checking in

It’s halfway point at Colorado legislature. Here’s what matters to Colorado classrooms.

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
State Sen. Rachel Zezninger, an Arvada Democrat, on the first day of the legislative session.

Colorado lawmakers are a little past the halfway point for this legislative session and have little to show for the state’s public schools.

Most of the proposed legislation making its way through the Capitol so far involve pilot programs, minor fixes or slight changes on the margins.

Only a handful of the 51 education bills introduced so far have gotten significant attention. Those include bills equalizing funding for charter schools, banning corporal punishment and providing gun training for school employees.

Other bills, such as a bill to limit out-of-school suspensions for the state’s youngest students, that might have been controversial in the past are sailing through with broad bipartisan support.

“We’ve heard loud and clear from our districts: ‘Stop trying to change so much stuff,’” said state Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican and chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “So we’ve really worked to focus on the big issues. When it comes to education, we’re listening to our voters who are asking for a more steady state and predictability.”

Legislators still have big decisions to make in the remaining 57 days — especially on the state’s budget. A number of other bills have yet to be introduced but could be game-changers.

Here are four big themes that are defining this year’s session so far.

After months of gloomy rumors and speculation, the budget is about to be introduced and many in the education lobby are preparing for the worst.

Lawmakers owe schools and other state programs more money than they have. Because the state must have a balanced budget, there will be winner and losers. And in a matter of days, we’ll find out who fits those definitions.

A number of factors are complicating the budget this year, including the possibility of taxpayer refunds and the state collecting less money from local property taxes that are earmarked for schools. Party leaders also have been transfixed on coming up with money to improve the state’s roads.

Leaders in both parties — and the governor — have pledged to keep cuts away from classrooms, but the education lobby isn’t buying it. Some are bracing for a worse-case scenario, which would be a cut of about $200 million to classrooms.

On March 17, the state budget committee will get its final economic forecast, which will project how much money the state will collect. The numbers presented at that meeting will be used to lock in the budget for the 2017-18 school year.

The budget committee is then expected to introduce its budget to the Senate on March 27.

Ninth-grade testing reform and limits on out-of-school suspensions are likely to be this session’s biggest and most immediate changes to schools.

Lawmakers are close to wrapping up two pieces of unfinished business from prior sessions that could have an immediate and lasting impact on classrooms.

A broad bipartisan coalition of lawmakers and the governor have finally reached a compromise on changes to ninth grade testing. If House Bill 1181 reaches Gov. John Hickenlooper’s desk, and it likely will, ninth graders next year will begin taking a standardized test similar to the SAT. It would mean the end of the controversial PARCC tests in Colorado high schools — a winning point for many Republican lawmakers.

One of the most anticipated pieces of legislation that was never introduced in 2016 would have made substantial changes to rules on out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for the state’s youngest students.

That legislation was introduced a few weeks ago and has already cleared its first legislative test with bipartisan support. Rep. Susan Lontine’s House Bill 1210 has a number of Republican backers in the Senate, which is a good sign when you’re working within a split legislature.

If that legislation goes into effect, it could put Colorado at the forefront of student discipline reform.

Big debates still looms for the state’s teacher workforce.

Lawmakers in the coming weeks are expected to grapple with how to address the state’s teacher shortage and reform the state’s landmark teacher evaluation law, which has proven difficult to put into practice.

A bill by Rep. Jim Wilson, a Republican from Salida, would grant rural school districts more autonomy on hiring teachers without a state-issued license. The bill, as it’s written, would allow a rural school district to hire an unlicensed person to fill a vacant position if it tries and fails to fill the position with a licensed teacher.

Wilson has been working behind the scenes with the Colorado Rural Schools Association, which represents a coalition of rural superintendents, and the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, to reach some sort of deal on the matter.

The union holds teacher licensing sacred and regularly criticizes charter schools for their ability to hire unlicensed educators. Winning them over on this change would be a major victory for Wilson.

A second bill that has yet to have a hearing would create a committee to study the state’s teacher shortage.

A third bill that is making its way through the legislature would provide flexibility to rural schools in hiring retired teachers who are enrolled in the state’s pension system.

Another possible bill would create a panel to track progress of the state’s teacher evaluation law and make recommendation on how to improve the system, which has been been criticized as too burdensome on teachers and principals.

Two potentially big bills — one on accountability, the other on school finance — from the House have everyone talking. Here’s what we know.

What has insiders at the Capitol really buzzing is two yet-to-introduced pieces of legislation from Reps. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, and Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat. The two are working on a bill that would address the state’s accountability system and another that would study the finance formula for schools.

The duo, which sponsored the state’s landmark data privacy bill last year, have been working for months on the two bills. Details are still preliminary as they try to round up support from fellow lawmakers and the education community.

The first bill would try to fill in some of the gaps in the state’s accountability system. For the first time in seven years since the accountability law was written, the state is stepping in to help improve Colorado’s lowest performing schools. But the law is silent about what’s supposed to happen after this point. The bill would address that and other gray areas in the law.

The second bill would set up a 10-member interim committee of lawmakers to study and propose changes to the funding formula that determines how much money each school district gets. If approved, the bill would grant the committee up to two years to complete its work.

The last time the state updated the formula was 1994. And since the Great Recession, lawmakers have been wary to take on the formula because of a funding shortfall and potential political backlash from the state’s schools.

“It’s all uphill from here,” Lundeen said.

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.”