These are some of the education issues Colorado lawmakers expect to tackle in 2024

The Colorado State Capitol is seen from some distance, surrounded by other buildings, its dome glowing slightly.
The Colorado State Capitol building in Denver. The 2024 legislative session starts Wednesday. (Dan Lyon / Chalkbeat)

Increasing school funding. Expanding career and technical education. Retaining teachers.

Those were among the topics that a panel of five Colorado lawmakers said they plan to prioritize in the 2024 legislative session, which starts tomorrow. The panel was part of Chalkbeat’s annual Legislative Preview event, where lawmakers interested in education talk to us and answer questions about the big issues they plan to tackle.

This year, we were joined by:

  • Sen. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat and chair of the Senate Education Committee
  • Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat and vice chair of Joint Budget Committee
  • Rep. Jennifer Bacon, a Denver Democrat and House assistant majority leader
  • Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat and chair of the House Education Committee
  • Rep. Rose Pugliese, a Colorado Springs Republican and House assistant minority leader

The event was moderated by Chalkbeat reporter Jason Gonzales and Maryori “MJ” Guzman, a student at CU Denver who is active with Young Invincibles, an organization that amplifies the voices of young adults.

A full video of the event is posted below. Here are excerpts of the discussion:

The rollout of universal preschool, free preschool for Colorado 4-year-olds, has been rocky. How can lawmakers strengthen the program for preschool providers and families?

Buckner: Any new program that’s that big and that important, we’re going to have some bumps in the road. But we are continuing to save parents an average of $6,000 per month. And we’re going to keep focusing on supporting families, because we know how important it is to have responsible and amazing child care and education for all of our kids.

I stay in close contact with Dr. Lisa Roy, who is the director of the Department of Early Childhood, and her exact words are — and this is my commitment, too — “We will be self-correcting during this upcoming year to make that program even more viable, more accessible, and better for all students.”

Zenzinger: Just prioritizing early childhood within our budget this year.

Making sure that we are increasing the provider payments … so that we have the right incentives, and that we’re paying the providers the right amount, so that they can continue to deliver universal preschool.

Making sure that we have a resource bank and additional supports for staff, so that they can develop and so that they can address problems when they come up.

Making sure that we’re providing enough funding for our local coordinating organizations — those partners that we’re working with in the community that know what is happening on the ground, so that we can address problems and better support our LCOs.

And then lastly, having a plan for what to do when our federal funds expire. We did stand up a lot of the universal preschool program utilizing one-time funds. So how can we position our budget so that we can continue to support the universal preschool program — and, in fact, grow that program into the future — if those one-time funds are going away?

Families in Colorado pay more to send their children to public colleges than families in many other states. How will lawmakers address college affordability, especially when the governor’s budget doesn’t keep pace with inflation?

Zenzinger: You’re right. Part of the problem is that when you are so underfunded, when your higher education system is at the bottom of the pack compared to all the other states in the United States, that’s going to have an impact. … The only way that you can address it is by having us, the legislature, prioritize higher education and make sure that we properly fund our institutions, so that then they don’t have to pass those costs on to our students.

Pugliese: One of the other conversations is: Is higher education right for everyone? And what has the legislature put in place in order to give students some alternatives? … Coming up with creative solutions with the money that we do have to make it go further for our students is definitely one of the options the legislature has.

Teachers statewide have complained that pay hasn’t kept pace. While lawmakers can’t direct districts to increase pay, what are some solutions or ways to help increase pay statewide, as well as make the profession more attractive?

Pugliese: When I meet with my school districts, they say, “Hey, maybe you can slow down on some legislation and regulations to allow us to work through some of the laws that have already been passed, so that we can alleviate some of the burdens on our teachers.”

McLachlan: I taught high school for 20 years, so I know. … It’s important that we don’t ever forget that our teachers are really the backbone of all of childhood for kids. And if we do that right, then we are producing productive adults. And some of it is pay, and we’re trying really hard to increase the pay. If we could legislate respect and kindness, we would do that.

What role, if any, should state lawmakers play in so-called culture wars issues? For instance, should state lawmakers get involved in book bans in school libraries?

Pugliese: I’m pretty sure you probably started with me because I might have written a letter about this. … I think that there’s a lot of angst. We’ve seen this in Colorado Springs in our communities between parents and what is available to our kids in school libraries.

My letter was more directed at making sure that parents are communicating with our school board members that we have appropriate books in our schools and maybe getting an outside perspective, which in my letter was the district attorney, to maybe just put parents’ minds at ease that the books that their kids have access to are the right books and are appropriate.

McLachlan: I’m not a fan of having other parents tell my children what they can read and what they can’t read. … I taught freshman honors English. … One of my assignments was that everybody had to find a banned book and read the book and then write a report on why they thought it was banned. … I had parents who were just furious with me for having kids read books. And I said, “Well, you read the book. Find one with your child.” After they did that, not one parent ever came back and said, “We could not find a book that my child could read.”

I’m just not sure that we as a legislature need to start saying yes or no.

Bacon: A lot of the notions behind book banning, I just struggle with as a concept in an internet-based society. Book banning comes from an antiquated perception of how people get access to knowledge, and it is a tool that is being repeated from a century ago.

Ultimately, when it comes to parents and having input in what it is that their kids are reading, it doesn’t always go one way. My mom had to fight so that we could read “Roots” on a seventh-grade accelerating reading list, because the only stories we had were from Mark Twain. That was parental choice as well.

I do think what the legislature and local school districts have an interest in is saying: What should all Colorado students be prepared for by the time that they’re 18? And I do think as legislators we need to recognize we are in not only a multicultural country but world. And so it’s important for us to be able to support our young people in being able to pursue that knowledge.

Watch the full video from Chalkbeat’s Legislative Preview event below.

Melanie Asmar is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Colorado. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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