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.”

rules and regs

New York adds some flexibility to its free college scholarship rules. Will it be enough for more students to benefit?

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

New York is offering more wiggle room in a controversial “Excelsior” scholarship requirement that students stay in-state after graduating, according to new regulations released Thursday afternoon.

Members of the military, for example, will be excused from the rule, as will those who can prove an “extreme hardship.”

Overall, however, the plan’s rules remain strict. Students are required to enroll full-time and to finish their degrees on time to be eligible for the scholarship — significantly limiting the number who will ultimately qualify.

“It’s a high bar for a low-income student,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “It’s going to be the main reason why students lose the scholarship.”

The scholarship covers free college tuition at any state college or university for students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. But it comes with a major catch: Students who receive Excelsior funding must live and work in New York state for the same number of years after graduation as they receive the scholarship. If they fail to do so, their scholarships will be converted to loans, which the new regulations specify have 10-year terms and are interest-free.

The new regulations allow for some flexibility:

  • The loan can now be prorated. So if a student benefits from Excelsior for four years but moves out of state two years after graduation, the student would only owe two years of payments.
  • Those who lose the scholarship but remain in a state school, or complete a residency in-state, will have that time count toward paying off their award.
  • Members of the military get a reprieve: They will be counted as living and working in-state, regardless of where the person is stationed or deployed.
  • In cases of “extreme hardship,” students can apply for a waiver of the residency and work requirements. The regulations cite “disability” and “labor market conditions” as some examples of a hardship. A state spokeswoman said other situations that “may require that a student work to help meet the financial needs of their family” would qualify as a hardship, such as a death or the loss of a job by a parent.
  • Students who leave the state for graduate school or a residency can defer repaying their award. They would have to return to New York afterwards to avoid having the scholarship convert to a loan.

Some of law’s other requirements were also softened. The law requires students to enroll full-time and take average of 30 credits a year — even though many SUNY and CUNY students do not graduate on time. The new regulations would allow students to apply credits earned in high school toward the 30-credit completion requirement, and stipulates that students who are disabled do not have to enroll full-time to qualify.

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”