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:

STEM in Colorado

Colorado lawmakers are stepping in to help prepare students for the state’s booming tech sector

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Northglenn High School who are studying biomedical science work on an assignment. The class is part of the school's STEM offerings.

More Colorado students could be building smartphone apps by the end of next school year.

In an effort to prepare students for the state’s booming technology job market, lawmakers are considering three bills that would beef up access to computer science classes and provide students with new credentials after they leave high school.

A Chalkbeat analysis last year found that only about two out of every seven students in Colorado have access to courses in STEM — short for science, technology, engineering and math.

The bipartisan bills could change that, increasing access to computer science courses for the state’s black, Latino and rural students, and — for the first time — begin to define what a quality STEM program is.

The first bill scheduled to be debated by the House Education Committee on Monday would require schools to include technology in lessons alongside traditional subjects, such as English and civics.

It would also require the education department to create lessons to help educators teach computer science as a standalone course, and set up a $500,000 grant program to help train them.

“Kids need to be up to speed on these things in order to function in the current marketplace,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, along with Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat. “The more they’re attuned to the technology of the times — all the better. It will help them in college and getting their job and careers.”

The technology sector is the fastest growing in Colorado. There are an estimated 13,517 open computing jobs in the state, according to Colorado Succeeds, an education reform advocacy group that represents the state’s business community.

Some states have already made the shift to include technology in their learning standards. In Arkansas, which made the change in 2015, officials say the new standards have already started to break down stereotypes about who can do computer science.

“What we’re trying to do is to make computer science a normal part of their academic lives,” said Anthony Owen, the state director for computer science education in Arkansas. “When we make it normal for everyone, it’s abnormal for no one.”

A second bill under consideration in Colorado would make mostly technical changes to the state’s new P-Tech schools, a model that mirrors a New York City school that partners with IBM to give students work experience and a path to an associate’s degree while in high school.

The model allows students to stay in high school for up to six years — which has caused schools that house P-Tech programs to worry about their graduation rates.

House Bill 1194 would change the way the state calculates graduation rates to avoid penalizing schools that have P-Tech students enrolled for an extra two years.

The third bill, House Bill 1201, would create a special kind of diploma that shows colleges and employers that its holder is proficient in STEM subjects. To get the diploma, students would have to take a variety of STEM classes, earn high marks on standardized math exams, and demonstrate their science skills through a special project they complete their senior year.

“I want to make sure, across Colorado, that we have clear expectations and that they’re equitable expectations,” said Rep. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat and sponsor of the bill. “All of our schools are doing a good job preparing our kids, but I want to be specific in terms of what our colleges and workforce is seeking in our graduates.”

The bill, however, stops short of defining what coursework students must complete. Local schools will decide that. That was important to Jess Buller, the principal of West Grand’s K-8 school who helped write the bill. He noted that different schools and districts offer different STEM courses.

“We want that STEM endorsement to be that sign of distinction, that a student completed a program and does not need the remedial work that might be required for other students,” Buller said. “The bill is specific enough, but flexible enough.”

Morgan Kempf, the STEM science specialist for Pueblo City Schools, said she is excited to offer such a credential.

In the absence of a special diploma, Pueblo Central High School, the city’s STEM school, has sought outside accreditation to give weight to its STEM courses. The school has also started handing out school letters, usually a tradition reserved for varsity athletes, to exceptional STEM students.

“It’s an extra stamp of approval that recognizes and appreciates what they’re doing and at the level of rigor they’re doing it at,” Kempf said. “That stamp of approval lets students and potential employers know they’re meeting expectations.”

getting to know you

Colorado Sen. Nancy Todd is making up for all the times she was quiet in school

PHOTO: Sarah Glen

Throughout the legislative session, Chalkbeat is asking members of the House and Senate education committees to share a little bit about themselves — and their legislative priorities. In this installment, meet Sen. Nancy Todd.

Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat, is a former social studies teacher who has spent her retirement — if you want to call it that — at the Capitol helping shape education policy.

Since 2005, Todd has played a role supporting — and opposing — some of the state’s most ambitious education policies as a member of both the state House and Senate.

One of her earlier bills created a stipend for teachers who earned National Board certification, a rigorous and widely respected training program for educators. More recently, Todd has been focused on reducing standardized testing and curbing the state’s teacher shortage.

Todd was a vocal opponent of Senate Bill 191, the state’s controversial 2010 teacher evaluation law. She has regularly supported reversing provisions of the law, including a failed attempt this year to create more flexibility in how student data is used to evaluate teachers.

Get to know a little more about Todd here:

What is your favorite memory from school?

PHOTO: Nancy Todd
State Sen. Todd in the first grade.

I think one of my favorite memories was my fifth grade teacher. He was my first male teacher, and he inspired me to be creative and think outside the box. Being the daughter of a superintendent, I always appreciated those teachers who treated me as an individual, not their “boss’s daughter.”

Were you the teacher’s pet or class clown?
Neither. I was actually pretty quiet and followed the rules. Guess I’m making up for it now.

What was your favorite subject and why?
I loved American Government because I had a great teacher who was unconventional and allowed different views and lively discussions. He taught me a lot about respecting others’ opinions and how different leaders of our country were all instrumental in doing good for our citizens, using different approaches.

If you could give yourself one high school superlative it would be:
I was considered “Miss Priss” because I didn’t wear jeans like some of my friends did. I was kidded for being “prim and proper.”

What clubs or sports did you participate in high school?
Pep club, journalism, Quill & Scroll, girls sports

What would your perfect school look like?
An ideal school is where there is a high level of innovation, creativity, opportunity for teachers and students to interact with authentic and respectful relationships. Where learning is based on relevant learning environment and a balance of technology, live role models teachers who are highly qualified and LOVE working with students.

What are you legislative priorities?
Resolve ninth-grade testing question; expand counseling; reasonable school finance proposal.