Help with college

Denver sales tax hike for college scholarships defeated

Mayor Michael Hancock at a Yes on 2A kickoff event (Jon Murray, The Denver Post).

Denver voters Tuesday rejected a measure that would have raised taxes to subsidize college scholarships.

Final unofficial results showed voters rejected Measure 2A by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent.

The proposal was born out of concerns by some education and civic leaders that more needs to done to make college more affordable, particularly for lower-income and first-generation students.

That concern was heightened by the fact that state budget constraints make it virtually impossible for state government to increase its commitment to financial aid, which now totals about $125 million a year.

The Denver proposal took a different approach to financial aid than the traditional direct grants to students that are paid to colleges to offset students’ bill. The Denver College Affordability Fund was structured to funnel most of its money to non-profits like the Denver Scholarship Foundation, which provide scholarships to students.

The fund was set up to reimburse those non-profits for part of the scholarships they give, provided that the students stay in college and are successfully advancing. Nonprofits also would receive funding to support the counseling and support programs they provide to help students stay in college.

Higher education leaders increasingly believe that such support services are key to keeping students in college and advancing towards a degree.

“Literally billions of dollars are spent on kids who never graduate,” said Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, referring to federal Pell Grant, a major source of financial aid nationwide. Garcia also is director of the state Department of Higher Education and a leading advocate for broadening access to higher education.

Garcia also has been involved in a state program called the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative (COSI), which is structured in a fashion similar to the Denver proposal.

The lieutenant governor says such programs don’t exist elsewhere in the county and acknowledges they are experiments that may or may not have an impact.

Part of the experiment is encouraging other local communities to start similar programs. Garcia was asked about the problem of a Denver student having access to support while a similar student just across the city limits in Lakewood or Aurora doesn’t.

“What we want to see if Lakewood come up a program,” Garcia said. The goal is “to spark more community-based initiatives.”

Advocates also hope that providing even modest amounts of government funding to scholarship programs will inspire businesses and foundations to devote more funding to financial aid.

The Denver program would provide only a modest contribution to the state’s overall financial aid picture.

Colorado students receive about $2.1 billion in financial aid a year, according to the state higher education department. About half of that is loans, and about half of grants are provided by colleges and universities.

Asked about the size of unmet need, Garcia said the department has tried to estimate that but hasn’t been able to come up with a solid figure. Several years ago, the department looked into expanding the state’s aid program but concluded “there just wasn’t a pot of money anywhere big enough,” he said.

The campaign for 2A has been low-key and not focused on the intricacies of the plan. Some city council members and city Democratic leaders have opposed it, arguing that college financial aid isn’t a municipal responsibility.

Funded by $150,000 from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and money from other donors, a last-minute TV ad campaign launched last week to shore up support for the plan.

Details of 2A

  • Imposes a .08 percent increase in sales and use taxes to fund the Denver College Affordability Fund, to be administered by a seven-member appointed board.
  • Raises an estimated $10.6 million annually.
  • Revenue would be used for grants to non-profits for scholarships and support services. Some funds also would help students with loan repayment.
  • Program would sunset in 10 years
  • Eligible students would have to be three-year Denver residents attending non-profit or state colleges and be no older than 25. Recipients would have to maintain satisfactory
  • Eligibility determined on a sliding scale of family income.

More information on campaign website

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.”