ The Denver Post).

Colorado high school graduates next year likely will be able to earn a new credential that proves to colleges and employers they can communicate in at least two languages.

The House Education Committee on Monday approved Senate Bill 123, which lays out the criteria students must meet to earn a biliteracy endorsement.

The bill already has won support from the state Senate and faces one last debate in the House of Representatives before going to the governor’s desk.

Three school districts began issuing their own bilingual endorsements in 2016.

Last year, the State Board of Education rejected a resolution that would have encouraged more schools to develop their own seal of biliteracy. Republicans on the board voiced concern about a lack of statewide criteria and that the endorsement would be handed out unevenly.

If this bill becomes law, that would change.

For a students to earn the seal, they would need to prove they’ve mastered both English and another language by earning at least a B in all of their language classes, earning high marks on the English portion of the SAT, and pass both an English and foreign language test provided by either the Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs.

If such a test doesn’t exist for a language the student has studied, the school may either create a test that must be vetted by the state education department or the student may submit a sample of work for review.

Ella Willden, a seventh grader at Oberon Middle School in Arvada, told Colorado lawmakers she and her fellow students are excited for the chance to earn the diploma seal, and that it would mean a better shot at a good college or career after high school.

“I know many of my classmates will jump at the chance to earn this seal if given the opportunity because they want to get into some of the top schools in the nation and they want every advantage they can get,” she said. “Whether I go to college or I go to work, this seal will open doors for me throughout the state.”

overruled

Lawmakers take first step to ease testing burden for young English language learners

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/Denver Post
Justin Machado, 9, reads on his iPad during his 3rd grade class at Ashley Elementary in 2015.

State lawmakers from both political parties are seeking to undo a controversial State Board of Education decision that called for schools to test thousands of Colorado’s youngest students in English — a language they are still learning.

House Bill 1160 cleared its first legislative hurdle Monday with unanimous support from the House Education Committee.

The bill would allow school districts to decide whether to use tests in English or Spanish to gauge whether students in kindergarten through third grade enrolled in dual-language or bilingual programs have reading deficiencies.

The bill is sponsored in the House of Representatives by Reps. Millie Hamner, a Frisco Democrat, and Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican.

If the bill becomes law, it would overrule a decision by the State Board of Education last year that required testing such students at least once in English. That meant some schools would need to test students twice if they wanted to gauge reading skills in a student’s native language.

Colorado’s public schools under the 2012 READ Act are required to test students’ reading ability to identify students who aren’t likely to be reading at grade-level by third grade.

The bill is the latest political twist in a years-long effort to apply the READ Act in Colorado schools that serve a growing number of native Spanish-speakers.

School districts first raised concern about double-testing in 2014, one year after the law went into effect. The state Attorney General’s office issued an opinion affirming that the intent of the READ Act was to measure reading skills, not English proficiency. The state board then changed its policy to allow districts to choose which language to test students in and approved tests in both English and Spanish.

But a new configuration of the state board in 2016 reversed that decision when it made other changes in response to a 2015 testing reform law that included tweaks to early literacy testing.

The board’s decision at the time was met with fierce opposition from school districts with large Spanish speaking populations — led by Denver Public Schools.

Lawmakers considered legislation to undo the board’s decision last year, but a committee in the Republican-controlled Senate killed it.

Capitol observers believe the bill is more likely to reach the governor’s desk this year after a change in leadership in the Senate.

Some members of the state board, at a meeting last week, reaffirmed their support for testing students in English.

Board member Val Flores, a Denver Democrat who opposed the rule change last year, said she opposes the bill. In explaining her reversal, Flores said she believes the bill would create a disincentive for schools, especially in Denver, to help Spanish-speakers learn English.

“If the district does not give the test in English, reading in English will not be taught,” she said.

Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, said he still believes the intent of the READ Act was to measure how well students were reading in English.

“I think this is a serious departure from what the legislature intended initially,” he said last week. “The READ Act had everything to do with reading in English.”

Hamner, one of the sponsors of House Bill 1160, also sponsored the READ Act in 2012. She disagrees with Durham and told the House committee Monday that the intent was always for local school districts to decide which language was appropriate.

“We’re giving the local educators and districts the decision-making authority on what’s best for the students,” she said.

Multiple speakers on Monday said the requirement to test native Spanish speakers in English was a waste of time and money, and provided bad information to teachers.

“A teacher who teaches in Spanish will not be able to use data from an English assessment to drive their instruction, much like a hearing test would not give a doctor information about a patient’s broken arm,” said Emily Volkert, dean of instruction at Centennial Elementary School in Denver.

The bill only applies to students who are native Spanish speakers because the state has only approved tests that are in English and Spanish. Students whose native language is neither English nor Spanish would be tested in English until the state approves assessments in other languages.

“The question is can you read and how well,” said bill co-sponsor Wilson. “We’re trying to simplify that.”