Who Is In Charge

Ed bills jump first hurdle

Legislative leaders Tuesday cleared six proposed education bills for introduction in the 2012 legislature, but they’ve all got a long way to go, especially two of the more interesting ones.

Pencil on test paperThe bills were proposed by three legislative study committees and therefore required approval of Legislative Council, the leadership group that handles various administrative tasks for the General Assembly.

Any bill approved by the council has to go through the full legislative process after the session starts in January so runs the same risks as any bill. The advantage of council approved bills is that they don’t count against the five-bill limit imposed on legislators.

The council usually approves bills unless members feel a proposal doesn’t fit under a committee’s stated assignment. But, the council review process sometimes provides hints of questions about support for and potential weaknesses of individual bills.

Here’s a rundown on what happened Tuesday, organized by study committee.

Educational Success Task Force

This group, a hybrid legislator-citizen group, proposed four bills. (See this Education News Colorado story for details.) All were approved by the council with only a couple of stray no votes on two bills.

The most interesting proposal in the package is a bill pushed by Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, that would require school districts to administer the Accuplacer test at least once high school students.

King’s proposal would have the state pay for the tests, but he hasn’t come up with a source of money yet. Funding for a new program could be tough next year, and King publicly said for the first time Tuesday “We may have to scale this back to a pilot program.”

The other three bills approved would direct development of a system for adult students to gain academic credit for work experience, create a way for some students to earn associate degrees with credits earned at four-year colleges and encourage school districts to develop programs to identify middle school students who are lagging behind and provide help for them. (See task force webpage for links to bill texts.)

Legislative Task Force to Study School discipline

This panel of lawmakers and education, advocacy and law enforcement representatives forwarded only one bill, a proposed overhaul of state laws related to school discipline. The overall thrust of the measure is to roll back the zero tolerance philosophy that has dominated the subject in recent years.

Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton
Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton / File photo

But, some council members raised concerns after panel chair Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, noted that the measure isn’t in final form and that members still are meeting with interest group representatives to hammer out another version. (See this EdNews story about the panel’s final meeting.)

House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, said he was worried that the final version of the bill might end up exceeding the task force’s assignment.

The council went back and forth about whether a decision could be delayed but eventually voted and approved the proposed bill 11-7. All the no votes were Republicans.

Part of the bill’s back-story is that some district and administration interests aren’t happy with all of its provisions, and that’s part of the continuing negotiations Newell mentioned.

She told the council she expects “to come to the first committee [hearing] with a hefty amendment.”

Early Childhood and School Readiness Interim Commission

This all-legislator panel is proposing a bill that would create a new office of Early Childhood and Youth Development in the state Department of Human Services, consolidating several programs and funding sources now scattered across multiple state departments. (Read bill text.)

The bill actually originated with an executive branch advisory group, the Early Childhood Leadership Commission, and the idea is a legislative priority for the Hickenlooper administration. The state’s recently filed application for federal Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge funds includes a promise to consolidate disparate programs.

Legislative Council approved the bill 13-5. All the no votes were Republicans. Even though she voted for the bill, Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, D-Gilpin County, said she believes the new agency might be better placed in the Department of Public Health and Environment rather than in human services.

Legislation also in the air at Leadership Council

Third-grade literacy, another education issue that’s expected to be key during the 2012 session, was a central part of the discussion earlier Tuesday at the second meeting of the governor’s Education Leadership Council.

Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs and chair of the House Education Committee, is planning to introduce legislation that, among other things, require that some third graders be held back if they don’t meet certain standards of literacy.

Improving reading performance by third graders also is a key 2012 initiative for the Hickenlooper administration and some education interest groups.

Holding students back is a touchy subject for many educators, and some of that concern was reflected in the council discussion.

Five council members gave brief presentations on the issue before general discussion opened up.

Kelly Brough, CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, and Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, both expressed support for the idea, citing the experience of a 10-year-old program in Florida.

Watney said nearly 30 percent of Colorado third graders score below proficient on CSAP reading tests and that 8-10 percent of third graders are functionally illiterate.

She said the children who are held back shouldn’t be put through the same third-grade curriculum a second time but need other support, a view echoed by several council members.

Christine Scanlan
Christine Scanlan / File photo

Christine Scanlan, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s top lobbyist, said, “We are aware of the competing data that is out there” about holding students back, “and we know the fiscal impact is real.” She also noted the difficulties such a policy could create for small districts.

“Retention would be a last resort,” Scanlan said. “I think Tom [Massey] is in the same place.” (Massey is a member of the council but wasn’t at Tuesday’s meeting.)

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who chairs the council, said Hickenlooper “doesn’t yet have a position on this.”

Council member Helayne Jones, executive director of the Colorado Legacy Foundation, commented that “intervention in the third grade is about four years too late,” saying children with language and reading problems need to be identified and helped much earlier.

Deputy Education Commissioner Diana Sirko said about 2.4 percent of Colorado students currently are held back each year, mostly in kindergarten and first grade. “The results are mixed on those.” Sirko attended the meeting as an observer.

listening tour

We asked six Colorado school board members what they want from the state’s next governor. Here’s what they said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Late last week, nine candidates for Colorado governor came together to talk education, addressing an annual fall conference of school board members.

Now, we’re giving some of those audience members a chance to speak up.

Before the gubernatorial hopefuls took the stage, Chalkbeat recorded interviews with a half-dozen school board members who represent districts across the state. Our question to them: What are the big education questions you hope the next governor will take on?

Not surprisingly, funding challenges came up time and again.

One school board member asked for a more predictable budget. Another asked for schools to get their fair share of annual increases in new tax dollars. One went so far as to say the next governor would be a chicken if he or she didn’t take on reforming the state’s tax code.

We also heard a desire for leadership on solving teacher shortages, expanding vocational training and rethinking the state’s school accountability system.

Here are the six gubernatorial wishes we heard from Colorado’s school board members:

Reform TABOR to send more money to schools

Wendy Pottorff, Limon Public Schools

Since the Great Recession, Colorado schools have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while the state legislature has tried to close its education funding shortfall, lawmakers haven’t been able to keep up. Getting in the way, Pottorff says, is the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

Change the conversation about public schools

Paul Reich, Telluride School District

Reich says public schools are under attack under the false premise that they’re failing — and that isn’t helping the state recruit bright young teachers. He said the next governor must change the conversation about schools to make teaching a more desirable profession.

Provide a clear budget forecast

Anne Guettler, Garfield School District

Approving a school district’s budget is one of the many responsibilities of a Colorado school board. That’s a tall challenge when the state’s budget is constantly in flux, Guettler says. She hopes the next governor can help provide a clearer economic forecast for schools.

Rethink school accountability to include students and parents

Greg Piotraschke, Brighton 27J

Colorado schools are subject to annual quality reviews by the state’s education department. And it’s time for the state to rethink what defines a high-quality school, Piotraschke said. He suggested the governor could help rethink everything from how the state uses standardized tests to how to incorporate parents and students into the review process.

Give schools more resources to train the state’s high-tech workforce

Nora Brown, Colorado Springs District 11

In light of Colorado growing tech sector, several gubernatorial candidates have come out in support of more technical training for Colorado students. But that costs money, Brown says. The Colorado Springs school board member said promising better job training for high school students without more resources is empty.

Remember there’s a difference between urban and rural schools

Mark Hillman, Burlington School District

Crafting statewide policy is an onerous task in Colorado, given the diversity of the state’s 178 school districts. Hillman said the next governor must remember that any legislation he or she signs will play out 178 different ways, so they must be careful to not put more undue pressure on the state’s smallest school districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Five things we learned when Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates got on the same stage to talk about education

Colorado Republicans running for governor addressed some of the state's school board members at a forum hosted by the state's association of school boards. From left are George Brauchler, Steve Barlock, Greg Lopez, Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Nine Republicans and Democrats hoping to become Colorado’s next governor offered contrasting views Friday of the state’s public schools to an audience of more than 100 local school board members.

Most of the five Republicans told the crowd of locally elected officials — who are charged by the state’s constitution with governing Colorado’s public schools — that their programs were in need of improvement and innovation, and that they were there to help.

The four Democrats hoping to succeed fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, pledged to reform the state’s tax code to send more money to schools.

The candidates spoke at the annual fall delegation conference of the state’s association of school boards.It was the first forum of its kind to address education issues exclusively this election election cycle.

Unlike previous elections, Colorado’s public education system has been a key policy debate early in the campaign. Several candidates, especially Democrats, have worked on education issues before.

Here are our five takeaways from the forum:

The Republican candidates didn’t pull any punches when they said the state’s public schools were in need of improvement — and several said that they were the ones to do it.

From District Attorney George Brauchler to businessman Doug Robinson, every Republican candidate said one part or another of the state’s school system needed to do better.

“Education is life itself,” said former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell. “And there is no greater challenge facing our state than 50 percent of our at-risk kids who graduate can’t complete college-level course work.”

Both Mitchell and Robinson pointed to their experience as entrepreneurs as evidence that they could help set the state’s schools free of what they consider unnecessary red tape. Brauchler called for empowering teachers and parents.

Every Democrat and several Republicans agreed that the state’s schools were in a “funding crisis.” But they offered very different paths forward.

It was an easy question for Democrats. Businessman Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne were in lock-step that the state’s schools are in need of more money.

“If we don’t fundamentally solve this crisis, the rest of the issues don’t matter,” Johnston said.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne talk after a forum for gubernatorial candidates. Both are Democrats. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Johnston and Kennedy forcefully pledged to take on the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which limits how much tax revenue the state can collect and requires voter approval to raise taxes.

Lynne was more tempered. While she acknowledged tax reform was needed, she said wanted a legislative committee working on school finance to complete its work before suggesting any overhauls.

Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker and a small business owner, was the only GOP candidate who said he would take on the state’s complicated tax laws. If elected, he promised to establish a committee to send a reform proposal to voters.

Robinson and Brauchler acknowledged that schools were in a funding crunch. But they stopped short of saying they’d send more money to schools.

Mitchell said “he wasn’t sure” if there was a funding crisis, but added, “The system should be reformed before it’s fully funded.”

PERA, the state’s employee retirement program, could play a prominent issue in the election — especially for Republicans.

Earlier at the conference, school board members received a briefing on a proposed overhaul to the state’s retirement program, which includes school district employees.

While the situation is not as dire as it was a decade ago, the program’s governing board has become so increasingly worried about unfunded liabilities that it’s asking state lawmakers to pass a reform package to provide more financial stability.

Two Republicans, Brauchler and Steve Barlock, who co-chaired President Trump’s campaign in Colorado, said PERA was in crisis. Barlock warned school board members that their budgets were in jeopardy as lawmakers fiddle with the system.

Neither went into any detail about how they hoped to see the retirement program made more fiscally stable. But watch for this issue to gain greater traction on the campaign trail, especially as Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton ramps up his gubernatorial campaign, and as lawmakers begin to wrestle with PERA reforms next year. (Stapleton did not attend the forum.)

Some candidates offered careful responses to a question about school choice. Others, not so much.

Every Democrat and one Republican, Brauchler, said they respected a family’s right to choose the best school for their children. But that choice, they said, should not come at the expense of traditional, district-run schools.

“I’m concerned that we’d build a system where the success of some schools is coming at the expense of other schools,” Kennedy said.

Republicans strongly supported charter schools, and in some cases, vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools. Robinson called on creating new ways to authorize charter schools. Mitchell said he wanted to repeal a provision in the state’s constitution that has been used to rebuff private school vouchers.

There’s no party line over rural schools.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the state needed to step up to help its rural schools, which are typically underfunded compared to schools along the Front Range. They need more teachers, better infrastructure and fewer regulations, the candidates said.

“We need to get rural areas into the modern age,” Robinson said.