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:

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.”