Legislative Preview 2016

Lawmakers face tricky choices on education funding, data privacy and more

Colorado’s 100 lawmakers return to the Capitol this week facing a budgetary squeeze and some important unfinished education business.

The budget is expected to dominate debates this year. Many lawmakers are looking for a way to work around constitutional restrictions that may require taxpayer refunds even as some state programs face cuts. The outcome will carry important implications for school districts and state colleges and universities.

Beyond money, protection of student data already is teed up to be a major education issue this session, as it was last year. Testing, school ratings and teacher evaluation also are expected to be in play.

Some Capitol observers think 2016 could be as busy as the 2015 session, when nearly 120 education-related bills were introduced. The vast majority died.

The Capitol cast of characters looks much the same as 2015. Republicans hold a one-vote majority in the Senate while Democrats control the House. The membership of the House and Senate education committees remains largely the same.

Lawmakers are more seasoned than last year, when a fifth of the 100 members were freshmen. But 2016 is an election year, which creates partisan dynamics that can make compromise harder.

Handicapping a legislative session is tricky, but here’s a look at the education issues taking shape for 2016.

The big issues

Budget & school finance

“Our budget is our biggest challenge this year,” Democratic House Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst of Boulder told reporters at a recent briefing. “We are going to have to cut education this year if we don’t find a solution.”

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Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed 2016-17 budget includes such cuts, including a $50 million increase in the K-12 “negative factor.” That’s the formula the legislature uses to reduce school funding from what it otherwise would have been in order to balance the overall state budget. The budget also calls for a $20 million cut in higher education support and recommends that college and university boards be free to raise tuition rates as they see fit.

Here’s the dilemma lawmakers face: A formula mandated by the state constitution limits annual increases in spending. Revenues that exceed the limit are supposed to be refunded to taxpayers, and that’s the situation Colorado now faces.

Those revenues include both taxes, which can spent at the legislature’s discretion, and various revenues called “cash funds,” which generally can be used only for specific purposes.

A $750 million chunk of cash is generated by something called the hospital provider fee, which is used to support the Medicaid program.

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Hickenlooper and Democratic leaders want the legislature to change the provider fee so that it doesn’t count against the revenue limit, freeing up tax revenues for spending on things like transportation and education and eliminate the requirement for taxpayer refunds.

But Republican leaders last week hardened their opposition to reclassifying the provider fee, casting new doubts on whether a deal can be struck.

Education advocates also are eying another pot of money as a way to ease the pressure on school and college funding.

Total school funding — $6.2 billion this year — comes from a combination of state and local tax money. If there’s more local revenue than projected, the state is able to reduce its share. District property tax revenues are higher than projected last spring, and enrollment is down, meaning the state could cut its contribution by about $159 million in the middle of the current school year.

Districts will fight to keep that money for their budgets, but some lawmakers will argue that state support should be cut for the current year so the money can be saved for the 2016-17 budget.

Both Republicans and Democrats are pledging to keep the negative factor at is current $855 million.

“It will not be my intention to let the negative factor grow,” said Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon at a recent legislative forum sponsored by Chalkbeat. (Listen to the audio of that event.) She’s the chair of the Joint Budget Committee and will be a sponsor of the 2016-17 school finance bill.

Many observers are skeptical there will be major movement on school finance.

“It’s just very bleak, how we are going to fund education,” said Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards.

Data privacy

The spread of online testing, use of new tools to evaluate the readiness of preschool and kindergarten students and the proliferation of classroom apps have generated a lot of anxiety among some parent groups and policymakers.

A bill intended to impose greater privacy and security requirements on software and service vendors died in the 2015 session after lawmakers couldn’t reconcile a stronger Senate bill with a somewhat softer House version.

The issue is back this year, with Republican Rep. Paul Lundeen of Monument and Democratic Rep. Alex Garnett of Denver trying to reconcile the wishes of parents, school districts and the software industry.

The key questions are disclosure of what data is collected, how it’s protected, whether it can be sold or shared, how long student data is retained and whether personal information about individual students can really be protected when data is aggregated.

Any legislation on data privacy will need to walk a fine line between protecting student privacy and not stifling educational innovation. “This is an extremely heavy lift,” Lundeen said.

Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, was the author and would-be broker of last year’s unsuccessful data privacy bill. He’s not closely involved in the issue this year, but feels, “We have a better chance.”

Garnett, Lundeen’s partner in the effort, said the state “can’t go another year without putting some guardrails” on data privacy.

Testing, ratings & evaluation

There’s rising chatter about assessments and how test results are used, but no big initiatives have jelled yet.

Here are the key questions in the air:

  • Will the legislature revisit testing issues in 2016, perhaps sparked by the controversy over whether SAT tests should replace ACT tests that have been given to all high school juniors?
  • Will recent changes in federal education law – the new Every Student Succeeds Act – prompt lawmakers to try to take advantage of the additional flexibility the federal government has given states?
  • Will there be moves to extend current timeouts in use of state testing data for rating districts and schools and in evaluating teachers?
  • Will the relatively high rate of opting out of last spring’s PARCC tests raise doubts about the reliability of that data in rating schools and evaluating teachers?
A sixth-grader in Sheridan takes part in a PARCC practice session in March 2015.
PHOTO: Craig F. Walker, Denver Post
A sixth-grader in Sheridan takes part in a PARCC practice session in March 2015.

There’s talk about testing bills, including proposals to eliminate 9th grade testing and perhaps pull Colorado out of the PARCC tests. A couple of legislators say they’re “looking into” the switch to SAT tests for 11th graders, which is all but certain to be delayed until spring 2017.

But it’s unclear whether such ideas will go very far.

“I don’t think there will be a lot stomach in the legislature to deal with more testing bills,” said Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood.

A similar air of uncertainty hangs over possible changes to the accountability and evaluation systems.

There likely will be bills to exempt teachers in early elementary grades and nationally board certified teachers from some provisions of the teacher evaluation law. There’s also talk of trying to change the current law’s requirement that 50 percent of teacher evaluations on student academic growth.

Whether lawmakers tackle those issues in a serious way may depend on how they look at the reliability of last spring’s PARCC testing results.

In a recent meeting with lawmakers, interim education Commissioner Elliott Asp defended the PARCC exams as “well designed” and “valid.” But he acknowledged “what makes the data questionable” for use in rating districts and schools is the participation rates.

The testing law passed last year requires the Department of Education to recommend to the legislature’s education committees whether the accountability timeout should be extended, based on whether test results can be used fairly. The department hasn’t yet made a recommendation.

Colleges also face a money pinch

School districts would receive an increase in funding next year under Hickenlooper’s budget, even they wouldn’t get all the money they want because of the proposed increase in the negative factor.

In contrast, state colleges and universities would take an actual cut of $20 million in their state support.

During meetings with the Joint Budget Committee last week, college presidents gently suggested that lawmakers find money to avoid those cuts. But higher education leaders are realistic about what’s possible.

“If there’s a cut, let’s just take the cut and move on,” said University of Colorado President Bruce Benson.

Tuition increases, the inevitable side effect of state budget cuts, likely will the big higher education issue of 2016. The Hickenlooper administration is proposing that college trustees be given full discretion to raise tuition. A 6 percent annual cap on tuition hikes imposed by lawmakers two years ago is expiring.

Statehouse observers expect bills to set a new cap will be introduced. “It’s low-hanging fruit,” said one lobbyist.

Other issues to watch

Despite perennial promises to restrain themselves, lawmakers love to introduce bills about schools. Here’s a sampling of other issues that are being bandied about at the Capitol:

Charters – Lobbyist Dan Schaller of the Colorado League of Charter Schools said the group is looking at a legislative package to deal with charter funding inequities. Schaller said the league hasn’t decided what it might propose on the touchy issue of districts’ authority to authorize charters. A measure to reduce those powers died last year.

Concurrent enrollment – More than 20,000 Colorado high school students take college classes, and some lawmakers would like to boost that number. Lundeen said he’s planning a bill on the issue. The trick is figuring out how to split student funding between school districts and community colleges.

Construction – State aid for building and renovating schools has plateaued ever since the Building Excellent Schools Today program reached its annual cap on debt repayments a couple of years ago. BEST board members are pushing for an increase in that $40 million cap. They may get a sympathetic ear, because some lawmakers now are more comfortable with the stability of marijuana tax revenues, a small portion of which go to BEST.

Early education – Recent efforts to increase funding for the state preschool program and for full-day kindergarten have fallen afoul of budget realities. That doesn’t mean the issue won’t be debated again this year as both Wilson and Kerr promise bills on full-day kindergarten.

School safety & district liability – The 2015 legislature passed a law that make school districts liable, in some cases, for violent acts committed on school grounds. Districts were nervous about the idea from the start, even the law doesn’t fully go into effect until next year. A legislative study committee took a lot of testimony about the law over the summer but recommended no changes. Districts still want more specificity about what they should do to keep students safe, but it’s unclear if legislation will be proposed or be successful this year.

Teachers – Expect to see a bill to change the current law requiring mutual consent for placement of teachers in schools. This has been a sore subject for teachers unions, particularly in Denver, for five years. But previous attempts to change this portion of the teacher evaluation law have gone nowhere. And heightened worries about teacher shortages, particularly in rural districts, are expected to prompt legislation intended to help teacher recruitment and retention. This is another issue where lack of money may stymie meaningful action.

But wait, there’s more …

Here’s a quick list of other education ideas and issues that are in the air as the session prepares to kick off: Reduction of the paperwork and data reports districts have to file with CDE, expansion of blended learning opportunities, possible tweaks to current school readiness and graduation guidelines requirements, a bill on suspension and expulsion of children in early grades, resident tuition eligibility for homeless students, STEM and career and technical education, adjustments to the breakfast-after-the-bell law, changes in regulation of multi-district online schools, tax credits for donations to private school scholarships and limits on campaign contributions to school board candidates.

If most of those sound familiar, they should. Almost every education issue in play this year has been kicked around in previous sessions. Of course, most of those bills have died, which is why they’ll be back this year. Hope springs eternal at the Capitol.

Need to refresh your memory about what lawmakers did and didn’t do last session? Check this article.

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.