From the Statehouse

Finance bill gets a big tweak

This story was updated on March 22 to add additional information about the possible impacts of the amendment added Thursday.

The Senate Education Committee voted 5-4 Thursday to advance the bill that proposes a major shift in the way Colorado funds K-12 education.

Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora
Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora

But approval came only after passage of an amendment that increases the bill’s price tag by about 20 percent, an issue certain to be revisited when the bill reaches the Senate floor, which probably won’t happen until April Fool’s Day at the earliest.

Senate Bill 13-213 is in a situation much like a car that has had major work done in one body shop and now is being towed to another garage for more work.

The committee vote came at the end of the third meeting the panel has held this week on the measure, which is sponsored by Democratic committee members Mike Johnston of Denver and Rollie Heath of Boulder. The bill is considered the most important education legislation of the 2013 session, and Johnston calls it a once-in-a-generation opportunity to modernize how Colorado pays for it schools.

Johnston and Heath have been working on the bill for more than a year and have held scores of meetings with education interest groups and others to discuss the goals of the proposal.

Key elements of the bill include increased funding for kindergarten and preschool, significantly more money for districts with the highest concentrations of at-risk students and English language learners, more money for special education, extra payments to districts for the cost of implementing reform mandates and some changes in requirements for district contributions to school costs. The system wouldn’t go into effect unless a statewide ballot measure to raise taxes is passed. (Friday is the deadline for ballot proposals to be filed.)

The central feature of the plan is a significant shift of funding to districts with the highest concentrations of at-risk students and English language learners. That would benefit districts like Denver and Aurora. Large districts with a lower concentration of such students, such as Cherry Creek, Douglas County and Jefferson County, would receive smaller increases in per-pupil funding.

That emerged as a major issue this week, with both Democratic and Republican members of Senate Education expressing worries about the bill’s impact on medium to large suburban districts with smaller concentrations of disadvantaged students.

That debate came to a head Thursday afternoon with an amendment proposed by Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora. Her proposal was opposed by Johnston and Heath, but its passage probably ensured that the bill got out of committee.

Todd, a retired teacher and veteran legislator, said she was concerned by the “disparity” between districts like Aurora and Cherry Creek in the bill. “All districts have to feel like they’re coming away from the table with a win for their children.”

She proposed an amendment that essentially would bring such districts up to the statewide per-pupil average with a “bonus” payment every year, even if the bill’s formula set them at a lower amount. That would raise the estimated $950 million cost of the bill by an additional $220 million a year, according to Johnston. (However, the impact of the amendment hasn’t been fully calculated, and some observers think the cost could be different.)

The amendment would set a per-student “floor” of $7,495 for all districts, according to Tracie Rainey of the Colorado School Finance Project, who has been following work on the bill.

Johnston opposed Todd’s amendment, but its passage might have been the price he had to pay to get the bill out of committee. “It would be very difficult for me to vote yes on the bill as it is now,” Todd said before the vote. Approving her amendment would “keep the conversation alive. … I want to get this bill out of committee.”

“The hard question is where we are you going to finding the $220 million,” Johnston said. Johnston and his allies have said the proposed ballot measure probably can’t exceed $1 billion and have a chance at voter approval.

Republicans voted yes before they voted no

Todd’s amendment passed on a 6-3 vote, with Todd, chair Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, and all four committee Republicans voting for it.

Those Republicans – Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, Vicki Marble of Fort Collins, Scott Renfroe of Greeley and Mark Scheffel of Parker – essentially voted for the bill before they voted against it. By supporting the amendment they voted to make the bill richer than Johnston’s version. But they all were no votes on the final motion to send SB 13-213 to the Senate floor.

They cited concerns about the proposal’s costs and that it doesn’t contain enough “reform.” The bill was sent to the floor on a 5-4 vote, with Democrats supporting and Republicans opposing. That wasn’t necessarily a good sign for Johnston, who in the past has relied on GOP votes to pass such key measures as Senate Bill 10-191, the educator evaluation law.

There had been talk that the bill would be heard on the Senate floor Friday, but Johnston said senators need time to study it and that the bill won’t be debated until April 1 at the earliest. Fresh calculations of the district-by-district impacts of the amended bill aren’t expected until the middle of next week.

He also said, “Sen. Todd is going to have to help me think about how we balance the budget. I’ll sit down with Sen. Todd and figure out a compromise.”

If the bill passes on the Senate floor during the first week of April, it will face a tight timeline to get through the House, because the legislature has a drop-dead adjournment deadline of May 8.

A weird opening act

Before it even got to school finance, Senate Education burned up an hour on Senate Bill 13-201, which proposes to designate shelter dogs and cats as the official “state pets.”

The bill, proposed by a group of Walsenburg middle school students, follows a traditional pattern of students proposing state fossils or whatever. Such bills usually are feel-good measures that allows lawmakers to compliment students on their interest in the legislative process.

But SB 13-201, sponsored by Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, actually had opposition.

Paid lobbyist Dan Anglin, representing the Colorado Association of Dog Clubs and the Colorado Pet Association (which includes pet stores), urging the committee to defeat the bill, saying it “discriminates” against pets available at outlets other than shelters.

The committee voted 6-3 to pass the bill on to the Senate floor.

Breakfast after the bell still alive

Speaking of feel-good bills, the breakfast-after-the-bell proposal had its first Senate hearing Thursday in the health committee.

The bill, pushed by a variety of child health and other advocacy groups, proposes that all students in certain high-poverty schools be served free breakfast after school starts. Many school districts have complained that the bill could force startup costs on financially strapped schools, and the bill was amended in the House in an attempt to ease some of those worries. (See this story for further details.)

Those amendments apparently didn’t calm everyone’s fears, and a string of district nutrition directors urged the committee to make further modifications to the bill. The health panel didn’t amend the bill further. It passed on a narrow 4-3 vote.

power players

Who’s who in Indiana education: Sen. Dennis Kruse

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos and Sarah Glen

Find more entries on education power players as they publish here.

Vitals: Republican representing District 14 and parts of Allen and Dekalb counties. So far, has served 13 years in the Senate (current) and 15 years in the House. Kruse began his career as a teacher in 1970, spending five years in the classroom. Once he left education, he became an auctioneer and got involved in real estate.

What he’s known for: Kruse has served as Senate Education Committee chairman for eight years. While he is a less vocal advocate for choice-based education reform measures than his House counterpart, Kruse is a staunch conservative who has pushed — with varying levels of success — for incorporating more religion in public schools.

Career highlights: In 2011, Kruse was the author of Senate Bill 1, a massive bill that established the state’s formal teacher evaluation system. He has also consistently supported bills seeking to improve school discipline, before- and after-school programs and teacher preparation. This year, Kruse has authored bills dealing with school start dates, contracts for district superintendents, school employee background checks and testing.

On religion in schools: Kruse and fellow Sen. Jeff Raatz introduced a resolution this year that, according to the National Center for Science Education, has the “teaching of evolution” as “the specific target of the bill.” Previously, Kruse has put forward other legislation that would encourage the teaching of creationism and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer at the start of the school day, but none of the bills passed. In 2015, Kruse was also a co-author of the controversial religious freedom bill.

On toeing the party line: Despite his conservative politics, Kruse doesn’t always line up with the will of his party. Republican leaders this year are calling for making the state superintendent an appointed, rather than elected, position, but Kruse won’t back the switch. Instead, Kruse has said he believes in elections and that people should get to make choices about their representation.

For that reason, some have speculated that’s why the senate’s version of the bill bypassed his education committee and instead was heard through the elections committee.

Who supports him: Kruse has received campaign contributions from Hoosiers for Quality Education, an advocacy group that supports school choice, charter schools and vouchers; K12, one of the largest online school providers in the country; and Education Networks of America, a private education technology company.

Legislative highlights via Chalkbeat:

Bills in past years: 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017

Also check out our list of bills to watch this year.

seesaw

Tennessee required more recess, but teachers now say it’s too much

PHOTO: Jon Zlock, LEAD Public Schools
Nashville students play during recess at a charter school operated by LEAD Public Schools.

For years, Jamie Petty’s sixth-grade students didn’t have recess — a problem, he thought, since research shows that recess keeps children healthy and focused.

Then Tennessee’s legislature passed a requirement last year that students through the sixth grade get a minimum of two 20-minute periods of non-structured physical activity at least four days a week.

Now play time is overtaking valuable class time, says Petty, a world history teacher at Normal Park Magnet Middle School in Chattanooga. He said one daily period of recess should suffice.

“Physical activity is so important for the kids, and we definitely want that,” he said. “But at the same time, we have to protect instructional time, too.”

Lawmakers have heard similar concerns from educators across Tennessee since the school year started.

“We passed a bill, and it was a fiasco,” said Rep. Bill Dunn.

The Knoxville Republican wants to rein in recess in Tennessee schools. On Wednesday, his bill to do so was approved by a House education subcommittee. Instead of daily mandates of three 15-minute periods for kindergarten and two 20-minute periods for grades 2-6, the bill would institute weekly requirements of 130 minutes of physical activity for elementary schools and 90 minutes for middle and high schools.

Lawmakers hope the change will give schools more flexibility to fit recess into their schedules.

Dunn’s bill also would allow recess to include “structured play.” Last year’s legislation said students must have “non-structured” play, meaning teachers can’t organize sports or games.

Teachers argue that both kinds of play have value.

Kennisha Cann, a literacy coach with Hamilton County Schools, occasionally leads students in games to get the wiggles out. “Kids need to learn how to follow directions, take turns, how to socialize with other children,” she said.

Either way, many educators are happy that the legislature is recognizing the importance of recess.

“Standards are so much harder now,” said Pat Goldsmith, a school psychologist at Chattanooga’s Red Bank Elementary Schools. “Students really need that break.”