From the Statehouse

School breakfast bill clears House

The Colorado House this morning gave 49-16 final approval to the “breakfast after the bell” bill.

Fourth-graders at Alsup Elementary in Commerce City have breakfast in the classroom.
Fourth-graders at Alsup Elementary in Commerce City have breakfast in the classroom.

There was no discussion before the final vote, but members were mostly supportive during preliminary debate Wednesday on the bill, which has been nipped and tucked a bit to assuage concerns about its impact.

The measure, House Bill 13-1006, is intended to provide universal free breakfast at high-poverty schools in an effort to ensure hunger doesn’t detract from student learning. It’s sponsored by freshman Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, and is being pushed by Hunger Free Colorado and a coalition of other advocacy groups.

“I love this bill,” Moreno told fellow House members. “The breakfast after the bell model is proven to have an incredible success rates.”

Many schools offer breakfast before school starts, but HB 13-1006 supporters say participation rates are low. They cite Commerce City and Pueblo City schools where participation is much higher when breakfast is served after school starts.

The bill also requires that participating schools serve breakfast to all students, not just those eligible for free- or reduced-price meals. The rationale behind that is to remove the embarrassment some students feel about being labeled as poor if they eat breakfast.

Of course almost nobody’s against breakfast for school kids, but that didn’t mean some school districts, especially smaller ones, didn’t have questions. The cost of the program is intended to be covered by federal funds, but some districts were concerned the original form of the bill might have forced districts to bear some costs on their own because of technicalities in federal regulations. Smaller districts were worried that the bill might be too great a burden.

The bill has been amended in two House committees and on the floor to ease those concerns.

Here are the key changes:

• In its first year, 2014-15, the bill will apply only to schools with 80 percent or more of students eligible for free- and reduced-price meals. This was added to deal with the concern about extra costs. The percentage drops to 70 percent in 2015-16.

• Districts with fewer than 1,000 students (just over 100) wouldn’t have to participate. (The original draft of the bill exempted schools and charters that didn’t participate in the federal nutrition program.)

• There’s flexibility for schools that already have formal before-school programs and also serve breakfast and for districts where 90 percent or more of students ride the bus. (They can serve breakfast on the bus.)

The bill also has provisions allowing schools to drop out if their enrollment dips below the 70 percent threshold or if federal funding is eliminated. It’s estimated that participating schools will gain an additional $28 million in federal money by using the program.

Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City / File photo
Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City / File photo

There also have been concerns that serving breakfast after school starts would cut into instructional time. But Rep. Clarice Navarro-Ratzlaff, R-Pueblo, said Wednesday the experience in her city’s schools has shown breakfast can be served in 10 minutes, while teachers are taking attendance, collecting homework and doing other start-of-the-day tasks.

There were a few discouraging words on the House floor. Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, said, “Shouldn’t it be the parents’ responsibility to feed the kids?”

Minority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, agreed with that but said he was supporting the bill because “It’s about making sure students are prepared to learn.”

Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, said he too would support the bill but asked sponsors to monitor its effects.

“Test scores should rise significantly,” said Wilson, a retired superintendent who described himself as “a conservative Republican educator – which is an oxymoron.”

Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, proposed an amendment that would have required the breakfasts include meat or meat substitutes, but that was defeated.

Not everybody’s happy with the amended bill.

Moreno went to the State Board of Education Tuesday to brief members on the proposal, including the amendments he planned to add on the House floor.

Member Marcia Neal, who represents the Western Slope, told Moreno, “A lot of superintendents in western Colorado are opposed because it dictates the way they do breakfast. … They feel very strongly that they are being dictated to in a way that indicates distrust.”

Moreno replied, “That’s definitely not the intent at all.”

Early childhood consolidation bill moves

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee gave 6-1 approval to House Bill 13-1117, which would consolidate a variety of early childhood programs and offices around state government into the state Department of Human Services.

Passing the bill is a goal of the Hickenlooper administration as part of its initiative to improve early childhood services.

A long list of witnesses supported the bill, and the only discouraging words came from Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, who complained about government intrusion.

“It’s a fundamental question of the role of government, the role of the family,” Lundberg said. “I don’t think the government should assume larger roles of responsibility for families.”

Similar Republican concerns killed a 2012 version of the bill in a House committee. On Wednesday, Lundberg was the only ‘no’ vote in the Senate panel, with two other Republicans supporting the bill.

School resource officer bill clears Senate

The full Senate gave 34-0 final approval to Senate Bill 13-138, which would require better integration of school resource officers into the school safety planning efforts, give the state School Safety Resource Center $57,815 for a staff member to help districts find school safety grants and add a school resource officer (SRO) to the center’s advisory board.

The bill is the only measure directly involving school security still alive in the 2013 session.

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.”