From the Statehouse

Hick signs school finance reform bill

Gov. John Hickenlooper this morning signed the proposed overhaul of the state’s school funding system, but it’s still unclear which billion-dollar proposal voters will face to fund the ambitious plan. That may not be decided until the end of May.

Capitol signing ceremony
Gov. John Hickenlooper shakes hands with Sen. Mike Johnston after signing SB 13-213.

Hickenlooper said the bill “really positions Colorado to be the national leader in school reform and school effectiveness.”

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver and primary author of the bill, called it “a tremendous step forward” and said the measure shows it’s possible to combine education reform with additional funding.

Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, reminded the crowd gathered at the Capitol ceremony that “the biggest challenge ahead of us will be convincing all of the people of Colorado to share this vision” and approve the tax increase necessary to pay for it.

SB 13-213 would increase funding for kindergarten and preschool, provide significantly more money for districts with the highest concentrations of at-risk students and English language learners, devote more money to special education and make extra payments to districts for the cost of implementing reform mandates.

(Get more details on the bill in this EdNews summary and in this legislative staff analysis.)

The new system won’t go into effect unless voters approve an income-tax increase to pay for its costs, which range from $899 million in the first year for basic school funding to $1.12 billion to pay for all the bill’s elements, according to a legislative staff estimate.

If voters approve a tax increase in November the new funding formula wouldn’t kick in until the 2015-16 school year. If voters say no this year, the bill would remain on the shelf but “alive” for five years, allowing backers to go to the voters later if they choose.

Lots of tax plans to choose from

Backers of a proposed tax increase, led by the civic group Colorado Forum, filed 16 variations of a tax increase on the March 22 deadline. The idea was to keep a number of options alive so that supporters could later choose one to submit to voters, based on the wishes of various interest groups in Colorado Forum’s coalition and on perceptions and polling about voter preferences. (The SB 13-213 price tag was set at about $1 billion because previous public opinion sampling indicated that was the upper limit of what a majority of voters might support.)

“We’re very close” to selecting the ballot measure, Gail Klapper, director of Colorado Forum, told EdNews on Monday. Klapper said she hopes a decision will be made by the end of the month. Once that choice is made, backers will have until Aug. 5 to gather the 86,105 signatures necessary to put the measure on the Nov. 5 ballot.

“A modified flat tax is what we’re most likely to get to,” she said of the likely choice.

What Klapper means by that is a proposal that would include a two-step tax increase, with a .37 percent hike for individual taxpayers who earn $75,000 or less a year and a 1.27 percent increase for those earning more. Currently all taxpayers pay 4.63 percent of their federal taxable income to the state. The additional revenue derived from the .37 and 1.27 percent increases would be earmarked for additional K-12 spending.

The two-step tax hike would raise $950.1 million a year in revenue, according to estimates by legislative staff economists.

Up to now Hickenlooper has kept a fairly low public profile on the ballot measure. “I will certainly campaign for it when we decide what it is,” he said. But he declined to say whether he’s favoring any particular version. “I have several preferences, but I’ll keep those to myself.”

Most people involved in the effort believe a successful campaign will require high-visibility leadership from a figure like Hickenlooper. “The only [successful] path I see right now is the governor supporting and actively campaigning,” said one observer.

Gail Klapper of Colorado Forum stands with sponsor Sen. Rollie Heath during SB 13-213 signing ceremony.
Gail Klapper of Colorado Forum stands with sponsor Sen. Rollie Heath during SB 13-213 signing ceremony.
The Colorado Forum proposals come in four flavors: The two-step increase, a truly flat increase of .72 percent and two sets of five-tier increases.

The two-step tax would raise the least amount of revenue. The across-the-board .72 percent increases would raise an estimated $927.7 million, while the variations of five-step increases would raise $1.07 billion and $1.16 billion.

There’s been a lively debate about the tax structure among segments of the business and education communities. Some business interests have argued for the flat .72 percent increase while other groups wanted to differentiate rates so that lower-income taxpayers wouldn’t see as large an increase.

Choice of the two-step plan is seen as a likely compromise, according to several sources.

In addition to the four different tax increases, the Colorado Forum proposals also include four variations of tax policy changes. Those include:

  • A combination proposal that includes repeal of the current constitutional requirement for automatic increases in base school funding (Amendment 23) and replacing it with a provision earmarking about 43 percent of annual state general fund spending for schools. The combination plan also changes the Gallagher Amendment, which governs local property taxes, to set a floor on the valuation of residential property for the assessment of school taxes.
  • A version that includes just the Amendment 23 changes.
  • A version that includes only the Gallagher changes.
  • No change in either constitutional provision.

Various interest groups have different opinions about the need to change Amendment 23 and Gallagher, so those issues have been part of the behind-the-scenes debates about which ballot measure to go with.

Klapper indicated Monday that the final version might well include the Amendment 23 change but that “we’re really wrestling with the Gallagher piece.”

Her goal, she said, is to choose a version “that every constituency finds something in it to love.”

Campaign could be costly

Once a measure makes the ballot, proponents will have to persuade voters to raise their taxes. Klapper joked that it will take “astronomical amounts” of money to fund a successful campaign.

Another observer, Chris Watney of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, estimated a campaign cost of $7 to $10 million.

Asked if a June start for petition gathering was risky, Klapper said, “The experts tell me that’s enough time.”

Colorado Forum is already getting some expert advice, from Mike Melanson of OnSight Public Affairs. He’s a Democratic strategist who has managed campaigns for Hickenlooper and Sen. Mark Udall.

One potential complication for the campaign is the fact that voters also will face a $70 million proposal to set excise and sales taxes on recreational marijuana. Asked about the possible interplay of the two measures in voters’ minds, Klapper said, “That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”

Signing key step in long journey

The signing of SB 13-213 was the culmination of an effort that started in 2011, when a group called the Colorado School Finance Partnership began studying the state’s funding system. Many of the themes in its final report are echoed in the bill.

SB 13-213 sponsors Sen. Mike Johnston, Rep. Millie Hamner and Sen. Rollie Heath confer before bill signing.
SB 13-213 sponsors Sen. Mike Johnston, Rep. Millie Hamner and Sen. Rollie Heath confer before bill signing.
The partnership is a coalition of civic, business and education groups originally convened by the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

The west foyer of the Capitol was filled with leaders of education groups, partnership members, some business leaders, lobbyists, a smattering of superintendents and legislators for the signing ceremony.

Both Hickenlooper and Johnston took care to mention lots of people by name and thank them for their work on the issue.

Conspicuously absent were any Republican officials. The bill gained no GOP votes in either the House or Senate, where Republicans hewed to the party’s anti-tax orthodoxy.

On Tuesday, while Democratic legislative staffers were tweeting every nuance of the event, @CoSenGOP tweeted, “SB 213 is a billion dollar tax increase disguised as school reform.”

STEM in Colorado

Colorado lawmakers are stepping in to help prepare students for the state’s booming tech sector

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Northglenn High School who are studying biomedical science work on an assignment. The class is part of the school's STEM offerings.

More Colorado students could be building smartphone apps by the end of next school year.

In an effort to prepare students for the state’s booming technology job market, lawmakers are considering three bills that would beef up access to computer science classes and provide students with new credentials after they leave high school.

A Chalkbeat analysis last year found that only about two out of every seven students in Colorado have access to courses in STEM — short for science, technology, engineering and math.

The bipartisan bills could change that, increasing access to computer science courses for the state’s black, Latino and rural students, and — for the first time — begin to define what a quality STEM program is.

The first bill scheduled to be debated by the House Education Committee on Monday would require schools to include technology in lessons alongside traditional subjects, such as English and civics.

It would also require the education department to create lessons to help educators teach computer science as a standalone course, and set up a $500,000 grant program to help train them.

“Kids need to be up to speed on these things in order to function in the current marketplace,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, along with Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat. “The more they’re attuned to the technology of the times — all the better. It will help them in college and getting their job and careers.”

The technology sector is the fastest growing in Colorado. There are an estimated 13,517 open computing jobs in the state, according to Colorado Succeeds, an education reform advocacy group that represents the state’s business community.

Some states have already made the shift to include technology in their learning standards. In Arkansas, which made the change in 2015, officials say the new standards have already started to break down stereotypes about who can do computer science.

“What we’re trying to do is to make computer science a normal part of their academic lives,” said Anthony Owen, the state director for computer science education in Arkansas. “When we make it normal for everyone, it’s abnormal for no one.”

A second bill under consideration in Colorado would make mostly technical changes to the state’s new P-Tech schools, a model that mirrors a New York City school that partners with IBM to give students work experience and a path to an associate’s degree while in high school.

The model allows students to stay in high school for up to six years — which has caused schools that house P-Tech programs to worry about their graduation rates.

House Bill 1194 would change the way the state calculates graduation rates to avoid penalizing schools that have P-Tech students enrolled for an extra two years.

The third bill, House Bill 1201, would create a special kind of diploma that shows colleges and employers that its holder is proficient in STEM subjects. To get the diploma, students would have to take a variety of STEM classes, earn high marks on standardized math exams, and demonstrate their science skills through a special project they complete their senior year.

“I want to make sure, across Colorado, that we have clear expectations and that they’re equitable expectations,” said Rep. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat and sponsor of the bill. “All of our schools are doing a good job preparing our kids, but I want to be specific in terms of what our colleges and workforce is seeking in our graduates.”

The bill, however, stops short of defining what coursework students must complete. Local schools will decide that. That was important to Jess Buller, the principal of West Grand’s K-8 school who helped write the bill. He noted that different schools and districts offer different STEM courses.

“We want that STEM endorsement to be that sign of distinction, that a student completed a program and does not need the remedial work that might be required for other students,” Buller said. “The bill is specific enough, but flexible enough.”

Morgan Kempf, the STEM science specialist for Pueblo City Schools, said she is excited to offer such a credential.

In the absence of a special diploma, Pueblo Central High School, the city’s STEM school, has sought outside accreditation to give weight to its STEM courses. The school has also started handing out school letters, usually a tradition reserved for varsity athletes, to exceptional STEM students.

“It’s an extra stamp of approval that recognizes and appreciates what they’re doing and at the level of rigor they’re doing it at,” Kempf said. “That stamp of approval lets students and potential employers know they’re meeting expectations.”

power players

Who’s who in Indiana education: House Speaker Brian Bosma

PHOTO: Sarah Glen

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

Vitals: Republican representing District 88, covering parts of Marion, Hancock and Hamilton counties. So far, has served 31 years in the legislature, 9 of those as Speaker of the House. Bosma is a lawyer at the firm Kroger, Gardis & Regas.

Why he’s a power player: Bosma was House Speaker in 2011, when the state passed its large education reform package, creating the first voucher program for students from low-income families. Along with Rep. Bob Behning, Bosma helped develop the state’s voucher program bill as well as the bill that expanded charter school efforts that year. As a party and chamber leader, he plays a major role in setting House Republicans’ legislative agendas.

On toeing the party line: With the debate over state-funded preschool front and center during this year’s session, Bosma has expressed far more enthusiasm than his fellow Republicans for expanding the state’s program. Indeed, Bosma has long been a supporter of state-sponsored preschool. Currently, low-income families in five counties can apply for vouchers to use at high-quality preschool providers. Bosma has said he’d like to see that number triple, if not more.

Recent action: In 2016, Bosma ushered through one of the few teacher-focused bills that became law in the wake of news that some districts in the state were struggling to hire teachers. The bill created a state scholarship fund for prospective teachers, and began awarding money to students this year.

A perhaps little-known fact: In the late 1980s, Bosma worked at the Indiana Department of Education as the legislative adviser to H. Dean Evans, the state superintendent at that time. Then, as with this year’s House Bill 1005, lawmakers advocated to make the state superintendent an appointed position, a bill Bosma is carrying this year.

Who supports him: In past elections, Bosma has received campaign contributions from Education Networks of America, a private education technology company; Hoosiers for Quality Education, an advocacy group that supports school choice, charter schools and vouchers; Stand for Children, a national organization that supports education reform and helps parents to organize; K12, one of the largest online school providers in the country.

Conversely, given his support for choice-based reform, the Indiana Coalition for Public Education gave Bosma an “F” in its 2016 legislative report card highlighting who it thinks has been supportive of public schools.

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.