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.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
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.”

Here We Go

House education committee greenlights increasing funding for kindergarten, banning corporal punishment

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Kim Ursetta works with a student in her classroom at Denver's Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy.

The Colorado House Education Committee on Monday gave bipartisan blessing to two bills that would increase funding for kindergarten in the state’s public schools and ban corporal punishment in schools and child care centers.

The bill to fund the state’s kindergarten programs in public schools, sponsored by state Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican, is expected to be short-lived given the state’s fiscal constraints. If Wilson’s bill were to become law, it would cost the state more than $42 million. The state currently is funding schools at a $830 million deficit.

The state currently gives schools about $5,000 for every kindergarten student. However, schools receive more than $8,000 for every student in grades one through 12. Wilson’s bill would work toward closing that gap.

“We say we can’t afford it. Well, guess what? Our districts can’t afford it either,” Wilson said.

Most of the state’s school districts offer full-day kindergarten. However, some rely on charging tuition while others divert federal funds to make up the difference.

The bill passed 12-4 with Rep. Lang Sias, an Arvada Republican, joining all the Democrats on the Democratic-controlled committee. But committee members were well aware of the bill’s likely fate.

A similar bill sponsored by Lakewood Democrats Sen. Andy Kerr and Rep. Brittany Pettersen  has already been sent to the Senate’s state affairs committee, where it’s expected to die. The difference between the two bills: Kerr’s and Pettersen’s bill would ask voters to approve a tax increase to pay for kindergarten.

The bill to prohibit corporal punishment, sponsored by Denver Democrat Rep. Susan Lontine, would outlaw using physical punishment for children in public schools and private child care centers. That would extend to small licensed day cares run out of private homes.    

Colorado is one of 19 states that does not currently ban physical violence used as punishment in schools or day cares. Lontine’s bill, which passed on an 11-2 vote, would end such practices, which are rare.

“If you did this at home, it’d be child abuse,” Lontine said. “But if you did it in school, it’d be corporal punishment and it’d be allowed.”

According to a 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, nearly 500 incidents of corporal punishment were reported in Colorado. However, that data was called into question when Michael Clough, superintendent of the Sheridan School District, said the 400 cases his district mistakenly reported the data.

“We have not and we do not have corporal punishment,” he said. “It does seem like we need work with data collection.”

Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, attempted to amend the bill that would recognize local school district policies. However, that amendment was defeated on a party-line vote.

Pettersen, the committee’s chairwoman, and other Democrats expressed interest in taking a second look at the amendment when the bill is debated by the entire House of Representatives. They want to ensure that every school district was meeting a state standard.

Monday’s meeting of the House Education Committee marked the first time this session education related bills were discussed. The session is expected to be largely defined by the budget debate and how educators respond to the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.  

hold up wait a minute

Colorado Latina lawmakers to Trump: Back off pledge to end protections for young undocumented immigrants

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Colorado's Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran

Colorado’s two highest ranking Latina lawmakers are asking President-elect Donald Trump to back off his promise to revoke temporary protection from deportation to undocumented immigrants who arrived here as children.

Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran and Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman wrote in a letter that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive order allowed undocumented young adults access to a better education and job opportunities — including teaching.

The letter was cosigned by seven other Latino lawmakers.

“We are simply asking that the president-elect put an end to the fear and uncertainty of the 742,000 men, women and children, and the millions of our fellow Americans that know them as our friends, neighbors, family members and coworkers,” Duran, a Denver Democrat, said in a statement. “We are talking about keeping families — children and mothers and fathers — together. This is their home and they are a part of us.”

Duran is Colorado’s first Latina Speaker of the House. She co-sponsored state legislation in 2013 that provided in-state tuition at Colorado colleges for undocumented high school graduates.

Obama’s executive order provided an opportunity to aspiring teachers to enter the classroom, including those in Denver.

Denver Public Schools was the first school district in the nation to hire undocumented teachers.

In a statement released Thursday by the nonprofit education advocacy group Stand for Children, Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg also called on Trump to abandon his campaign promise.

“To deport talented teachers and students in whom we have invested so much, who have so much to give back to our community, and who are so much a part of our community would be a catastrophic loss,” he said.

Here’s the complete letter from lawmakers to Trump, who is to be sworn in on Friday: