Who Is In Charge

Arts education requirement advances

It was kind of a topsy-turvy day in the House and Senate education committees.

Two bills of note passed out of House Education – a measure establishing a statewide arts education requirement and a proposal that would give student members voting power on the Colorado State University Board of Governors.

But, the sidelights and undercurrents in a long afternoon of work were perhaps more interesting.

  • The House panel approved one bill creating a state education mandate but rejected another.
  • Senate Ed killed a kindergarten bill most of its members dearly would have loved to pass.
  • A state agency director represented both support and opposition to another bill.
  • Two Republican senators urged a Democratic colleague not to gut his own budget bill.

It was that kind of afternoon, and it lasted from 1:30 p.m. until nearly 6. Here’s the rundown:

Mandate: Arts education

House Bill 10-1273, entitled “Improved Workforce Development Through Increased Participation in Arts Education,” is the swan song of Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, a retired music teacher who’s serving his last term and is chair of House Education.

More than a dozen witnesses – students, teacher and others – testified in favor of the bill, picking up on Merrifield’s introductory theme of how participating in the arts makes for well-rounded, higher-achieving students.

Two brave lobbyists tried to sing a different tune. Jane Urschel of the Colorado Association of School Boards, argued (as she usually does) for local control, saying, “We can’t have art on demand or physical education on demand or foreign language on demand by the state. Those decisions have to made locally.”

Bruce Caughey of the Colorado Association of School Executives also opposed the bill. “This is a day I’ve been dreading,” he said. (His organization aligns with Merrifield on lots of issues.)

Merrifield proposed an amendment, which the committee accepted, that does soften the bill’s impact on districts. The change broadens the kinds of arts classes that students could take and also requires that students only “successfully complete” a course, not pass a standardized test.

The bill passed out of committee 10-2, with the only sour notes sounded by no votes from Republican Reps. Tom Massey of Poncha Springs, a former school board member, and Carole Murray of Castle Rock, a former teacher who’s married to a Douglas County principal. “I love you dearly,” Massey said to Merrifield, but “I promised my school districts I would not send them another unfunded mandate.”

Mandate: Exit exams

The committee passed Merrifield’s mandate at the start of the afternoon but killed Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg’s mandate at the end of the meeting.

The Sterling Republican’s House Bill 10-1254 would have required “a score at the proficient achievement level or higher on the 10th-grade statewide assessments in reading, writing, and mathematics; or a score on a postsecondary and workforce readiness assessment indicating that the student has attained postsecondary and workforce readiness” for a student to graduate from high school.

Sonnenberg talked eloquently about the state’s college remediation problem (see the EdNews Data Center for school-by-school stats on this problem). “I bring the bill because I’m not sure our kids are prepared for life.”

The bill was doomed from the start because it’s not in synch with the slow-moving juggernaut of the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids reform program, which will replace the CSAPs with another testing system in the next couple of years.

The issue set Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton, off on one of her standard critiques of the CSAPs. She finally stopped herself, saying,  “I’d better shut up” – before continuing for a couple more minutes.

Members kept chattering, and Merrifield finally said, “I’m going to close off discussion for the moment” so witnesses – Caughey and Urschel again – could make return trips to the microphone to oppose the bill.

Sonnenberg said, “Thanks for letting me vent,” and the committee finally killed the bill 10-2.

Kindergarten: It was so hard to vote no

It’s not often that a committee kills a bill by the Senate president, and Senate Ed had a hard time doing so even when President Brandon Shaffer, D-Boulder, asked them to do just that.

Shaffer’s Senate Bill 10-131 would have provided additional per-pupil funding to districts that provide high-quality full-day kindergarten to all eligible pupils. The trouble is it would have cost millions the state doesn’t have – about $200 million over the next three years.

“I don’t know from a cost perspective if we’ll be able to do it,” Shaffer said by way of understatement, asking the committee to kill the bill.

Softhearted committee members couldn’t bear to do that, and Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, moved that the bill be sent to Senate Appropriations, which usually has little compunction about killing bills with price tags.

Heath’s motion failed on a 3-3 vote, so Senate Ed had to do the deed after all, voting 3-2 to postpone the bill indefinitely.

Agency head: Yes and no

Rico Munn was in a tight spot. Sitting in the witness chair as Senate Ed took up Senate Bill 10-079, Munn had to explain that he’s both director of the Department of Higher Education and director of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.

His trouble was that the department opposes the bill while the appointed commission, on which Munn serves as its top staffer but has no vote, decided recently to support the bill.

After joking about “two hats,” Munn made it clear he opposes the bill because the department would rather not have changes made in colleges’ missions while a sweeping higher ed strategic plan is being developed.

The bill would give Mesa State College expanded powers to award graduate degrees. Munn had to split for a meeting with his boss, Gov. Bill Ritter. Mesa President Tim Foster, a former DHE/CCHE director himself, and other favorable witnesses took over.

The committee passed the bill 5-2.

Won’t you change your mind?

Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, was another bill sponsor with dark designs on his own proposal Thursday.

His Senate Bill 10-062 would have transferred allocation decisions for about $240 million in categorical education funds from the Joint Budget Committee to the two education committees. (Categoricals are earmarked funds that go to school districts for special purposes, primarily transportation and special education.)

Steadman said he’d decided that bill wasn’t politically or otherwise viable this year and asked the committee to strip out all but a few technical sections.

Republican Sens. Keith King of Colorado Springs and Mark Scheffel of Parker said they really liked the idea and urged Steadman to change his mind. He didn’t, the committee gutted the bill and then approved what little remained.

CSU students try again, win round 1

With Democrats and Republicans on both side of the vote, House Ed Thursday voted 7-5 Thursday to pass House Bill 10-1206, which would convert the two student representatives on the CSU Board of Governors into full voting members.

Sponsor Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins, said he was just “the person running this bill for the students.”

A parade of student leaders supported the bill, some noting that student representatives deserve a vote because tuition now provides such a large chunk of CSU’s funding (as it does for lots of state colleges).

Influential lawyer-lobbyist Mike Feeley, a former lawmaker who praised Fischer as “a tremendous friend of the university,” represented CSU and spoke against the bill.

The students, one from the Fort Collins campus and one from Pueblo, would have to be juniors, seniors or grad students and would be appointed to terms of one academic year. Student governments and administrations could suggest candidates to the governor for appointment. The board’s two faculty members would remain non-voting.

A similar measure failed last year. Like Merrifield’s arts bill, the prospects of the CSU bill may be dimmer on the floor or in the Senate.

For the record

House Ed approved House Bill 10-1335, which would allow boards of cooperative education services to provide food services to member schools and would create a donation-supported fund in the Department of Education that could provide grants to BOCES for food services.

Senate Ed also passed Senate Bill 10-026 (authorizing data transfers between College in Colorado and CDE), Senate Bill 10-154 (accreditation standards for alternative schools) and Senate Bill 10-039 (concerning job training scholarships).

On the floor:

House Bill 10-1026 – Incentive grants for quality childcare programs, House final approval

House Bill 10-1232 – Classification of school vehicles, House preliminary approval

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.