Put to the test

Hickenlooper stands firm on testing ninth-graders, but which test will they take?

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Gov. John Hickenlooper spoke to reporters on the eve of the 2017 General Assembly.

Gov. John Hickenlooper on Tuesday reasserted his support for continuing standardized testing in the ninth grade but did not indicate whether he would support dropping the existing tests to better align with those given to other high school students.

In comments to reporters previewing his legislative priorities, Hickenlooper was non-committal on another education issue expected to get attention this session — whether the state’s teacher licensing system needs revamping.

Two years ago, a group of lawmakers from both parties sought to eliminate ninth-grade tests as part of legislation to reform and reduce the state’s standardized testing. Hickenlooper, however, made clear he valued the tests. With a potential veto looming, both chambers passed testing legislation with ninth-grade testing intact — and Hickenlooper signed it into law.

As a result, the state’s ninth graders are still required to take the state’s English and math test, known as PARCC. Students in grades three through eight also take PARCC tests, which have been a target of testing critics.

The testing reforms of 2015 did eliminate PARCC testing for high school sophomores and juniors. Sophomores began taking the PSAT last year, and juniors will take the SAT as their mandatory test for the first time this year.

With eliminating ninth-grade testing altogether no longer being discussed, the discussion has now shifted to potential legislation that would that would bring all the high school tests into alignment. That could result in freshmen also taking a test tied to the SAT, if that testing product continues to be the state’s choice.

While Hickenlooper on Tuesday did not take a position on switching tests, he did underscore that he believes testing in ninth grade provides a crucial datapoint for parents and the public.

“We have a responsibility to be able to talk to our taxpayers and tell them whether they’re getting the best value for their dollar,” said the Democratic governor, whose son is in ninth grade this year. “That requires a certain level of testing … If you take it out, I think we fall behind.”

Lawmakers and political observers also are expecting a series of bills that would reform the way the state license its teachers — an issue Hickenlooper has taken on in the past with little success.

In 2013, Hickenlooper and then-state Sen. Michael Johnston, a Denver Democrat, created a committee to make recommendations on how to change the state’s licensure process. But the committee’s work never led to legislation.

Hickenlooper said Tuesday he thought the conversation should be focused more on teacher preparation than licensing.

“If you go and look at the schools that really do educate a large number of our teachers, they want to educate great teachers,” he said. “So they’re open and willing to modify their curriculum and their teacher profiles to try and create better teachers. And I think they are.”

Hickenlooper, who has two years left in office before term limits end his governorship, is expected to lay out his legislative agenda Thursday when he addresses the General Assembly. Funding for education and transportation are expected to be key debates during this year’s legislative session.

Vision quest

Is Colorado’s school ‘vision bill’ doomed?

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Rangeview junior Coree Morgan works on an assignment in her electronics class.

A proposed overhaul of Colorado’s public schools has hit a legislative roadblock.

State Senate leadership has assigned a bill that would create a series of legislative committees to study and propose changes to Colorado’s education laws to the State, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee.

That legislative panel is known for killing bills leadership opposes.

Sponsors of the House Bill 1287, which cleared the state House of Representatives earlier this month with broad bipartisan support, argue Colorado’s education policies are a patchwork of reform efforts and outdated mandates. And given the state’s decentralized education system, the legislature needs to play a larger role in creating a clearer vision for what Colorado schools should look like in the 21st Century.

But Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican, said he believes the bill is just setting up an argument to send more money to schools.

“It seems like their focus is proving a premise that more money is necessary,” Holbert said Monday. “And that’s just not a premise I’m comfortable in supporting.”

State Rep. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican, called Holbert’s objection shortsighted.

“It’s a dangerous viewpoint,” Rankin said. ”That’s not what this is.”

Rankin and his House co-sponsor Rep. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat, both serve on the legislative committee that writes the state’s budget. For years they’ve advocated for making changes to how the state funds schools.

One of the stated goals of the bill, Hamner and Rankin have said, is to create a unified vision for the state’s schools that could be sold to voters if it was determined a tax increase would be necessary.

Between the two, Rankin has been less bullish on the argument that schools need more money.

But the bill would also provide the state a chance to review and reconsider major education legislation that’s been enacted since 2008. That includes everything from new graduation requirements for high school students to teacher evaluations.

The state affairs committee is expected to hold a hearing on the bill Wednesday.

One of the members of the committee, state Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, was a sponsor of the bill. But he dropped his support earlier this month.

He said he objected to the new bureaucratic structure the bill creates.

“A permanent new government program is not the right direction now,” he said, referring to the committees established in the bill.

Rankin, who called the bill one of the most important of his legislative career, said he’s holding out hope and would continue the conversation regardless.

“We don’t think strategically. It’s hard for most of the folks in the legislature to think way ahead,” Rankin said. “I realize it’s a heavy lift, and even if the bill does fail, we have to keep talking about it.”

life support

Partisan bickering puts financial lifeline for rural schools in danger

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Merino Elementary School work during class.

A bill that would send hundreds of millions of dollars to Colorado’s rural schools faces an uncertain future after party leaders in both legislative chambers Thursday accused each other of not negotiating in good faith.

The multifaceted bill is one of the most complicated of the session. It would send money to rural hospitals, roads and schools. But if lawmakers fail to resolve their differences, hospitals would face severe cuts — forcing some in rural areas to close altogether.

What makes Senate Bill 267 so controversial is that the cornerstone of the bill would redesignate a fee collected by the state that helps pay for Medicaid.

The money the state collects from hospital patients is funneled to the state’s general operating budget. The state’s constitution limits how much that pot of money can grow each year. The bill would redirect the hospital fee to an enterprise account that isn’t subject to that constitutional provision.

Democrats have wanted to redesignate the hospital fee since 2015. They believe reclassifying the fee would elevate some budgetary pressures that have forced schools and other state services to be underfunded. Republicans have staunchly opposed the change. They’ve said it would violate the constitution and the will of voters.

State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Sterling Republican, changed his mind this year after seeing the potential cuts to rural hospitals. He introduced the bill with state Sen. Lucia Guzman, a Denver Democrat, and state Reps. K.C. Becker, a Boulder Democrat, and Jon Becker, a Fort Morgan Republican.

The bill was always a long shot. There are plenty of provisions neither chamber liked. And it would potentially take a coalition of both parties to pass the bill

But a disagreement over whether the state should lower its spending gap in tandem with redesignating the fee has thrown negotiations into further peril.

Early Thursday, Sonnenberg told reporters he was done negotiating with Democrats. He signaled he would kill the bill that was scheduled for a second hearing later in the morning. While he backed away from his threat, he took shots at Democrats.

“We didn’t kill it,” he told Chalkbeat after sparing the bill. “I’m not ready to give up. But I’m close.”

Sonnenberg said he believes he’s given Democrats more than he should, increasing the amount he’d cap government spending at. But that hasn’t been enough for them, he said.
“I want to save hospitals,” he said. “They want more tax dollars.”

Democrats said they’re concerned the bill as written would trigger another round of budget cuts to all government services, including schools

“It puts our budget in problem territory in no time at all,” said Becker, the Boulder Democrat.

“The numbers just don’t add up,” said Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat.

House Democrats said they’re hoping to restart negotiations soon and will offer “creative solutions.”

Senate Bill 267 is scheduled for another hearing Tuesday.

“We are still holding out hope for rural schools,” said Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Rural Alliance, which represents the state’s rural schools. “We’re grateful to Sen. Sonnenberg and the bill’s other sponsors for their leadership and efforts to bring critical resources to rural communities.”