under the dome

Five big issues that got lawmakers talking at Chalkbeat’s annual legislative preview

Sen. Nancy Todd, Rep. Brittany Pettersen, Rep. Jim Wilson and Sen. Tim Neville (Chalkbeat photo by Yesenia Robles).

Two days before the dawn of another legislative session, Chalkbeat Colorado convened a bipartisan panel of five lawmakers Monday to handicap what to expect on the education front, from school finance to preschool discipline.

About 175 people bought tickets to our second annual legislative preview featuring:

  • Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, member of the Senate Education Committee
  • Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, chair of the House Education Committee
  • Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, member of the Joint Budget Committee
  • Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, member of the Senate Education Committee
  • Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, member of the House Education Committee

The following is a recap of the event, which was moderated by deputy bureau chief Nic Garcia, drawing from comments from the speakers and audience comments on social media.

You can listen to the full audio or relive it through Facebook Live (see bottom of story for both).

School funding

It comes as no surprise that school funding tops the list of Capitol priorities this year.

The state perennially ranks near the bottom nationally in school funding. Complicated tax laws, inequities in school districts’ ability to raise local taxes, pressures on lawmakers to fund transportation projects this year and other factors could make solutions elusive.

Rankin, Pettersen and Wilson are among a diverse group of lawmakers that have been batting around ideas. Rankin said the goal is to “bring order to the chaos” of school funding.

One possibility is drafting legislation that would ask for voters to set a uniform state tax rate on property, with the aim of helping level the playing field. Right now, every county and school district taxes personal and business property at varying rates, leading to vast funding disparities.

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Rankin is leading the effort along with Rep. Millie Hamner, a Frisco Democrat. The duo is also talking about setting up a committee and hiring a third party to establish a new long-term vision for Colorado’s education system. The thinking is that before getting public buy-in in investing in public education, it’s essential to first lay out what exactly they’d be paying for.

One audience member — Douglas County school board member Anne Marie Lemieux — questioned Rankin’s comment that legislators should take the lead on the issue.

Pettersen clarified:

Rankin also had a grim projection for the “negative factor,” a controversial mechanism the state uses to rein in constitutionally mandated increases in per-pupil funding tied to inflation.

Rankin projected that the negative factor — in effect, a funding shortfall — will grow from roughly $831 million to more than $1 billion. That’s more than three times the $46 million increase in Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s November budget proposal.

The nation’s new federal education law

How will the arrival of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the nation’s new education law, impact education policy in Colorado?

Wilson, who is serving on a committee organized by the Colorado Department of Education responsible for drafting the state’s federally required education plan, noted that Colorado already has plenty of flexibility through waivers the state has obtained from the previous law, No Child Left Behind.

Still, there was optimism that changes could be afoot.

Pettersen urged caution in making any changes to Colorado’s system for holding schools, districts and educators accountable for student performance.

Neville said he’d like to get rid of the law altogether, drawing this rebuke from veteran Adams County educator Mark Sass:

During the audience Q&A, Jan Brennan of the Education Commission of the States pointed out that the phrase “well-rounded education” appears over 50 times in the new law. What, she wondered, would lawmakers like to see happen along those lines?

Wilson touted the importance of “the basics,” pointing to his encounters with what he described as “appalling” misspellings on school bulletin boards. Todd agreed that the basics are extremely important, but that education also must must consider the whole child, which means investments in music, the arts and physical education.

Charter funding equalization

The legislature is also expected to again consider a bill that would require local school districts to share the fruits of voter-approved tax measures with charter schools.

The divide on the panel is a good indication of why its political prospects are dim.

Pettersen said that given that the school funding shortfall is projected to increase and schools are facing cuts, “it’s going to be a difficult conversation.” And Todd made her position clear:


Neville, in contrast, supports requiring equal funding for charter schools.

Pettersen’s response:

Early childhood discipline

How to address the suspension of expulsion of preschoolers — a practice that disproportionately impacts black boys, especially — continues to be a vexing issue.

Last year, proposed legislation to tackle the question did not get traction. But the issue is expected to return this year after a group of early childhood advocates and state officials worked together to lay out possible solutions.

Among them: collecting more detailed suspension and expulsion data from more early childhood programs, creating policies limiting the use of suspension and expulsion, and giving providers more training in how to handle challenging behavior like chronic biting, hitting and tantrums.

Wilson wasn’t bullish on the issue getting much attention this session.

“We’ve got a lot of things we’re dealing with this year and I don’t see the suspensions and expulsions of early childhood students being a top priority with all the big dragons we’ve got to fight in education,” he said.

Lawmakers agreed that suspension and expulsion should be a last resort. But how to ensure that’s the case? Pettersen and Todd underscored the importance of gathering stronger data, which would allow officials to better grasp why the practice is used.

As former Democratic state Sen. Evie Hudak, who attended the panel, pointed out:

Licensing teachers

Should Colorado’s system of licensing teachers change to make it easier for nontraditional teachers to get a stronger toehold in the state’s classrooms?

The law governing teacher licenses hasn’t changed since the 1990s, and Hickenlooper has said he wants to revamp it. Wilson and other Republicans also hope to relax licensing rules for rural schools, where hiring a licensed teacher can be difficult.

Todd had a couple of thoughts.

The dean of the School of Education at Metropolitan State University of Denver had this response to the second piece of that:

Replay of event on Facebook Live:

Listen to the event here:

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.”