Student Success bill officially on legislative agenda

The proposed Student Success Act was formally introduced Tuesday in the legislature as House Bill 14-1292, setting in motion what’s expected to be the main education funding-and-reform debate of the 2014 session.

The $263 million introduced version has some key differences with the draft unveiled by supporters only last Thursday. While there are additional concessions to school district concerns about how additional K-12 funding should be spent, influential interest groups still have serious reservations about the latest version.

The bill is scheduled to be heard by the House Education Committee next Monday, possibly alongside the 2014-15 version of the school finance act, a measure that’s a key part of the complicated annual school funding process. That bill could be introduced later this week.

However, even if lawmakers move quickly on the two measures, the final decisions on 2014-15 school finance won’t be made until sometime after March 18, when state economists update their revenue forecasts. The total state revenue expected to be available in the next budget year will affect how much can be spent on education bills.

The Student Success Act, starting with early drafts, has become a point of contention between school district interests and bill sponsors. In the wake of last year’s defeat of Amendment 66, the $1 billion school funding measure, bill sponsors and some education reform groups want to use money to salvage parts of last year’s Senate Bill 13-213, the comprehensive funding overhaul that would have been paid for by A66. Those initiatives include more funding for early literacy programs, English language learners, kindergarten classrooms and to aid school districts in implementing existing reform requirements.

But districts have been pressing to have as much new money as possible devoting to “buying down” the $1 billion shortfall in school funding caused by use of the budget-balancing device called the “negative factor.” District and teacher interests also are resisting some of the earmarked programs proposed in HB 14-1292.

In an effort to gain Republican support, backers of the bill also have included funding for a new enrollment-counting system, greater district financial transparency and charter school facilities.

The prime sponsors of the bill are Reps. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat who chairs House Education, and Carole Murray of Parker, the panel’s senior Republican. The Senate prime sponsor is Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, the architect of SB 13-213.

Here are the key changes of the introduced bill, compared to the draft unveiled last week:

  • Negative factor – The bill proposes a $100 million buy-down, up from the $80 million proposed in the draft.
  • Implementation fund – $40 million would be provided to districts on a per-pupil basis to help cover the costs of implementing new academic standards, tests and educator evaluations. The draft bill had proposed $100 million.

The following elements of the bill have the same amount of funding as proposed in the draft:

  • Early literacy – $20 million proposed to help districts implement the READ Act, the law that requires additional services for struggling readers in grades K-3.
  • English language learners – $35 million, $30 million for improved student supports and teacher professional development and $5 million for a grant program to successful programs. (A key element in this section would allow eligible students to remain in the program for up to five years.)
  • Construction – $40 million from marijuana revenues, including $30 million for full-day kindergarten facilities, $5 million for technology grants to districts and $5 million for charter schools. (This part of the bill is controversial because some groups feel it violates the intent of last year’s Proposition AA and that the $40 million should go to the Building Excellent Schools Today school construction program.)
  • Other charter funding – $13 million on top of the $7 million a year charter schools currently receive to partially compensate them for facilities costs. (This money is distributed on a per-pupil basis.)
  • Enrollment counting and financial transparency – $15 million to fund the costs of converting to the average daily membership of enrollment calculation and of creating online financial reports by school, including some salary information. (Details of both of this proposals have been somewhat softened from the draft version.)

Despite movement by the sponsors on some issues, including the negative factor, school districts still have problems with the bill.

The Colorado Education Association Tuesday evening issued a statement saying that the bill is “an improvement to the proposal unveiled last week; however, the Colorado Education Association opposes the bill because districts don’t have the capacity to handle extra mandates put forth in the bill.”

The Colorado Association of School Executives on Friday decided to oppose the bill and work for amendments. The Colorado Association of School Boards officially is “monitoring” the bill but has made no secret of its opposition to several elements of the proposal.

The Student Success Act doesn’t address some other initiatives that were part of SB 13-213, including increased funding for at-risk students and the Colorado Preschool Program. It’s possible those issues may be addressed in the school finance bill.