Looking ahead

Seven education storylines to watch as the Colorado General Assembly gets to work

PHOTO: Denver Post File
Then state Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, on the House floor in 2015. Priola was elected to the state Senate and will serve on that chamber's education committee.

As Colorado lawmakers return to the Capitol on Wednesday to begin crafting education policy and setting spending priorities, they face significant budget challenges, an uncertain transition in Washington and a growing chorus of educators fatigued by change.

The topics lawmakers are expected to address — including testing, school accountability and funding — are familiar. But the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, and the likelihood the Trump administration will relax regulations in public education could provide lawmakers with new opportunities to rethink the state’s own education laws.

Still, how the state funds its schools is likely to take up the most oxygen, lawmakers and Capitol observers agree. Economic forecasts since June have shifted, creating a moving target for budget drafters. As of December, the economy was rosier — but classrooms still could see cuts because of Colorado’s complicated tax laws.

How the state’s education landscape looks four months from now when the legislature adjourns is anyone’s guess. In the past, the state has been recognized for both being on the forefront of education reform and for spending so little on students.

It’s been an epicenter in the debate over standardized tests, but avoided a showdown over academic standards that establish what students are expected to know at each grade level.

Lawmakers and observers agree that substantial changes this session are unlikely. But a foundation could be laid for bigger changes in 2018.

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The status quo — at least for another year — would be welcomed by school leaders who have spent nearly a decade putting in place education reform efforts ranging from literacy requirements for young students to updated graduation guidelines.

“A year with fewer education bills would really be a great year,” said Diane Doney, Littleton Public Schools’ chief financial officer and president of the Colorado Association of School Executives. “But I would love to see the funding figured out.”

Here are seven storylines we’ll be watching this year based on more than a dozen interviews with lawmakers and Capitol observers:

State Reps. Bob Rankin and Millie Hamner want to transform the way the state funds its schools.

Last session, Rankin, a Carbondale Republican, and Hamner, a Democrat from Frisco, hosted several unofficial study sessions to discuss school finance. That work carried over through the summer in private conversations with a diverse group of lawmakers including state Reps. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, and Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican, and state Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican.

While they’re not quite ready to introduce legislation on opening day, two concepts are in play.

The first would be a bill, which has not been drafted yet, that would ask voters to reset a statewide tax rate, known as mills, on property. Currently, every county and school district taxes personal and business property at varying rates. Some school districts like Weld earn large sums from their local property taxes, while others like Fountain gain very little.

Sen. Andy Kerr, Rep. Millie Hamner and then-Rep. Kevin Priola discussed the 2016 session at a Chalkbeat event. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat).

A combination of constitutional amendments and state statutes leave school districts powerless in setting their tax rate. The effect has been the portion of local tax dollars put toward school funding has shrunk and the state has had to increase its share in per pupil funding.

Rankin and Hamner have yet to decide what the new tax rate would be.

They face a difficult path. In an interview, Hamner said she wants the Joint Budget Committee to sponsor the bill that would refer the measure to the ballot. That would require unanimous support from all six members. If the budget committee agrees to sponsor the bill, it would need to win support from two-thirds of both chambers.

So far, neither Senate nor House leadership has given much thought to the proposal, which was first discussed at a Joint Budget Committee meeting in December.

Hamner and Rankin’s second concept would set up a committee and hire a third party to establish a new long-term vision for Colorado’s education system, including what modern classrooms should look like and how they should be paid for. Colorado currently funds its schools based on a formula written in the 1990s.

“The leadership has to come from the legislature,” Rankin said.

Rankin and Hamner are currently working with legislative legal services’ deputy director, Julie Pelegrin, who has helped draft most of the state’s education laws since the 1990s, on their bill. They’re also lobbying their peers to shore up support before they introduce anything.

“It’s very delicate,” Hamner said. “We want to make sure when we do introduce a bill, it has a lot of support from the very beginning, or else it could be destined for failure.”

It’s probably going to take a lot of creative accounting to keep cuts from schools.

Back in November, Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, proposed a slight increase in per pupil funding while still increasing the school funding shortfall, known as the negative factor, by about $46 million.

In December, the state learned that the economy was doing better than expected, it might have to issue refunds to taxpayers, and that the state was going to have to lower the personal property tax rate to meet a constitutionally required ratio with business property taxes.

Bottom line: lawmakers are going to have to make some very difficult decisions.

“I’m so depressed because of our situation,” Hamner said. “Unless we can reach some bipartisan agreement of how we think about the refunds, I think we’re going to have a really tough budget year.”

The biggest policy fight will likely be over charter school funding — though the outcome seems clear.

Hill, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, is ready to bring a proposal to require that local school districts share voter-approved tax increases with their charter schools.

While his proposal last year had bipartisan support in the Senate, House Democrats spiked it at a committee hearing.

With similarly split chambers this year, the same fate all but certainly awaits Hill’s bill.

Several lawmakers are ready to rethink ninth-grade testing. And they might have a way to convince the governor to support their plan.

Two years ago when lawmakers first took on revamping the state’s testing system, there was disagreement about whether to eliminate ninth-grade testing. But Hickenlooper insisted on keeping the tests and his veto power ensured they would remain.

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

Lawmakers are anxious to test whether might Hickenlooper might budge when pressed again.

One of the first education-related bills you can expect to see introduced will be from state Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora. While the details are still being worked out, Todd’s bill would provide some flexibility around ninth-grade testing.

Currently, ninth graders are required to take the state’s PARCC English and math test. Todd’s bill would allow districts to choose between the PARCC test or administer an exam more aligned to a college entrance exam such as the SAT, which Colorado juniors will begin taking this year as their required test.

The nation’s new education law — and nominee for education secretary — are wild cards.

When lawmakers first heard about the Every Student Succeeds Act, the nation’s new federal law, they were gleeful. In their minds, Colorado would have full control of its own education system, with no interference from Washington.

Just over a year later, legislators aren’t so sure.

“I think part of what’s going on is that there is an effort to understand the freedoms that ESSA will give us, and the freedoms ESSA doesn’t give us,” said state Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican.

Both parties are expressing caution.

“I think it’s important to take the opportunity to make our system better,” said Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Democrat from Lakewood and chair of the House Education Committee. “But we have to do it responsibly — and that takes time.”

Just how long it will take lawmakers to start putting their ideas to paper is unclear. They’ll be taking some signals from new leadership in Washington. Next week, confirmation hearings will begin for President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for education secretary, Michigan billionaire and school choice advocate Betsy DeVos.

“I think we may see some big things,” said Lundeen, who plans on taking a very close look at the state’s accountability system. “There’s just not black letters on white paper yet.”

Is this the year rural schools get the flexibility they want? Rep. Jim Wilson hopes so.

One of the lawmakers who was most excited about the new federal education law was Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican. He’d hoped the new law would provide some relief for rural schools.

Wilson has regularly run bills trying to eliminate paperwork and provide flexibility for rural schools.

“If districts are doing well, why are they required to turn in the same reports with the same frequency?” he said, suggesting some schools shouldn’t have to file regular reports that track goals and progress.

Wilson and other Republicans also hope to make headway on the issue of teacher hiring. Teachers in Colorado are required to hold a license to teach. Some want to relax those rules for rural schools, where hiring a licensed teacher can be difficult.

“It’s always a battle,” Wilson said.

One possible logjam for rural flexibility is a proposal from the State Board of Education. The board hopes to find a sponsor to carry a bill that would put some limitations on waivers they grant. Currently, once the state grants a waiver from state law, the board cannot revoke it or review a school district’s progress. Members, at the least, want some sort of authority to check in on how the waivers are working in school districts.

The board has not found a sponsor for its proposed legislation.

Don’t expect too much help on the state’s teacher shortage.

Lawmakers on the state’s education committees are more than aware that the state is in a crunch. Colorado’s teacher prep programs aren’t producing enough teachers to replace the number of teachers retiring. That’s especially true for middle and high school math and science teachers. And rural schools are especially at risk of being short teachers.

Stanley Teacher Prep resident Lily Wool works with kindergartner Samori McIntosh at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. Wood’s residency program is merging the Boettcher Teacher Residency program.

Remedies are not quick to come, though.

There’s the usual talk about rewriting the state’s teacher evaluation law. The law requires teachers to be evaluated every year, and 50 percent of the evaluation must be based on students’ academic growth.

And some unfinished business on Hickenlooper’s agenda includes reforming the state’s teacher licensing process. For teachers to obtain a license, they must pass a series of tests. The law governing teacher licenses hasn’t been updated since the 1990s.

But whether there’s a compromise to be found between Hickenlooper and different camps of lawmakers — those supported by the state’s teachers union and those supported by education reform groups — is the big question.

Todd, the Democrat from Aurora, is a former teacher. She agrees that teacher prep programs need to be updated. But, she said, “My hope is that when we talk about teacher evaluations, quality of teachers, preparation of teachers, that all of those things are really strengthening the individual to go into the classroom and make them successful.”

money matters

Why so negative? Colorado lawmakers seek to rebrand controversial tool that limits spending on schools

A student works at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Colorado lawmakers are tired of hearing about the “negative factor.”

So they changed its name — at least in statute.

Going forward, the tool that budget writers will use to spend down the state’s financial obligation to public schools to balance the state budget officially will go by its original name: the “budget stabilization factor.”

The change was made when lawmakers passed the state’s annual school funding bill earlier this month.

The negative factor “has been used as a pejorative,” said state Sen. Kevin Priola, the Henderson Republican who put forth the idea of the name change. “The budget is never perfect. But these are the economic realities we have to deal with.”

Some education funding advocates are rolling their eyes. The term, they say, has become so well known and accepted that any attempt to change it will be difficult.

“You can change the name, but the debt’s the same,” said Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for more school funding.

The negative factor — oh, sorry, we mean the budget stabilization factor — is just one part of a much larger and complex formula used to determine school funding.

The budget tool was first created in 2009 when state lawmakers were forced to slash the budget after the Great Recession.

School advocates knew they couldn’t escape the cuts the rest of the state was facing. So a team of lawmakers, lobbyists, superintendents and financial officers helped developed the tool.

Here’s how it works: After lawmakers determine how much funding schools should receive based on a formula developed in 1994, they compare that amount to available tax revenue. The difference is that year’s “stabilization factor.”

At the time the tool was created, the group wanted the cuts to be systematic — applied equally across all schools — and transparent. As part of the compromise, the state was required to track how much money it was withholding from schools.

In 2014, funding advocates sued the state, claiming the negative factor was unconstitutional. But the state Supreme Court disagreed.

Since then, Republican lawmakers have become more critical about the provision that requires them to track how much money the state isn’t giving schools. They argue that other state services such as roads, hospitals and parks all share a burden when it comes to balancing the budget.

Lawmakers have withheld about $5.8 billion from schools since the budget balancing tool was created. However, funding has slowly crept up each year, just not as fast as school leaders would hope.

School Politics

Colorado schools were a hot topic at the state Capitol this year. Here’s what lawmakers did.

A teacher reads to her students at the Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado lawmakers this week are celebrating major education-related policy wins, including finding more money for public schools.

This year’s legislative session, which ended Wednesday, was marked by big compromises on issues that have befuddled policy makers for years: charter school funding, ninth-grade standardized testing and measuring the reading skills of the state’s youngest bilingual students.

With so many thorny debates behind them, lawmakers and Capitol observers are now looking toward other major policy questions they’ve put off for years, including reforming how the state pays for its public schools and making changes to Colorado’s school accountability laws and teacher licensure policies.

“The hope is now that the K-12 community can come together to focus on the big issues,” said Jen Walmer, Colorado state director of Democrats for Education Reform.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s look back at the last 120 days:

Lawmakers found more money for schools than anyone could have imagined.

Before the legislative session began, school districts were preparing for the worst. Despite the state’s booming economy, constraints on how much the state could spend meant schools could have gone without much of a funding increase.

State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican from Sterling, on the first day of the legislative session.

The forecast became even more dire midway through the session when lawmakers learned the local tax base that generates about a third of all state spending on schools was going to shrink drastically. The worst predictions had the state’s education funding shortfall growing to more than $1 billion.

State officials found a technical workaround, and lawmakers were able to send more money to schools. On average, schools will see about $242 more per student next year.

However, leaders in both parties are aware that the state’s problematic constitutional constraints, tax policies and school funding formula still exist. That’s why a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers led a successful effort to create a committee to study and propose changes to the way the state funds it schools.

“We have more work to do. We need to continue with what we’ve done this session: have tough conversations,” said Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat.

“How do we make sure that students, regardless of race, income, regardless of whether they have a disability, that they have the opportunity to succeed?” she said. “There is no doubt that we have structural decisions we have to make when it comes to our budget.”

Republican leaders said they’re also anxious to see the committee get to work. But they’re less likely to support an influx of cash to the state’s schools.

“If we’re going to look at real overhauls to the system and funding, we need to look at all the options — not just throwing more money at the system — a system that by many’s accounting is not working well or efficiently,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican.

He and other Republicans are encouraging the committee to look at how other states have focused their funding formulas on students rather than on a school’s size or geographic location, and used funding to expand school choice.

Lawmakers already have one option on the table: A proposal to set a statewide property tax rate, which was born out of the legislature’s budget office and floated early in the session. While there was a lot of talk behind the scenes, it failed to gain traction. Expect to hear a lot more about the idea.

The charter school funding compromise, which some called “historic,” was just one of many longstanding issues that were resolved this year.

The 2017 legislative session will likely be remembered as the most productive in a decade because of several big compromises.

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, sits alone on the House of Representatives floor as members of her own party filibustered her compromise on charter school funding. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Lawmakers grinned Thursday as they ticked off a long list of accomplishments to reporters, including one that could send more local money to charter schools. In return, charter schools will be required to post on their official websites more tax documents and will no longer receive two specific financial waivers.

The last-minute charter school funding bill — sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers that included state Reps. Brittany Pettersen and Lang Sias and state Sens. Owen Hill and Angela Williams — was the compromise no one saw coming.

“Anything is possible,” Pettersen said after the session.

Lawmakers had wrestled with the question of requiring the state’s school districts to share their locally approved tax increases with charter schools for two years. Despite vocal objections from several school superintendents, the legislature overwhelmingly supported the bill.

Early in the session, lawmakers eager to reduce the number of standardized tests reached another compromise with the governor’s office. High school freshmen will no longer be required to take the controversial PARCC English and math tests. Instead, they’ll take a test that is aligned to the college entrance exam, the SAT.

We kicked the PARCC test out of high schools,” said Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. “It’s gone!”

Other deals that were reached include the creation of a diploma seal of biliteracy for students who demonstrate proficiency in two languages and new regulations on how to monitor the reading skills of young English language learners.

Colorado schools will also see a financial boost for the next three years after lawmakers passed an omnibus bill that resolved a debate over a hospital fee that helps pay for the state’s health insurance program.

As part of the biggest compromise of the year, the state will raise taxes on recreational marijuana. Those taxes will send $30 million to rural schools next year and $40 million over two years to the state education fund, a sort of savings account for schools.

Rural schools flexed their muscles and blocked a bill to reform the state’s student suspension rules, but they didn’t get everything they wanted.

Not every piece of bipartisan legislation reached the governor’s desk.

Students at Merino Elementary School work during class.

A bill that aimed to reduce the number of preschool and elementary school students who are suspended was killed by a GOP-controlled committee at the request of rural schools, despite having overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans.

Rural school leaders said the bill attempted to create a statewide solution for a Front Range problem. A Chalkbeat analysis of suspension data, which rural superintendents refuted, showed otherwise.

Supporters of the legislation vowed to work with opponents this summer and fall and try again next year.

While rural schools were successful in blocking that mandate, they were dealt a setback when a bill that would have allowed them to remedy a teacher shortage by hiring unlicensed teachers was killed by its sponsors.

State Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican, said he couldn’t garner enough support for his effort. At least not this year.

“Like Arnold Schwarzenegger said, ‘I’ll be back,’” Wilson said.

Even though that bill failed, lawmakers did take steps to curb the state’s teacher shortage.

Stanley Teacher Prep resident Lily Wool works with kindergartner Samori McIntosh at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. Wood’s residency program is merging the Boettcher Teacher Residency program. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Prior to the session, education leaders at the Capitol had few if any plans to take on the state’s teacher shortage. But retired teacher and freshman state Rep. Barbara McLachlan pushed to address the issue.

The Durango Democrat partnered with a host of other lawmakers from both parties to sponsor legislation to study the shortage and provide solutions. She also sponsored a bill that would allow rural schools to hire retired teachers without penalizing their pension. Both bills were sent to the governor.

Two other bills, including one to create multiple teacher preparation pilot programs, failed to advance. But with the issue on the legislature’s radar, expect it to come back.

“That’s the most pressing issue, next to funding,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat.

Despite newfound freedom from Washington, lawmakers didn’t make any bold changes to the state’s school accountability system.

Several lawmakers early in the session seemed eager to take advantage of new flexibility from the federal government.

While the state education department was busy putting together a mandated statewide plan to adopt the new Every Student Succeeds Act, lawmakers were debating how they could update the state’s school accountability laws.

But only two bills making minor tweaks advanced.

A HOPE Online student works during the day at an Aurora learning center. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

One requires elementary schools that receive low quality ratings to address the needs of students in preschool through third grade.

The second bill requires the state to measure how well high school students are meeting updated graduation requirements. As part of the new requirements, which go into effect in the year 2021, high schools must adopt a list of options students can use to prove they’re prepared for college or a career.

Those options include the SAT exam, which all Colorado juniors are required to take; passing a concurrent enrollment college-level course; passing a Advanced Placement test; or completing a college thesis-like capstone project demonstrating knowledge of a subject.

“This bill is a really clever way to allow school districts to say, ‘This is what we care about, and this how we’re going to do it,’” said Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform group.

Some of the most anticipated school-accountability bills of the session never materialized.

One would have provided more clarity on what happens to schools that consistently receive low quality ratings from the state.

“This was a big undertaking, and the bill’s sponsors needed more time,” Ragland said.

It’s another issue Capitol-watchers can expect to see return next year.

As Ragland put it, “The lack of clarity at the end of the state’s accountability clock is bad for everyone.”