Who Is In Charge

Higher ed bills first out of the gate

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Colorado
The Colorado Senate on 2014's opening day, Jan. 8.

Updated Jan. 8 – The 2014 Colorado legislative session opened Wednesday with the standard calls for bipartisanship and serving the public, the usual rhetorical nods to education and the introduction of the first education-related bills.

Higher education got much of the attention in opening-day speeches by House and Senate leaders, especially from Democratic Sen. Morgan Carroll of Aurora, the brand-new Senate president.

Carroll made education the first policy issue in her speech, saying, “Education is the backbone of a healthy democracy, a vibrant economy and is essential for individual liberty to pursue their dreams, their careers, their economic security and their passions. Affordable access to a college or trade school education is critical to protect our freedom to succeed.”

The president told a lengthy story about the struggles of her grandfather and her mother, Rebecca Bradley, to attend and finish college, and about her own financial challenges attending college. (Carroll and her mother practice law together.)

That led her into a recitation of stats about college costs and student debt and a plug for the College Affordability Act, one of the Democrats’ signature 2014 bills.

The measure was formally introduced a short time later as Senate Bill 14-001, with four Democratic but no Republican sponsors. The bill basically would increase state higher education spending by about $100 million in 2014-15, with more money for both state financial aid and institution operating costs. It also would a 6 percent ceiling on tuition increases next school year.

Read what they said

(Courtesy of our partners at Denver Business Journal)

As introduced, the bill is basically identical to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s 2014-15 budget proposal. In the normal course of business that increase would have been included in the annual state budget bill. But Democratic legislative leaders decided to put the increase in a separate bill, partly for political benefit.

Over in the House, Speaker Mark Ferrandino spent less time on education in his speech but did say “strengthening our education system to prepare our students and make college more affordable” would be one of the Democratic majority’s three priorities.

“The work we do this year in the General Assembly cannot make our schools entirely whole from the hits they took during the recession. But with revenues continuing to recover, we can continue to crawl back,” the Denver Democrat said. “Our goal is to make our education system stronger, more accountable, and better for all Colorado students. And that means working together to target more resources where they’re needed most: in the classroom.”

House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver / File photo
PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver / File photo

Ferrandino specifically referenced “measures like flexible student count days, professional development for teachers and expanded programs for English language learners.” All were components of Senate Bill 13-213, the law that didn’t go into effect because voters last year defeated Amendment 66, the $1 billion tax increase that would have paid for SB 13-213.

The Republican minority leaders, Rep. Brian DelGrosso of Loveland and Sen. Bill Cadman of Colorado Springs, touched on education.

DelGrosso, saying A66 was bad policy, continued, “This session, let’s pass education reforms that will benefit all our schools and keep Colorado’s economic recovery on track.” He said Republicans would introduce bills on school district financial transparency, charter school facilities and transportation and on improving services for English language learners.

Cadman only said, “We are greatly challenged to do what’s best for our kids, and continued K-12 reform is vital. Twenty-six percent of Colorado students attend a school that is rated D or F. A quarter of our kids head to a school every day that is failing to provide them the education guaranteed to them by our constitution. This is unacceptable and inexcusable. If we don’t fix this, we are failing them.” (Cadman presumably was referring to the ratings issued by Colorado School Grades. Official state ratings don’t use A-F grades.)

All four of the speeches focused heavily on economic development, recovery from 2013’s devastating floods and wildfires and repairing some of the partisan divisions generated last session by gun control bills, energy policy and other issues.

Seven other education bills were introduced in the House and Senate Thursday. Senate Bill 14-002 would fund the Safe2Tell program and move it into the attorney general’s office. (The program provides a way for young people to anonymous report threatening or dangerous behavior by others.) Senate Bill 14-004 would allow the state’s community colleges to offer four-year degrees in applied sciences fields.

In addition to bills mentioned above, other bills of note include:

  • Senate Bill 14-033 – The bill would establish a private school tuition income tax credit for private school tuition or scholarship donations, and homeschool parents also would receive a tax credit. Sponsored by 10 Senate Republicans, the idea is a hardy GOP perennial and has no chance of passage in the Democratic-controlled legislature.
  • Senate Bill 14-006 – This bill would expand the current early childhood educator development scholarship program to provide stipends for students obtaining any postsecondary degree or certificate in ECE. The bill is among to first to propose funding from the State Education Fund (SEF), a piggy bank that lots of lawmakers hope to tap this year.
  • House Bill 14-1048 – The measure would prohibit state colleges and universities from discriminating against student religious groups.
  • House Bill 14-1039 – This bill also could tap the SEF and would direct various state agencies, including the Department of Education, to establish procedures to link student data collected by publicly funded early childhood education programs with the data collected by school districts. The measure also could draw fire from lawmakers concerned about expansion of education data gathering and about student privacy.

Learn more about the 2014 education landscape in Chalkbeat Colorado’s annual legislative preview.

A quick guide to the session

Understanding how the legislature works is essential to tracking how education bills fare in the sometimes-chaotic action. Here’s a guide.

Education coverage: Chalkbeat Colorado is the state’s only news service that covers education exclusively, and we staff the Capitol fulltime during the session. Coverage includes daily stories and roundups on our website, the exclusive Education Bill Tracker and Twitter and Facebook updates. Follow @ToddEngdahl on Twitter.

You also can stay current through our Capitol eNewsletters, which are sent every weekday evening. A week-ahead email is sent on Sunday evening. See the signup box on our homepage to subscribe.

Education decision makers: Virtually all education legislation – there usually are 60-80 or more such bills every year – has to go through the House and Senate education committees.

House Education, chaired by Dillon Democratic Rep. Millie Hamner, meets in Capitol room 0112 Mondays at 1:30 p.m. and Wednesday mornings after floor work has been completed. (13 members)

Senate Education, led by Democratic Sen. Andy Kerr of Lakewood, meets Wednesday mornings after floor adjournment and Thursdays at 1:30 p.m., generally in room 356. (7 members)

Another key panel for education is the six-member Joint Budget Committee, which prepares the annual state budget bill and other fiscal measures. It generally meets every day after floor work is finished. Because bills are not assigned to the JBC for consideration, it doesn’t take public testimony at its hearings.

Profile of the legislature: The Senate has 35 members, 18 Democrats and 17 Republicans. Senators can serve two four-year terms. The 65-member House has 37 Democrats and 28 Republicans. Representatives can serve four two-year terms. About half the Senate seats and all House seats are up for election in November.

Rhythm of the session: Because the state constitution limits the length of sessions (lawmakers must adjourn this year by May 7), a lot of work gets packed into a short period of time.

Floor sessions are held in the morning Monday through Friday, while committee work is scheduled late in the morning and in the afternoon Monday through Thursday. Friday is a getaway day early in the session. As the adjournment date approaches, long Friday floor sessions become the norm.

The pace is fairly leisurely in January (although a lot of bills the majority doesn’t support get killed) and then picks up steadily until late April, when major bills such as the state budget and annual school finance bill are considered in a rush of work that often runs into the evenings. There is a detailed schedule of when certain kinds of bills are supposed to pass, but deadline extensions are granted frequently.

How bills move: All bills are supposed to have at least one committee hearing. To become law, a bill must pass out of committee in the chamber where it was introduced and pass two floor votes. The process has to be repeated in the second chamber, with further committee work and floor votes to reconcile amendments if necessary.

Individual lawmakers can introduce up to five bills each session, but there are frequent exceptions to this rule.

Making your voice heard: Public testimony is welcome at committee hearings. Witnesses need to sign in before a meeting starts. Some committee chairs limit each witness to just a few minutes; others are more flexible.

Contacting lawmakers: Every legislator has a Capitol office for use during the session and can be reached by phone and email (directory here). Voice mails and emails generally are read first by assistants and interns. If you want to buttonhole lawmakers in the Capitol halls, they’re the ones with the black nametags. (The legislature has an elaborate system of different colored nametags for staff members, lobbyists, journalists and others.)

Follow the action: The House and Senate galleries are open to the public during floor sessions – be alert for large groups of kids filing in and out during field trips. Committee meetings also are open to observers.

If you can’t get to the Capitol, video of floor sessions is streamed online, and there are live audio feeds of all committee meetings. Both video and audio are archived, so you can catch up on past meetings. See video and audio links here.

Read the paperwork: The legislature floats on a sea of documents, virtually all of which are available online. (Many lawmakers now carry iPads instead of armloads of file folders.)

(Calendars for the next day often aren’t posted until after 5 p.m.)

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.