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. 

Show me the money

Colorado Senate Republicans push charter school funding in annual school spending bill

Students at University Prep, a Denver Public Schools charter school, worked on classwork last winter. (Photo by Marc Piscoty)

An ongoing dispute over charter school funding in Colorado stole the spotlight Thursday as the Senate Education Committee deliberated a routine bill that divides state money among public schools.

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, backed by his GOP colleagues, amended this year’s school finance legislation to include language that would require school districts to share revenue from locally-approved tax increases with charter schools.

The annual school finance bill takes how much money the state’s budget dedicates to education and sets an average amount per student. That money is then bundled for each of the state’s 178 school districts and state-authorized charter schools based on student enrollment and other factors.

Thursday’s charter school funding amendment is a carbon copy of Senate Bill 61, one of the most controversial education bills this session. The Senate previously approved the bill with bipartisan support. But House Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat, has not assigned the bill to a committee yet.

“I do want to continue to pressure and keep the narrative up,” Hill said as he introduced amendment.

Democrats on the committee, who also vigorously opposed the charter school bill, objected.

“I consider it a hijacking move,” said Colorado Springs state Sen. Mike Merrifield.

A bipartisan group of senators last year attempted a similar tactic. While requiring that charters get a cut of local tax increase revenue did not go through, smaller items on the charter school community’s wish list were incorporated into the overall funding bill.

House Democrats this year will likely strip away the language when they debate the bill.

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, was not immediately available for comment. She’s the House sponsor of this year’s school finance bill. Pettersen voted to kill similar charter school funding legislation last year at the sponsors’ request. But this year she has been working on a compromise that Republicans have said they’re open to discussing.

Senate Republicans on Thursday also approved an amendment that would prevent the state’s education funding shortfall from growing this year.

The amendment takes $9.6 million from a school health professionals grant program, $16.3 million from an affordable housing program and about $22.8 million from the state education fund and gives it to schools.

Democrats on the Senate committee opposed the changes. They said the money, especially for school health professionals was important.

“Counseling, health programs, are all essentials,” said state Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat. “It’s not icing on the cake.”

The governor’s office also is likely to push back on that amendment. The governor’s office lobbied heavily during the budget debate for the $16.3 million for affordable housing.

Hill said that he tried to identify sources of revenue that were increases to current programs or new programs so that no department would face cuts.

No one will be fired with these changes, he said.

“I want to send a message that we’ll do everything in our power to prioritize school funding and not increase the negative factor,” he said referring to the state’s school funding shortfall.

Hill’s amendment means schools will receive an additional $57 per student, according to a legislative analyst.

While Thursday’s hearing was a crucial step in finalizing funding for schools, the conversation is far from over. Some observers don’t expect resolution until the last days of the session.

The state’s budget is not yet complete, although budget writers took a critical final step as the education committee was meeting. The death of a transportation bill died would allow lawmakers to some money away from schools and spend it on roads, but that is unlikely. Negotiations on a compromise on a bill to save rural hospitals, which also includes money for roads and schools, are ongoing.

And late Thursday, the state budget committee approved a technical change to the budget that could free up even more money for schools after learning cuts to personal property taxes that help pay for schools were not as severe.

Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that Rep. Brittany Pettersen voted against a bill to equalize charter school funding. She has not voted on the bill yet. She voted against a similar measure last year. 

maybe next year

Senate Republicans kill bill that would have taken broad look at public education in Colorado

Students at Vista PEAK Exploratory in Aurora work on a math assignment. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

A Republican-controlled state Senate committee spiked a bill Wednesday that was meant to spark a broad conversation about the future of Colorado’s public schools.

Some lawmakers hoped House Bill 1287 would help sell voters on raising taxes to better fund the state’s schools. But the Senate State, Military and Veterans Affairs committee voted 3-2 along party lines to kill the legislation, which would have created a series of committees to examine the state’s education laws and make recommendations for changing them.

Republicans objected to the bill because they didn’t want to create more bureaucracy, and they thought it was a ploy to raise taxes.

The bill’s demise was a defeat for a group of the state’s most authoritative lawmakers on education policy. It was one of the top legislative priorities for state Reps. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat, and Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican. Both serve of the state’s budget committee and rallied lawmakers around the bill.

Rankin called the bill the most important of his legislative career.

“I’m bitterly disappointed, although it was expected,” he said. “I certainly don’t intend to give up. We’ve worked for over three years to move this idea forward. We thought we built a bipartisan coalition that was interested and wanted to help. We thought we were making really good progress.”

Hamner also expressed dismay over the bill’s death.

“To die quietly like that in Senate was really, really surprising and disappointing,” Hamner said. “Do we still have a need to establish a vision for the future of our kids? Yes. Apparently we’re going to have to do that without our Senate majority.”

Last-minute amendments brought by state Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican, to address Senate GOP leadership’s concerns could not save the bill.

Supporters of the bill said the legislature needed to step in to help rethink Colorado’s education landscape holistically, not with piecemeal legislation. The state’s laws are outdated and clash with 21st century expectations, they said at Wednesday’s hearing.

“Our current collection of policies and laws have failed to keep pace with changes in expectations of our education system,” said Mark Sass, a Broomfield high school teacher and state director of a teacher fellowship program, Teach Plus. “We need a deliberate and collaborative conversation in our state, as to our vision of education.”

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Republican from Colorado Springs, said he supported the goal of the bill. His name was listed as a sponsor when the bill was first introduced. But he said he eventually concluded the bill was the wrong approach.

“I’m not sure this is the solution to get us there,” he said. “It’s time for us to take a bottom up approach. I get nervous about standing up and staffing and financing another government program.”

After the committee hearing, Sass said Republican lawmakers failed to realize their unique role in Colorado shaping statewide education policy. The state’s constitution gives no authority to the governor, the education commissioner or the State Board of Education to create a strategic plan.

“We need someone to drive this conversation,” he said. “If the legislature won’t, who will?”

Priola said in an interview that he had hoped for more time to lobby Senate leadership and members of the committee. Instead, he said he’d try again next year.

“We live in a state with 178 school districts and thousands of schools,” he said. “There can’t be one way of doing things, but there also can’t be 1,000. There has to be some commonality on what we’re doing and what direction we’re heading.”

Rankin was less committed in trying again next year.

“I want to think about,” he said. “I don’t think this elected, term-limited legislature with the background they come from can develop the kind of leadership needed for this movement.”

The death of House Bill 1287 puts another bipartisan piece of legislation on shaky ground.

House Bill 1340, sponsored by state Reps. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, and Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, would create a committee of lawmakers to study and make changes to the way Colorado funds its schools.

The state House of Representatives was expected to hold its final vote on that bill Wednesday morning. But Democratic leadership pushed the vote by a day.

Some Democrats in the House saw the two bills as a package, while Republicans in the Senate saw them as competing. With partisan rancor flaring in the waning days of the session, House Democrats could return the favor and kill the finance study bill.

Rankin, the House Republican, said he hoped his chamber’s leadership would let the finance study bill move forward. He introduced a similar bill two years ago but was unable to get the bill through the legislative process.

“I think it’s a good idea to take a hard look at school finance. Maybe we can get some dialogue going,” he said, adding that he believes lawmakers still need to think about a strategic plan for its schools.

Hamner, the House Democrat, said she also supported the finance study.

“I think their bill will be just fine,” she said. “Unless the Senate decides to kill it in State Affairs.”