Political theater

One kindergarten funding bill dies, sentence deferred on another

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Five-year-old Samatar Abhullahi works during his kindergarten class at Denver's Ashley Elementary School.

A $243 million plan for the state to pick up the tab for full-day kindergarten passed the House Education Committee Monday and was shuttled off to the Appropriations Committee, where it’s expected to die near the end of the session.

An hour later, in another Capitol hearing room, the Senate State Affairs Committee finally voted to kill a different kindergarten funding plan.

The state pays for kindergarten students at only 58 percent of the average per-student funding provided for kids in grades 1-12.

All but 10 of Colorado’s 178 districts offer full-day kindergarten, and 76 percent of the state’s 64,631 kindergarteners are enrolled in the longer programs. Districts pay for such programs from local funds and, in some communities, from parent fees.

Advocates of a greater state role believe providing less per-pupil funding for kindergarteners is fundamentally unfair, argue that districts could use local funds for other needs if the state picks up the tab and worry that some low-income families can’t afford fees.

“The people in the state are coming to expect full-day kindergarten. We don’t fund it, so districts have to,” Republican Rep. Jim Wilson, a retired superintendent from Salida, told his House Education Committee colleagues. “Our obligation is to fully fund kindergarten.”

This isn’t the first session Wilson has pushed the issue, and he’s repeatedly acknowledged the debate is more symbolic than real given the revenue and budget restrictions facing the legislature.

His House Bill 16-1022 would phase in full funding over five years and also provide money to some districts for kindergarten classrooms.

House Education passed it 7-3, with Republican Reps. Justin Everett of Jefferson County, Paul Lundeen of Monument and JoAnn Windholz of Adams County voting no. The bill’s next stop is appropriations. Bills typically stack up in that committee until March or April, when lawmakers learn how much – or how little – money is available for new programs in the coming budget. Then most bills are killed.

Senate bill took a different tack

The Senate State Affairs Committee, known as a “kill committee” for the fate suffered bills sent there, has been dancing around Senate Bill 16-023 since last Monday.

The measure by Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, was more complicated than Wilson’s bill. Kerr proposed a mechanism that have would have required voters to allow the state to keep revenues that otherwise would be earmarked for tax refunds under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Right. Those revenues would first have been devoted to increasing kindergarten support over five years, with any excess cash earmarked for reducing the negative factor, the state’s overall school funding shortfall.

After hearing two hours of testimony Feb. 1, the committee was about to take the fatal vote when Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, said he couldn’t support kindergarten funding until the state reduces the negative factor.

Democrats called Hill’s bluff, and Kerr said he’d propose an amendment making the negative factor the focus of the bill, not full-day kindergarten. The committee didn’t act on that idea then or at a second meeting later in the week.

On Monday, Kerr finally got to propose his amendment, which was passed. Then the bill was killed on a 3-2 party-line vote, with Republicans in the majority.

The debate in Senate had less to do with kindergarten and more about Republican and Democratic differences over tax refunds. Saying cuts could be made elsewhere in the budget, Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, said, “We could do things and make education a priority without thumbing our nose at TABOR. That’s what this bill does.”

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.”


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.”