Tea leaves

Here’s how the education debate could shift if Democrats retake Colorado’s Senate

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper at his 2016 State of the State Address.

Partisan control of Colorado’s Senate is in play this November, and with it the direction of major education policy debates on charter school funding, testing and how teachers are licensed.

For the last two years, Republicans have held a one-vote advantage in the Senate, while Democrats have enjoyed a three-seat majority in the House of Representatives.

But if Democrats have a successful night on Nov. 8, they could reclaim control of that chamber and claim one-party rule for the final two years of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration. (Political observers are all but certain the House will remain under Democratic control.)

The potential shift in power comes as Colorado’s schools are calling for more money and less regulation. But there is also a contingent of school leaders and advocacy organizations who are asking lawmakers to keep the status quo, at least for one more year as many of Colorado’s most ambitious reform efforts take hold.

The last time Democrats held both chambers and the governor’s mansion — in 2013 and 2014 — little was accomplished on education issues. Most energy was spent on an ill-fated attempt to rework the way the state funds its schools, and getting more money to schools.

So will anything be different this time? We asked a variety of lawmakers, lobbyists and education activists. Here’s what they said is likely to happen if Democrats take over:

Democrats will almost certainly free up more money for schools in the short-term, as advocates push for a resolution to Colorado’s school funding quagmire.

Despite aggressive lobbying earlier this year by the governor’s office, Republicans refused to approve a technical change to a pool of money the state collects that was in part responsible for triggering a mandatory refund to taxpayers.

Currently, the state collects a fee from hospitals that goes toward Medicaid costs. Those dollars also count toward the state’s constitutionally mandated revenue ceiling outlined in the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. Once the state reaches its ceiling, like it did last year, the state must issue refunds to taxpayers.

Democrats want to reclassify the fee so that doesn’t continue to happen as other revenue comes close to the state’s limit but doesn’t reach the ceiling.

“The opportunity is that we can pass some Band-Aid fixes to our restrictions to help with education funding,” said Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat and chairwoman of the House Education Committee.

If Democrats are successful, an estimated $90 million could flow to schools. However, lawmakers could be forced to cut back funding if economic forecasts don’t improve by next spring.

And that fix might still not be enough to appease school districts and advocates preparing to ask lawmakers to rethink how the state funds its schools.

“Obviously the hospital provider fee can relieve some short-term pressure, but they have to look at a long-term solution,” said Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit organization that focuses on school funding. “We hope that elected officials come looking to solve problems.”

Charter school supporters are worried a Democratic-controlled state Senate means funding equalization is DOA. They’re probably right.

Last session, lawmakers failed to reach a compromise that would have required local school districts to share local tax dollars equally with their charter schools.

While advocates are vowing to bring the measure back, some conservatives who supported the measure are skeptical the legislation will have a fighting chance in 2017.

“That is not a reality without at least a Republican majority in the Senate,” said Tyler Sandberg, senior policy adviser for Ready Colorado, a conservative nonprofit that advocates for school reform policies.

The Colorado League of Charter Schools isn’t as pessimistic.

“Regardless of which way the election goes, we really see this as a bipartisan issue,” said Dan Schaller, the group’s political director. “The dynamics of the election are not going to change that fundamental viewpoint to continue that push.”

State Sen. Nancy Todd, who is likely to take over the Senate Education Committee and is a self-identified charter school supporter but opposed the bill last year, said her goal is to “narrow the gap” between charter school supporters and detractors.

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” the Aurora Democrat said about the clash between the two camps.

But that doesn’t mean she’s going to support the legislation this year. And Pettersen, chairwoman of the House Education Committee, thinks the issue of funding is best decided at the local level.

Despite Gov. John Hickenlooper’s past support of state standardized tests for ninth-graders, there’s enough interest by Democrats to take another look at the state’s testing system.

In 2015, when Colorado lawmakers were scrambling to roll back the amount of standardized testing required by the state, Hickenlooper made it clear he would not support eliminating testing in the ninth grade.

Lawmakers abided. But nearly two years later, both Republicans and Democrats are ready for a second pass at the state’s testing system.

“There’s still room for discussion,” Todd said.

While Todd and others might want to take a scalpel to the state’s tests, others are calling for a total overhaul.

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Republican from Colorado Springs and the Senate Education Committee’s current chairman, said he believes the time has come for the legislature to direct the state education department to drop the politically contentious PARCC exams and develop a new system designed in Colorado.

“We love our Colorado beer, we love our Colorado mountains and we want a Colorado way to test,” he said.

While neither Pettersen nor Todd are committed to the PARCC exams, Hill’s proposal would likely be a bridge too far for Democrats in 2017.

Teacher licensure reform, on the back burner since 2013, could take center stage as districts struggle to find qualified teachers.

Reforming how teachers are certified has been on Hickenlooper’s to-do list for years. But the issue hasn’t gotten much traction given other policy and fiscal priorities.

That could change next year, said Leslie Colwell, the Colorado Children’s Campaign vice president for education initiatives. Colwell previously served as an aide to state Sen. Michael Johnston, a Denver Democrat who worked with Hickenlooper to broach the subject of licensure reform in 2013.

Both men suggested at the time that a license should be easier to obtain for individuals who go through alternative preparation programs — and that an educator’s annual evaluation should be a factor in the renewal process. The law, which hasn’t been updated since 1991, should also be aligned to the state’s other reform efforts, they said.

That summer, Johnston led a group of other lawmakers, university presidents, advocacy groups and teachers in rethinking what educators needed to prove to get a license to teach. The goal was to develop legislation that could win approval. But nothing materialized.

With school districts struggling to find and keep teachers — especially rural districts — this could be the year lawmakers take another look at the issue, Colwell and others said.

“We’re reaching a crisis level in many of our school districts,” Colwell said, arguing that Colorado’s current licensure program has “arbitrary barriers” and can be too expensive.

Regardless of which party is in control, lawmakers interested in rethinking the licensure process could find allies in the rural caucus.

“We have a negative balance of educators,” said Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican.

While some lawmakers might be tempted to roll back some of the state’s most ambitious education reforms, Democratic leaders from both chambers aren’t that interested.

When Colorado lawmakers heard Congress was reining in the authority of the federal education department and handing control of schools back to the states, many rejoiced. They saw it as an opportunity to roll back many of the state’s reform efforts — testing, teacher evaluations and quality ratings — that they see as burdensome, especially for rural schools.

While some of that enthusiasm has tempered down, Todd has a message for those still eager to reimagine the whole education system: don’t hold your breath.

Todd herself is anxious to provide relief to schools and ease the burden of teachers. But she wants 2017 to be a year of reflection.

“We need to be brought up to speed on how these laws have played out,” she said, referring to the bevy of education laws Colorado passed between 2008 and 2012. “That’s something we don’t do well enough.”

While Pettersen agrees 2017 might not be the best year for sweeping changes, she still has hope major legislation can be accomplished to improve our schools.

“We’ll have a better idea,” she said reflecting on this year’s election, “after we can all take a deep breath.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported Leslie Colwell’s title. This article has also been updated with Tyler Sandberg’s correct title. 

getting to know you

Colorado Sen. Nancy Todd is making up for all the times she was quiet in school

PHOTO: Sarah Glen

Throughout the legislative session, Chalkbeat is asking members of the House and Senate education committees to share a little bit about themselves — and their legislative priorities. In this installment, meet Sen. Nancy Todd.

Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat, is a former social studies teacher who has spent her retirement — if you want to call it that — at the Capitol helping shape education policy.

Since 2005, Todd has played a role supporting — and opposing — some of the state’s most ambitious education policies as a member of both the state House and Senate.

One of her earlier bills created a stipend for teachers who earned National Board certification, a rigorous and widely respected training program for educators. More recently, Todd has been focused on reducing standardized testing and curbing the state’s teacher shortage.

Todd was a vocal opponent of Senate Bill 191, the state’s controversial 2010 teacher evaluation law. She has regularly supported reversing provisions of the law, including a failed attempt this year to create more flexibility in how student data is used to evaluate teachers.

Get to know a little more about Todd here:

What is your favorite memory from school?

PHOTO: Nancy Todd
State Sen. Todd in the first grade.

I think one of my favorite memories was my fifth grade teacher. He was my first male teacher, and he inspired me to be creative and think outside the box. Being the daughter of a superintendent, I always appreciated those teachers who treated me as an individual, not their “boss’s daughter.”

Were you the teacher’s pet or class clown?
Neither. I was actually pretty quiet and followed the rules. Guess I’m making up for it now.

What was your favorite subject and why?
I loved American Government because I had a great teacher who was unconventional and allowed different views and lively discussions. He taught me a lot about respecting others’ opinions and how different leaders of our country were all instrumental in doing good for our citizens, using different approaches.

If you could give yourself one high school superlative it would be:
I was considered “Miss Priss” because I didn’t wear jeans like some of my friends did. I was kidded for being “prim and proper.”

What clubs or sports did you participate in high school?
Pep club, journalism, Quill & Scroll, girls sports

What would your perfect school look like?
An ideal school is where there is a high level of innovation, creativity, opportunity for teachers and students to interact with authentic and respectful relationships. Where learning is based on relevant learning environment and a balance of technology, live role models teachers who are highly qualified and LOVE working with students.

What are you legislative priorities?
Resolve ninth-grade testing question; expand counseling; reasonable school finance proposal.

Caught in the crosshairs

Colorado Senate Republicans say they don’t want to cut funding to school to pay for roads

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Mrachek Middle School in Aurora work to solve a math problem.

School funding will not suffer at the expense of fixing the state’s troubled roads, Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert said Monday.

Holbert’s comments came after Democratic Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran last week suggested that could happen if lawmakers use money from existing revenue streams to meet the state’s infrastructure needs, this session’s No. 1 legislative priority.

Leaders in both parties have been working toward a way to find billions of dollars for the state’s roads. Republicans have not ruled out asking voters for more money, but they believe a portion should come the state’s budget.

If the Republicans get their way it could have a big impact on the bigger school funding picture. If that tax money is used for roads, the state likely will not have the means to close a longstanding gap in what schools should be getting under the state’s funding formula.

Holbert on Monday said Republicans believe there should be enough new revenue for schools and roads.

The state is required to increase funding to schools every year to keep up with population changes and inflation. Lawmakers have some discretion on money that exceeds that formula, which goes toward helping small districts and those with large at-risk populations.

Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican, in a press conference with reporters Monday, said he didn’t find Duran’s comments surprising. But he stood by the GOP’s position that any compromise in transportation funding must come from existing funding streams.

“If it’s going to be a priority,” he said. “Let’s act like it’s a priority.”

Public schools use about 38 cents for every tax dollar in the portion of the state’s budget lawmakers have control over — by far the largest line item.

Funding to schools has increased during the last several years, but lawmakers have fallen short in closing a $813 million shortfall for education created during the Great Recession.

Some school leaders and observers fear the state might not be able to keep funding at its current level going forward because of a decrease in local property tax revenue. The state may have to find at least another $136 million of new revenue to keep schools funded at the current level.

“I’m losing sleep already,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat who is co-chair of the Joint Budget Committee.

The legislature’s budget committee is expected to start addressing how much schools will receive next year in early March.