Colorado lawmakers made big investments in public education — but few major policy changes

As Colorado’s 2019 legislative session came to a close, Gov. Jared Polis strode into a conference room packed with reporters to talk about his accomplishments, starting with education.

“Have you heard us talk about full-day kindergarten ever?” the Democrat began, turning yet again to the issue he’s championed from the launch of his campaign to his opening speech, through four months of legislative deliberations and in dozens of public appearances. “So, it’s this novel idea we had where kids ought to be able to go a full day instead of just a half day, without their parents having to pay.”

Free full-day kindergarten got the most attention this year and will affect the most students, but it was just one piece of a far-reaching education agenda that included expanding access to mental health care in schools, funding dropout prevention programs, and improving access to higher education for students of color and those from low-income families.

“I cannot think of another session where we had such an ambitious agenda, and we got so much of it done,” said Leslie Colwell, vice president for K-12 initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign. “It was a good year for kids.”

Many longtime Capitol observers described a new energy around education that they attribute to Polis’ passion for the issue, background as a charter school founder, and legislative experience. He approached his first session with a strong-armed determination to fulfill his campaign promises.

Democratic control of both chambers, meanwhile, opened up new opportunities to make progress on long-stalled priorities and to revisit old fights over charter schools, choice, and test-based accountability that have sometimes divided Democrats. Lawmakers mostly stuck to the former. A largely bipartisan consensus on education policy developed over the last decade remains intact.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, made changing Colorado’s controversial educator evaluation law one of its policy priorities. A bill to do so didn’t make it out of a committee.

“It’s been a lightning-rod issue since S.B. 191 came into being,” said union president Amie Baca-Oehlert, referring to the 2010 law by its bill number. “It’s a big conversation, and I think some people just weren’t ready for it. Educators who had been living with it without any changes were ready, but others weren’t.”

Another unsuccessful union initiative, sponsored by state Rep. Rochelle Galindo, a CEA member and school custodian by profession, would have made it harder for school districts to outsource janitorial, transportation, and other services to private companies.

Democrats on the House Education Committee voted down that proposal, along with another backed by school boards to stop giving additional money to state-authorized charter schools in accordance with a 2017 funding compromise.

“The biggest thing is that the fundamental principles of student-centered education policies remains intact,” said Luke Ragland, president of the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado. “Colorado has a really long history of these reforms being bipartisan. With this massive blue wave, I was definitely watching to see if that would change.”

Colwell said lawmakers did not seem interested in doing anything “drastic.”

“There’s a desire to look at policies that have been on the books and make improvements, but not to roll them back,” she said.

The Senate celebrates the closing of the Colorado General Assembly on the last day of the 2019 session. (Joe Amon/The Denver Post)

That doesn’t mean Democrats didn’t act. A host of bills that died in the face of Republican opposition in past years are now law or awaiting the governor’s signature: a generous loan forgiveness program for rural educators, the ability for middle-school students to talk to counselors without getting parental permission, free lunch for high school students whose families make too much to qualify for the full federal subsidy, restrictions on the use of suspensions in the early elementary grades.

“All of these things that we got halfway on year after year after year, we’ve been able to push go a little bit faster,” said Jennifer Walmer, Colorado state director of Democrats for Education Reform.

Related: Kindergarten, reading, mental health: what Colorado lawmakers did for education in 2019

Walmer said most lawmakers and advocates took a “forward-looking” approach focused on equity and opportunity. Everyone from CEA to DFER praised investments in school nurses, social workers, and mental health, but lamented that these programs are being funded through limited grants or as pilot programs.

These investments, along with full-day kindergarten and a generous school finance act — the main legislative vehicle for funding schools — were made possible by a strong economy and rising local property tax revenue that freed up state dollars. While property tax revenue is less volatile than sales tax or oil and gas money, lawmakers of both parties, as well as local school boards, remain concerned about the long-term sustainability of the spending.

Colorado still faces complex fiscal constraints and inequities in the school finance formula. After describing a string of wins for education, Matt Cook, director of public policy and advocacy for the Colorado Association of School Boards, noted: “As good a year as we had financially — the best anyone can remember in a decade — we’re still short a half-billion dollars.”

He was referring to a $572 million budget stabilization factor — the amount Colorado lawmakers withhold from schools to pay for other budget priorities, despite a constitutional requirement that education spending increase annually by population growth and inflation.

Ragland said it’s time to stop talking about a shortfall in education spending. When special local property tax increases known as mill levy overrides are taken into account, there’s enough money in the K-12 system to meet constitutional obligations, he said. The problem is the distribution of those resources, he said.

House Education Committee Chair Barbara McLachlan speaks about the benefits of full-day kindergarten with state Rep. Jim Wilson at a small rally for advocates in the Colorado State Capitol. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

That’s another area where lawmakers shied away from drastic action. A dedicated school finance committee will meet for a third year during the legislative off-season to try to come up with solutions. Voters will be asked this November to let the state keep additional revenue from existing taxes, a move that could produce modest gains for schools. And Colwell said she’ll be traveling to school districts around the state in search of common ground that could turn into successful legislation.

This year also saw renewed focus on literacy. Parent activists learned hard lessons. They pushed for more screening for dyslexia and better reading instruction, but had to settle for a pilot program and a working group. And they weren’t at the table when lawmakers made changes to the READ Act, 2012 legislation that pushed schools to get struggling readers on track by the end of third grade but that has posted disappointing results.

They’ll be back next session, pushing for bigger changes.

“Parents’ voices are missing in these meetings, and they’re valuable because we have a bottom-up perspective, rather than top-down,” said Lindsay Drakos of COKIDS, a group of parents of students with dyslexia.

Also likely to come back next year: debates over changing the teacher evaluation system.

Baca-Oehlert, of the state teachers union, said it was a victory just to have the bill heard in committee, and Polis has suggested he’ll convene a group to work on recommendations.

“The fact that we were able to have the hearing and share the experiences of educators, that moves the needle,” she said.

With full-day kindergarten now state law, 2020 will have more room for other conversations.

“My hope is that legislators will walk their talk,” Baca-Oehlert said. “They all ran on supporting public education.”