Legislative Preview 2014 – Money issues top of mind

For education, the 2014 session of the Colorado legislature looks like it will be all about money, just as it was in 2013.

School districts, having lost $1 billion in recent budget-cut years and stung by voter rejection of the Amendment 66 education tax increase, will be pushing hard for 2014-15 funding larger than the enrollment-and-inflation increase proposed by Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Hickenlooper has proposed a more significant increase for higher education, but some lawmakers are looking to allocate that money in a new way that could provide political advantage in an election year. Several lawmakers also are aiming to resurrect pieces of Senate Bill 13-213, the omnibus school-finance overhaul that dominated education debates last spring. Its enactment was tied to passage of A66, so the package is on ice. But that doesn’t mean lawmakers won’t try to enact parts of the plan – if they can find the money.

Major education policy proposals of the magnitude of 2010’s teacher evaluation law don’t appear high on the agenda for the 2014 session, which convenes its four-month run on Wednesday.

The one exception could be an update of teacher licensing laws, a non-starter last year that’s taking a backseat to financial issues for the moment. And a flurry of lesser education proposals, from childhood obesity to Common Core Standards, and from student data privacy to teacher pensions, could surface in 2014. But most Capitol observers expect that few such bills, some motivated by the political and ideological preferences of individual members, will advance very far.

Schools and colleges are favorite issues for lawmakers – more than 80 education-related bills were introduced in 2013. But lawmakers obviously wrestle with lots of other issues as well. Budget needs of other agencies, economic development and hot-button issues like gun control color the overall tone of a legislative session, indirectly affecting what happens to education bills. The mood of the session also will be affected by the fact that 2014 is an election year in which many Republicans believe the political tides are moving in their direction. Election-year sessions see some lawmakers acting cautiously and others taking risks, sometimes with unpredictable results.

Here’s a look at likely education issues during the 2014 session, based on interviews with a wide range of legislators, lobbyists and education advocates.

School finance

Declining state revenues during the recession prompted lawmakers to reinterpret the state’s school finance formula and use a calculation called the “negative factor” to reduce annual state school support to an amount the legislature felt it could afford each year. It’s estimated that the negative factor has cut $1 billion from what schools otherwise would have received.

A66 would have restored most of that with an increase in income tax rates. Without that new funding, Hickenlooper’s proposed 2014-15 K-12 budget follows constitutional requirements for increasing funds to account for enrollment growth and the rate of inflation. But it wouldn’t make much of a dent in the negative factor. (See this story for background on the issue.)

“With Amendment 66 turning out the way it did, clearly school finance is going to be a top priority,” said Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon. As chair the House Education Committee, Hamner is expected to be a central figure in education legislation this year.

Rep. Carole Murray of Castle Rock, ranking Republican on House Ed, agreed, saying, “The number one priority is trying to bring the money back to schools as best we can.”

Mainline education groups like the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Education Association and the Colorado Association of School Executives, along with leaders of many districts, are united in a push to “buy down” the negative factor and in resisting any earmarked education spending that wouldn’t fund general school operations.

“That will be our thrust. We do not want earmarked money. … We want to restore,” said Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of CASB.

Many legislators, and even the governor’s office, pay lip service to a negative factor buy-down, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. Among other things, some legislative leaders, budget writers and the administration are concerned that putting a lot of money back into school operations in one year would sell the K-12 funding base, squeezing the state budget in a future economic downturn and forcing reapplication of the negative factor at that time. Hickenlooper also wants to use some of the revenue that state is gaining during the current economic recovery to beef up state reserves and pay back money “borrowed” from some state cash funds during the recession.

A number of legislators are more interested in spending new money on “one-time” educational expenses. “There are a lot of people with their eyes on the one-time funds,” said one lobbyist.

So the outcome of the school finance debate will depend on how legislators can balance demands for buying down the negative factor with desires for fiscal caution and for earmarking dollars for certain education programs (more on that below). “There’s going to be just a general competition for limited resources,” Hamner predicts.

Many of the funding decisions may not be made until near the end of the legislative session, when the main budget bill and the annual school finance bill are introduced.

Paying for colleges

The state’s colleges and universities also were hit by the recession, and Hickenlooper’s budget plan proposes the largest increase in years, both for individual campuses and for the state’s financial aid program. The plan also includes a promise by institutions’ boards of trustees to hold 2014-15 tuition increases to no more than 6 percent. (Get more details here.)

Nobody in the legislature is publicly disagreeing with that plan, but some lawmakers want to take it a step further. Traditionally, higher ed funding is included in the state’s annual main budget measure, known as the “long bill” in statehouse jargon.

Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood / File photo

Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, want to put the funding increase and the tuition cap in a separate measure, planned to be Senate Bill 12-001. The financial effect for colleges would be the same, so some in the statehouse wonder if running a separate a bill is primarily a way to provide a talking point for lawmakers facing tough reelection contests next November. (Kerr, a Jeffco teacher who isn’t facing reelection this year, is expected to have a higher profile on education issues this year as he’s the new chair of the Senate Education Committee.)

But some worry that a separate higher ed funding bill opens the door to political mischief, “There are a thousand different ways this thing could go sideways,” said one lobbyist.

Picking up 213’s pieces

The brainchild of Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, SB 13-213 was a comprehensive rewrite of state school finance law with a lot of moving parts, including more funding for at-risk students and English language learners, money for implementation of recent education reforms, recalculation of state and local funding share, significantly increased support of preschool and full-day kindergarten, greater transparency for district and school finances and a new method for counting student enrollment.

Both Democrats and Republicans (plus Hickenlooper) are interested in reviving parts of the plan as separate bills. Financial transparency and conversion to the average daily membership method of enrollment counting are most frequently mentioned as possibilities.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver / File photo

Johnston and others also are talking about additional support for preschool and full-day kindergarten. This is issue is definitely a moving target.

Johnston also would like to provide more funding help districts implement reforms that already are on the books – new academic standards and new tests, principal and teacher evaluations and early literacy programs. Again, the details are to be determined.

“To me the most important thing is to help districts fund the reforms already in place,” Hamner said.

Policy tinkering

Changes in teacher preparation and licensing have been the air for more than a year, and Johnston planned to introduce a bill last session but held his fire. A study committee chewed on the issue last fall but didn’t come up with a concrete plan, highlighting divisions on the issue within the education community. A particularly touchy point is Johnston’s belief that license renewal should be connected in some way to teacher evaluations. (See this story for background.)

Johnston said that “licensing is a distant third on the priority list” after school finance and providing more money for implementation of existing reforms.

Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock / File photo

“I don’t know if we’re going to get a teacher licensing bill off the ground or not,” Murray said.

There’s wide interest in a bill to improve programs for English language learners, increase funding and extend the number of years students can be served by such programs. A bipartisan ELL bill failed in 2013, and this year there may be competing Democratic and Republican versions.

The key questions for the session are whether a bipartisan bill can be crafted and whether funding can be found, given all the education bills potentially competing for dollars.

Johnston has been at the center of most big education debates in the last few years. Asked if he had anything else on his mind this year, he laughed and said, “There’s no big other surprise project coming.”

Higher education issues

A bitter lobbying fight ended last year with defeat of a bill that would have allowed community colleges to offer a limited number of bachelor’s degrees in applied sciences, fields like dental hygiene and mortuary science. A series of meetings after the 2013 session adjourned reportedly smoothed over disagreements, and sponsor Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, hopes a bill will pass. “I think we’ve made a lot of progress. … I know we won’t have the opposition we had last year.”

Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora / File photo

The fate of another idea backed by Todd, along with GOP Rep. Chris Holbert of Parker, is less certain. They want to allow Colorado State University’s Global Campus online program to enroll freshman and sophomores. (Students currently can enroll starting at the junior level.) The community college system fears the plan would encroach on its turf, so negotiations are ongoing. “I know and I understand the community colleges aren’t real excited about it,” Todd said, “My hope is that we can continue the conversation. … We need to figure out how to make this work.”

Construction money for college buildings may become an issue late in the session, after the March state revenue forecasts are made. Such funding was mostly non-existent in recent years, and colleges didn’t get as much as they would have liked in Hickenlooper’s 2014-15 spending plans. An uptick in revenues could spark lobbying to use the money for campus projects.

Yet more bills

Predicting a legislative session can be tricky, given that lawmakers’ plans sometimes aren’t fully baked before the session starts and because some legislators like to keep their plans quiet until bills are introduced.

But there likely will be no shortage of education proposals. “Everybody always has their pet bills,” Murray notes. Here are some issues that could surface this year:

  • Privacy protections for student data – Murray says she’s investigating the issue but doesn’t have a specific plan yet.
  • Flexibility for rural districts – Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, is working on legislation to ease compliance burdens on small districts, primarily in the area of data reporting to the state.
  • Building Excellent Schools Today construction program – A recent state audit found some problems (see story), and a Joint Budget Committee analyst is recommending tighter legislative controls. There’s also chatter about diverting marijuana tax revenues, which many had assumed would go to BEST, into construction of kindergarten classrooms.
  • Regulation of online schools – Kerr and Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley, say they are working on a bill.
  • Early childhood education quality – The governor’s office and some lawmakers are pushing for funding, a plan that died last year in a battle over the negative factor.
  • Accountability – Hamner says she’s working with the Department of Education on whether legislation is needed to adjust the state’s district and school rating system to account for the 2015 change in the state’s testing system.
  • Childhood obesity – Hamner also says she looking into this issue but may not have legislation ready this year.

Also be on the lookout for bills on subsidizing Advanced Placement classes in small districts, increasing funding for the Colorado Counselor Corps and paying school board members, and perhaps proposals on funding of gifted and talented programs and adult education.

There’s also talk of bills – primarily sponsored by individual Republican members – to take Colorado out of the Common Core Standards, reform the Public Employees’ Retirement Association and provide tax credits for private school tuition and donations. Those last two are perennial subjects, but such bills have been killed in recent sessions by the Democratic majorities.