Testing, K-12 funding roil House budget debate

The hot-button issue of standardized testing finally got a House floor debate Thursday, but a proposal to cut the $16.8 million needed to pay for new Common Core-aligned tests was defeated.

That proposal was one of 45 proposed amendments to House Bill 14-1336, the 2014-15 state budget that was up for preliminary consideration in the House Thursday. (Not all the amendments were actually offered.)

The annual budget debate is a ritualized process that’s more about political symbolism than substance, given that minority party amendments – in this case from the Republicans – are almost always defeated. (And even majority party amendments that would make significant changes to the bill crafted by the Joint Budget Committee are discouraged.)

Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker

The testing amendment was proposed by Republican Rep. Chris Holbert of Parker, who’s a member of the House Education Committee. It would have removed the $16.8 million contained in HB 14-1336 for PARCC testing costs and diverted the money into reduction of what’s called the negative factor, the $1 billion K-12 funding shortfall that was created by budget cuts in recent years. The amendment would have had the effect of delaying for a year the 2015 rollout of the new CMAS tests, which include PARCC language arts and math tests that are aligned to the Common Core Standards.

Testing is an issue that’s been simmering below the surface of the 2014 legislative session. Despite growing backlash against testing among some parent groups, the issue so far hasn’t gotten beyond the committee level.

Senate Bill 14-136, a measure that would have delaying implementation of new academic standards (including the Common Core) and the PARCC online tests, was killed in the Senate Education Committee (see story).

House Bill 14-1202, which would have allowed school districts to opt out of statewide tests, was amended before it was even heard by the House Education Committee. It now just proposes a study of testing, and the bill is pending in the House Appropriations Committee.

So Holbert’s budget bill amendment managed to get the issue onto the House floor, where the discussion consumed 40 minutes.

Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock

Interestingly, much of the debate was between two Douglas County Republicans, Holbert and Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock.

Holbert made a spirited argument against education centralization, saying, “By voting no on this amendment you’re saying Washington, D.C., controls our schools. … We know what’s best for our kids. … Listen to your constituents.” He said the money would be better used to buy down the negative factor.

His argument was buttressed by Rep. Lori Saine, R-Firestone, who said, “The Common Core is something Colorado moms are rising up against.”

Murray responded with a emphatic defense of Colorado’s testing, accountability and educator evaluation systems.

Given the billions in state dollars that go to school districts, “We have to feel some responsibility for performance in those school districts,” she said, and accountability rests on test results.

“We should have standards, and they should be high standards,” she said, “Change is hard. … Is that what we want to do, give up on it because it’s hard?” (In a variety of debates this session Murray sometimes seems like the lone Republican who still stands squarely behind all the education reforms passed in the last six years.)

Holbert’s amendment was defeated on a voice vote.

At the end of evening, Holbert proposed his amendment again, as is allowed when the House is finishing preliminary consideration of a bill.

He, Murray and a few other members reprised the earlier debate for about 10 minutes.

“I want to get back to where we used to be in education,” Holbert said.

“Now is the time to step on the gas” of education reform, Murray said.

Holbert’s second attempt failed on a 25-39 recorded vote.

Republicans also proposed – and lost – five amendments that would have transferred various amounts of money from a variety of other state programs and used it to buy down the negative factor. And two amendments to put an extra $18 million into charter school facilities also were defeated.

Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland, later tried a do-over on a negative factor amendment, but that also failed.