Who Is In Charge

Legislative Preview 2013

The mix of big, complicated issues with a new cast of characters in the legislature could mean an intense and unpredictable year for education in the 2013 Colorado General Assembly.

Legislative issues logoThe 120-day session opens Wednesday morning with Democratic control of both houses, new leadership in each chamber, a large cadre of freshman members and a list of significant education issues waiting in the wings.

And those issues will have to compete for legislator time and attention with a packed agenda of other topics, including civil unions, mental health services, child protection, marijuana regulation, gun control, the death penalty, economic development, Medicaid expansion and drilling regulations.

The question of school finance is expected to overshadow all other education issues. Democratic Sens. Mike Johnston of Denver and Rollie Heath of Boulder are crafting a plan that would significantly overhaul the school funding formula – contingent on subsequent voter approval of new revenues for schools.

Tuition rates for undocumented students and teacher licensing also are expected to be top 2013 education issues, perhaps along with school security.

Lawmakers, lobbyists and interest groups start making plans months before a legislative session convenes. But the details of proposed bills often are still in flux as opening day approaches and the general chaos of a legislative session makes predictions foolhardy.

“You know what the issues are, but you don’t know what the bills will be,” notes Frank Waterous, lobbyist for the Bell Policy Center.

That said, what follows is a session’s eve review of 2013’s likely big education issues, based on interviews with a wide selection of lawmakers, lobbyists, interest-group advocates and others.

The big issues

School finance

Funding for schools is a daunting subject. The system is costly – $5.4 billion a year in state and local funds. The system is complicated and much studied but little changed since it was set up in 1994. And it’s under legal assault, with the Colorado Supreme Court is expected to rule this spring on a lower court decision in the Lobato v. State lawsuit.

But some lawmakers and education advocates think 2013 is the year to create a new system that better serves the needs of schools today.

“There’s no reason for the legislature to wait. The time is now to do this,” says Lisa Weil, policy director of Great Education Colorado, a group that long has advocated for improved school funding.

Johnston and Heath are working on a two-step proposal that would have the legislature create a new financing structure – contingent on voter approval next November of increased school funding.

Another key player will be Democratic Rep. Millie Hamner of Dillon, incoming chair of the House Education Committee.

“I will be very involved in revising our School Finance Act and finding long-term funding solutions for K-12 education,” Hamner said.

(Learn about details of the plan in this December Education News Colorado story.)

“It’s a topic that will consume a lot of attention,” lobbyist Jennifer Mello recently told the State Board of Education, which she represents at the Capitol.

Mello also alluded to the likelihood that there will be lots of compromises and tweaking along the way.

“The bill that gets introduced won’t be the same bill that gets passed.”

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver / File photo

Shuffling the interlocking pieces of the school funding system has the potential to hurt some districts while helping others. Yet some observers think the sheer complexity of the issue, not battles of self-interest, could be a bigger barrier to passage of comprehensive change.

But advocates are optimistic barriers can be overcome.

“I really do believe we have an opportunity,” says Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, which has been at the center of school finance study and discussions over the past two years.

Because Johnston’s plan – if passed – wouldn’t go into effect unless voters approve new funding in November, the 2013 legislature still will have to pass a school funding bill for the 2013-14 budget year, which starts July 1.

Westminster Democratic Sen. Evie Hudak, incoming chair of the Senate Education Committee, says she will be carrying that bill and may try to use it to restore some of the equalization factors that have been diminished by budget cuts in recent years. Those factors are intended to give different amount of per-pupil funding to districts based on such things as number of at-risk students and staff cost of living.

ASSET – Undocumented student tuition

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With the Democrats back in control of both houses, most observers agree this is the year for what’s called the ASSET bill to pass.

As part of the larger debate over immigration, ASSET has been a touchy issue. Versions of the bill died in the Republican-controlled House in both 2011 and 2012.

Undocumented students can enroll at state colleges and universities but have to pay non-resident tuition, the highest rate. The 2012 bill would have created a rate between non-resident and resident levels and was crafted to avoid any taxpayer subsidy of undocumented students. That was done in a bid to attract at least some Republican support.

Because there’s no longer a mathematical need for GOP votes, there’s a lot of speculation about whether the 2013 bill will have more generous terms and about what those might be.

But there’s still a political calculus in the ASSET debate. Asked about the issue during a November meeting of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s Education Leadership Council, Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia said, “The governor will be cautious about pushing for any bill that doesn’t have some Republican support.”

“We’re hopeful that it will pass this year,” said Sonja Semion, acting executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, one of the many advocacy groups that have backed ASSET. “I wouldn’t say it’s going to be a slam dunk.”

Teacher licensing

Over the last five sessions the legislature has tackled education issues ranging from content standards to testing to school ratings to teacher evaluations. But lawmakers haven’t tackled teacher licensing or preparation.

That may change in 2013.

Hamner said she was in conversations with other legislators about revisions to the state’s teacher and principal licensure processes.

“These processes are currently out of date and do not align well with our new procedures for determining teacher and principal effectiveness,” Hamner said.

Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon
Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon / File photo

Johnston also is a key player in this discussion, as is Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock,  the ranking Republican on the House Education Committee.

Interest in the issue was prompted by a suggestion from the State Council for Educator Effectiveness and by a report submitted to the State Board in September.

That study, done by the New Teacher Project for the Department of Education, suggested a new test for incoming teachers and tying license renewal to the new teacher evaluations that will be in place in a couple of years. (Read study here.)

That latter suggestion makes the Colorado Education Association nervous, and any proposed evaluation/renewal link will get close scrutiny.

Mello, in her recent briefing to the State Board, predicted, “We anticipate a bill that represents only the beginning stages of a possible move towards tying licensure to effectiveness.”

(Learn more about the licensing discussion in this EdNews story.)

School security

There’s been a lot of chatter about gun control in the weeks since the shootings of children and teachers at a Connecticut school.

““I’m sure we’ll hear ideas about how to improve school safety,” Hamner predicts.

Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, has been discussing a possible bill that would provide some state financial support for districts and cities that add armed school resource officers to schools. King, a former police officer, has been a tireless advocate for school security but has had mixed success with his bills in recent years.

Lawmakers also are expected to face other gun-related legislation, including controls on assault weapons, and it’s possible school security will become entangled in that broader debate. Democratic members started discussing the issue after the Aurora theater shootings last July.

A bill also is expected that would modify the state’s concealed carry law as it relates to guns on college campuses.

The budget

This session will be the first since 2009 when the legislature won’t be preoccupied with budget cuts as a reviving economy has generated improved tax revenues for the state.

Legislative info
  • Lawmakers meet Monday-Friday most weeks through May 8
  • Floor sessions are held in the morning; committees meet late in the morning and after lunch
  • House Ed meets Mondays at 1:30 p.m. and Wednesday mornings after floor adjournment in room 0112
  • Senate Ed meets Wednesday mornings after adjournment and Thursdays at 1:30 p.m. in room 356
  • Video of floor sessions is streamed online, and live audio is available for all committee meetings. Links here
  • General Assembly website

The brightening revenue picture has enabled the Hickenlooper administration to propose an increase of nearly $200 million for K-12 schools and of $30 million for higher education in 2013-14. (See this story for details.)

“Spring is here,” says Weil of Great Education Colorado.

“It’s going to be a more traditional year” without budget woes dominating other issues, predicts Chad Marturano, legislative liaison for the Department of Higher Education.

But the good feelings don’t mean the state’s budget problems are over or that there won’t be budget debates.

State economists believe recent revenue growth may have been driven by one-time capital gains tax revenues and that the legislature should be cautious about increased spending that would be difficult to sustain if revenues level off in subsequent years.

Hickenlooper proposes to take virtually all of the increased K-12 spending from the State Education Fund (SEF), a separate account from the main General Fund. Some lawmakers think the increase should be spread across the two accounts.

In good years lawmakers often are tempted to tap the SEF for pet education projects, and any attempts to do so this year could create conflict with the administration.

The governor’s budget plan proposes that districts take part of the increase and earmark it for at-risk preschool students and an incentive fund to attract teachers to rural districts. Some districts are uncomfortable with the proposed mandates.

Other issues to watch

Accountability

The state’s system for rating and accrediting districts and schools, created in 2009, calls for restructuring or closure of low-performing schools that fail to improve in five years. The rating system starts its fourth year on July 1.

That has ramped up the level of anxiety in struggling districts and schools, and the issue could come up in bills this year.

Bills are being developed to alter the accountability system for alternative education centers, which have the highest numbers of at-risk students.

Hudak says she is working on several ideas, including requiring a larger parent role in the future of schools in the lowest accreditation categories or perhaps expanding the number of options available to schools that face conversion.

Construction

BEST program illustration
Illustration courtesy Capital Construction Assistance Division

The Building Excellent Schools Today program, which provides grants to districts and charters for renovation and construction, was widely hailed when it was created in 2008. But the program has gained critics in the last couple of years, including those who are concerned that BEST takes money that should be going to the state school lands permanent fund and that the program should have more legislative oversight.

Legislation to “rein in” BEST was discussed but never introduced last session. Look for the issue to return this year, focused on tighter management of BEST reserves and legislative oversight.

Early childhood

The highest-profile education bill of 2012 was the READ Act, which requires expansion of literacy education for students in the early grades.

It was a big bill, and the details of implementing it are still being worked out by the Department of Education.

But that doesn’t mean early childhood won’t be an issue this year. The top priority will be a bill to consolidate a variety of state ECE agencies, a proposal that died last year. The idea is being pushed by the Hickenlooper administration and a variety of interest groups, and Hamner says she plans to carry the bill in the House.

Energy efficient schools

Democrat Andy Kerr of Lakewood, now a senator after service in the House, is expected to introduce a bill that would set high energy-efficiency standards for new school buildings. He floated the idea more than once as a representative but never was able to get it passed.

Evaluation

The key education reform bill of the last five years was Senate Bill 10-191, which requires annual evaluations of principals and teachers. It calls for 50 percent of evaluations to be based on student academic growth and allows for loss of non-probationary status based on poor evaluations.

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster
Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Wetminster / File photo

The state is in the second year of piloting evaluation systems in selected districts but there is some concern about whether the original SB 10-191 timelines can be met. All districts are supposed to start using new evaluations next year, although low evaluations won’t count against teachers’ non-probationary status.

Johnston, the father of the law, insists that deadlines don’t need to be changed and that lawmakers can fix any problems in 2014. Most education lobbyists say they think SB 10-191 should be left alone this year.

But concerns persist, and Hudak says, “It might be too soon to tweak it; it might not.”

It’s also possible that this year will see a bill designed to protect the confidentiality of evaluation information.

Health

The Colorado Children’s Campaign, along with a coalition of other groups, is pushing legislation that would expand “after the bell” free breakfasts in schools. The idea would require the program in schools with 70 percent or more of students eligible for free- and reduced-price lunches, although some smaller districts and schools would be exempted.

The proposal would provide free breakfasts to an additional 85,000 children, advocates estimate.

Truancy

Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, is considering legislation that would require or encourage school districts to step up efforts to reduce student truancy.

A version of Fields’ idea failed to gain the endorsement of a legislative study committee last summer (read original bill draft here), but she’s said she intends to pursue the idea on her own.

Higher education

Colorado college campus montage
From left, Colorado State University in Fort Collins, the University of Colorado-Boulder and the Auraria Higher Education Center.

Higher education usually has a lower profile than K-12 during any given legislative session, and 2013 looks to be no different.

But the Hickenlooper administration is considering legislation that would allow colleges and universities to seek voter approval for local/regional property or sales taxes to supplement state support, which has been slashed in recent years.

A similar proposal died at the statehouse a few years ago and any new legislation would face a lot of questions from higher education leaders with competing interests.

Questioned about the idea at a meeting late last year, Lt. Gov. Garcia said,
“It does bring new money into the system. Why would we deny the schools that have that ability the right to do that?”

Potential wild cards

Every session brings surprises, from unexpected twists on major bills to controversial ideas that spark lots of discussion but end up going nowhere.

Hamner summed up some of the potential wild-card issues.

“I’m also hearing about concerns about student assessment – the costs, the impact on instructional time, and the feasibility of conducting all assessments on-line,” Hamner said. “There is concern about whether a standardized, online assessment can truly measure what we value in student learning, such as the importance of critical thinking and problem solving. I also expect that we’ll hear a variety of proposals to improve outcomes for English language learners, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we also have some serious conversations about sex ed.”

Other issues that could pop up include regulation of online-only schools, district consolidation, a parent trigger bill, teachers’ union collective bargaining and the solvency of the state pension system, which covers all Colorado teachers.

The players

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder
Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder / File photo

Hamner, Heath, Hudak and Johnston will be among key lawmakers to watch this year.

Johnston is expected to be a central figure on school finance, teaching licensing and the ASSET bill, and some Capitol observers wonder if he’ll be overextended. As new chairs of the education committees, Hamner and Hudak will be watched closely for how they handle those roles. (See this story of details on the members of the two education committees.)

Democrats control the House 37-28 and have a 20-15 majority in the Senate. The House has 28 new members, including one with previous legislative experience, while the Senate has 10 new members, including six with prior experience in the House.

“I think we’re going to be spending more time bringing people up the speed, especially in the House,” Hudak said. “It might even slow down the Senate to some extent.”

Both chambers have new Democratic leaders, House Speaker Mark Ferrandino of Denver and Senate President John Morse of Colorado Springs. (See this story for details on the full legislative leadership.)

Controversy

Boundary lines of proposed South Loop high school drive wedge between communities

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
About 30 speakers weighed in on a boundary proposal for a new South Loop high school at a public meeting at IIT.

The parent, wearing an “I Love NTA” T-shirt, said it loudly and directly toward the end of the public comment section Thursday night. “It sickens me to be here today and see so many people fighting for scraps,” said Kawana Hebron, in a public meeting on the boundaries for a proposed South Loop high school on the current site of National Teachers Academy. “Every community on this map is fighting for scraps.”

The 1,200-student high school, slated to open for the 2019-2020 school year near the corner of Cermak Road and State Street, has become a wedge issue dividing communities and races on the Near South Side.

Supporters of NTA, which is a 82 percent black elementary school, say pressure from wealthy white and Chinese families is leading the district to shutter its exceptional 1-plus rated program. A lawsuit filed in Circuit Court of Cook County in June by parents and supporters contends the decision violates the Illinois Civil Rights Code. 

But residents of Chinatown and the condo-and-crane laden South Loop have lobbied for an open-enrollment high school for years and that the district is running out of places to put one.

“I worry for my younger brother,” said a 15-year-old who lives between Chinatown and Bridgeport and travels north to go to the highly selective Jones College Prep. She said that too many students compete for too few seats in the nail-biting process to get into a selective enrollment high school. Plus, she worries about the safety, and environment, of the schools near her home. “We want something close, but good.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
The “general attendance” boundary for the proposed South Loop high school is outlined in blue. The neighborhoods outlined in red would receive “preference,” but they would not be guaranteed seats.

One by one, residents of Chinatown or nearby spoke in favor of the high school at the meeting in Hermann Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They described their long drives, their fearfulness of dropping off children in schools with few, if any, Chinese students, and their concerns about truancy and poor academics at some neighboring open-enrollment high schools.

But their comments were sandwiched by dissenting views. A member of South Loop Elementary’s Local School Council argued that Chicago Public Schools has not established a clear process when it comes to shuttering an elementary and spending $10 million to replace it with a high school. “CPS scheduled this meeting at the same time as a capital budget meeting,” she complained.

She was followed by another South Loop parent who expressed concerns about potential overcrowding, the limited $10 million budget for the conversion, and the genesis of the project. “It’s a terrible way to start a new high school – on the ashes of a good elementary school,” the parent said.

The most persistent critique Thursday night was not about the decision to close NTA, but, rather, of the boundary line that would determine who gets guaranteed access and who doesn’t. The GAP, a diverse middle-class neighborhood bordered by 31st on the north, 35th on the South, King Drive to the east and LaSalle Street to the west, sits just outside the proposed boundary. A parade of GAP residents said they’ve been waiting for decades for a good option for their children but have been locked out in this iteration of the map. Children who live in the GAP would have “preference” status but would not be guaranteed access to seats.

“By not including our children into the guaranteed access high school boundaries – they are being excluded from high-quality options,” said Claudia Silva-Hernandez, the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7. “Our children deserve the peace of mind of a guaranteed-access option just like the children of South Loop, Chinatown, and Bridgeport.”

Leonard E. McGee, the president of the GAP Community Organization, said that tens of millions in tax-increment financing dollars – that is, money that the city collects on top of property tax revenues that is intended for economic development in places that need it most – originated from the neighborhood in the 1980s and went to help fund the construction of NTA. But not many of the area’s students got seats there.

Asked how he felt about the high school pitting community groups against each other, he paused. “If we’re all fighting for scraps, it must be a good scrap we’re fighting for.”

The meeting was run by Herald “Chip” Johnson, chief officer of CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement. He said that detailed notes from the meeting will be handed over to the office of CEO Janice Jackson. She will make a final recommendation to the Board of Education, which will put the plan up for a vote.

budget season

New budget gives CPS CEO Janice Jackson opportunity to play offense

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson announced the district's $1 billion capital plan at Lázaro Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village.

Running Chicago’s schools might be the toughest tour of duty in town for a public sector CEO. There have been eight chiefs in a decade – to be fair, two were interims – who have wrangled with mounting debt, aging buildings, and high percentages of students who live in poverty.

Then there’ve been recurring scandals, corruption, and ethics violations. Since she was officially named to the top job in January, CEO Janice Jackson has had to clean up a series of her predecessors’ lapses, from a special education crisis that revealed families were counseled out of services to a sexual abuse investigation that spotlighted a decade of system failures at every level to protect students.

But with budget season underway, the former principal finally gets the chance to go on the offensive. The first operations budget of her tenure is a $5.98 billion plan that contains some good news for a change: 5 percent more money, courtesy of the state revamp of the school funding formula and a bump from local tax revenues. CPS plans to funnel $60 million more to schools than it did last school year, for a total of $3.1 billion. Put another way, it plans to spend $4,397 per student as a base rate — a 2 percent increase from the year prior.

CPS’ total budget comes out to $7.58 billion once you factor in long-term debt and an ambitious $1 billion capital plan that is the focus of a trio of public hearings Thursday night. When it comes to debt, the district owes $8.2 billion as of June 30, or nearly $3,000 per every Chicago resident.

“The district, without a doubt, is on firmer footing than it was 18 months ago, but they’re not out of woods yet,” said Bobby Otter, budget director for the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “When you look at the overall picture (the $7.58 budget), they’re still running a deficit. This is now the seventh year in a row they are running a deficit, and the amount of debt the district has, combined with the lack of reserves, leaves them with little flexibility.”

Earlier this week, standing in front of an audience of executives at a City Club of Chicago luncheon, Jackson acknowledged that it had been an “eventful” seven months and said she was ready to focus on strategies for moving the district forward. “I won’t be waiting for next shoe to drop or wasting time and resources waiting for next problem. I want to design a system to educate and protect children.”

“I’m not in crisis mode,” she added.

Here’s what that looks like in her first year when you just consider the numbers. The biggest line items of any operating budget are salaries, benefits and pensions: Taken all together, they consume 66 percent of CPS’ planned spending for the 2018-2019 school year. Rounding out much of the rest are contracts with vendors ($542.6 million, or 9 percent), such as the controversial janitorial deals with Aramark and SodexoMAGIC; charter expenditures ($749 million, or 13 percent); and spending on transportation, textbooks, equipment, and the like (12 percent).

A closer look at how some of those items are allocated offers a window into Jackson’s vision. The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the plan July 25.

Investing in choice

Earlier this month, the district announced a nearly $1 billion capital plan, funded by bonds, that would support new schools, technology upgrades, and annexes at some of the district’s most popular campuses. The operating budget, meanwhile, accounts for the people and programs driving those projects. It proposes nearly doubling the staff, from 10 to 17, in the office that manages charters, contract programs, and the creation of new schools. It reestablishes a chief portfolio officer who reports directly to the CEO. And it adds expands access to International Baccalaureate programs and Early College STEM offerings. In a letter at the beginning of the 2019 Budget Book, Jackson said such expansions “move the district closer to our goal of having 50 percent of students earn at least one college or career credential before graduating high school.” 

Advocating for students

The budget seeds at least two new departments: a four-person Office of Equity charged with diversifying the teacher pipeline, among other roles, and a 20-person Title IX office that would investigate student abuse cases, including claims of student-on-student harassment.

Leaning into high schools

Fitting for a budget designed by a former high school principal – Jackson was running a high school before age 30 – the plan leans in to high schools, establishing $2 million to fund four new networks to oversee them. (That brings the total number of networks to 17; networks are mini-administrative departments that track school progress, assist with budgeting, and ensure policy and procedures are followed.) And it earmarks $75 million across three years for new science labs at neighborhood high schools. What’s more, it supports 10 additional career counselors to help campuses wrestle with a graduation mandate – set forth by Mayor Rahm Emanuel – that seniors have a post-secondary plan to graduate starting with the Class of 2020.

Throwing a lifeline to small schools

The budget also sets forth a $10 million “Small Schools Fund” to help schools with low enrollment retain teachers and offer after-school programs. It also earmarks an additional $5 million to help schools facing precipitous changes in enrollment, which can in turn lead to dramatic budget drops.   

Supporting modest staff increases

After a round of layoffs were announced in June, the budget plan adds at least 200 teachers. But the district would not provide a clear accounting of whom to Chalkbeat by publication time. Earlier this week, it announced plans to fund additional school social workers (160) and special education case managers (94).

The district plans to add positions for the upcoming 2018-2019 year.

As Chicago Teachers Union organizer and Cook County Commissioner candidate Brandon Johnson pointed out in an impromptu press conference earlier this week in front of district HQ, the budget is still “woefully short” on school psychologists, nurses, and counselors. And it doesn’t address the calls from parents to restore librarians and instructors in such subjects as art, music, physical education — positions that have experienced dramatic cuts since 2011. “What is proposed today still leaves us short of when (Mayor Emanuel) took office,” Johnson said. “The needs of our students must be met.”

Principal Elias Estrada, who oversees two North Side schools, Alcott Elementary and Alcott High School, said he was still figuring out how the additional staffing would work. He’s getting another social worker – but he oversees two campuses that sit three miles apart, so he figures he’ll have to divide the person’s time between campuses. Estrada asked the board at Monday’s budget hearing to help him understand the criteria it uses to determine which schools get extra staff or additional programs, like IB. “I need a counselor, a clerk, and an assistant principal,” he said; currently those positions also are shared between the elementary and the high school.

After the meeting, he said that schools might have gotten slightly bigger budgets this year, but the increase was consumed by rising salaries and he wasn’t able to add any positions. What’s more, his building needs repairs, but it didn’t get picked for any of the facilities upgrades in the $1 billion capital plan that accompanied the budget.

“What is the process?” he asked. “The need is everywhere.”

At two public hearings on Monday, fewer than a dozen speakers signed up to ask questions of the board, central office administrators, or Jackson.

To see if your school is getting one of the newly announced positions or any funding from the capital plan, type it in the search box below.