Statehouse roundup

Modest testing reduction bill advances in Senate

A bipartisan bill that would reduce state testing in high school and early grades won preliminary Senate approval Thursday evening.

The Senate also gave preliminary approval to Senate Bill 15-267, the 2015-16 school finance measure.

Final roll-call votes could come as soon as Friday, sending the bills to the House, which seems headed down a somewhat different path on testing.

Key features of the testing measure, Senate Bill 15-257, include the reduction of state testing to one set of language arts and math tests in high school plus the ACT test. Other provisions call for flexibility for districts to use their own tests, creation of district pilot programs to develop new accountability and assessment systems, and the streamlining of early literacy and school readiness assessments.

An amendment added on the floor creates a one-year timeout for district accreditation and ratings and also a one-year extension of flexibility in using student growth data for teacher evaluations.

Senators debated the issue for 90 minutes. Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, said, “This is a great milestone in our session. … This is a bill that you can wrap your arms around.”

Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, urged his colleague to “cut back on the overload, the overwhelming flood of testing that is killing the joy of education. … We can do something about it right now.”

The main dissenter at the microphone was Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver. Johnston, the leading advocate of education reform measures in past sessions, is something of an odd man out this year.

Johnston proposed amendments to maintain 9th grade language arts and math tests, which would be eliminated by the bill, and to eliminate the testing pilot programs, which he said would actually increase testing time and costs.

Referring to the bill, he said, “In its current form I think it’s pretty bad policy for the state.”

All his amendments were rejected. Johnston said, “Having fought the good fight, I’ll go eat dinner.” (As usually happens during evening sessions, dinner was brought in for the senators.)

Despite widespread debate and concern about statewide standardized testing, the 2015 legislature has been slow to deal with the issue. Thursday’s debate was the first floor consideration of a major testing bill, and it came on the 107th day of the 120-day session.

The House on Thursday again delayed preliminary consideration of its major testing measure, House Bill 15-1323. The prime Democratic sponsor, Rep. John Buckner of Aurora, has been ill this week.

A key difference between the two bills is 9th grade testing. The House bill currently would continue it, while the Senate bill would eliminate it.

Six of the 11 testing-related bills introduced this session remain alive, but SB 15-257 and HB 15-1323 are considered the major measures. Five bills have been killed in committee (see story on dead House bills). Senate Bill 15-233, which would pull Colorado out of the Common Core Standards and the PARCC tests, Thursday was sent from the Senate floor back to committee. It likely won’t survive there.

Also part of the testing debate is Senate Bill 15-223, which wouldn’t change the assessment schedule but which codifies parent rights to opt their children out of testing. The measure has wide bipartisan support. It has passed the Senate but isn’t scheduled for House Education Committee consideration until Monday.

There’s concern among supporters that even if that bill passes both houses, Gov. John Hickenlooper will veto it, but the legislative session will have ended by then, and lawmakers won’t have the opportunity to override a veto.

See the chart at the bottom of this article for a comparison of HB 15-1323 and SB 15-257 and for a spreadsheet of all this year’s testing bills.

School finance debate airs anxieties about tight budgets

SB 15-267 would increase K-12 funding by $306 million to about $6.23 billion next school year. Most of that is driven by constitutionally required hikes to cover enrollment growth and inflation.

The only discretionary increase in the bill is $25 million that would be applied to the state’s K-12 funding shortfall, the so-called negative factor. That figure currently is about $880 million, and in the past it’s been as high at $1 billion.

Average per-pupil funding would rise to $7,295 from this year’s $7,026.

Johnston and Merrifield teamed up on this bill, offering a variety of amendments to both increase overall funding and to earmark some new funding for at-risk students. All those amendments were defeated. (See this story for more background on the finance bill.)

In other action

A lot of education-related bills were moving at the legislature Thursday. Here are the highlights of the day’s action:

Senate Bill 15-173 – This measure, intended to set new requirements for privacy and security on education technology vendors, got preliminary House approval after a surprisingly short discussion. Along with testing reductions, this bill has been a priority for some parent activists, but they’re unhappy with amendments added in the House Education Committee and approved by the full House Thursday evening.

Senate Bill 15-214 – The Senate voted 35-0 for this measure, which would create a legislative study committee on school violence and youth mental health. It’s the companion to Senate Bill 15-213, a more controversial measure that would open school districts to liability for violent incidents (see story).

Senate Bill 15-072 – A pet proposal of Joint Budget Committee Chair Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, this bill would have raised admissions standards at Metropolitan State University. Lambert argues MSU’s graduation rate isn’t high enough because it admits too many unprepared students. Metro leaders strongly opposed the bill, arguing it would hamper the university’s mission of serving non-traditional students. The Senate Education Committee killed the bill on a 7-2 bipartisan vote.

The House also gave preliminary approval to two bills of interest to small rural districts. House Bill 15-1321 would provide some regulatory flexibility to such districts and also provide $10 million in per-student aid to isolated districts with fewer than 1,000 students. (See this story for background.)

House Bill 15-1201 also carries a $10 million price tag. That money would be spread over two years in grants to boards of cooperative educational services to help small districts save money by sharing administrative services.

Check our special mini Bill Tracker for updates on all the key education bills still in play as the session nears its end.

Testing Bill Tracker

Click the bill number in the left column for more a more detailed description, sponsors and other information. Click the link in the Fiscal Notes column at the right for a bill’s description and an estimate of potential state costs.


Aurora’s superintendent will get a contract extension

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school board is offering superintendent Rico Munn a contract extension.

Marques Ivey, the school board president, made the announcement during Tuesday’s regular board meeting.

“The board of education believes we are headed in the right direction,” Ivey said. Munn can keep the district going in the right direction, he added.

The contract extension has not been approved yet. Munn said Tuesday night that it had been sent to his lawyer, but he had not had time to review it.

Munn took the leadership position in Aurora Public Schools in 2013. His current contract is set to expire at the end of June.

Munn indicated he intends to sign the new contract after he has time to review it. If he does so, district leaders expect the contract to be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, April 3, for a first review, and then for a vote at the following meeting.

Details about the new offer, including the length of the extension or any salary increases, have not been made public.

Four of the seven members currently on the board were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate. Many voiced disapproval of some of the superintendent’s reform strategies such as his invitation to charter school network DSST to open in Aurora.

In their first major vote as a new board, the board also voted against the superintendent’s recommendation for the turnaround of an elementary school, signaling a disagreement with the district’s turnaround strategies.

But while several Aurora schools remain low performing, last year the district earned a high enough rating from the state to avoid a path toward state action.


More than 1,000 Memphis school employees will get raise to $15 per hour

PHOTO: Katie Kull

About 1,200 Memphis school employees will see their wages increase to $15 per hour under a budget plan announced Tuesday evening.

The raises would would cost about $2.4 million, according to Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance.

The plan for Shelby County Schools, the city’s fifth largest employer, comes as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who had come to Memphis in 1968 to promote living wages.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson read from King’s speech to sanitation workers 50 years and two days ago as they were on strike for fair wages:

“Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life or our nation. They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation … And it is criminal to have people working on a full time basis and a full time job getting part time income.”

Hopson also cited a “striking” report that showed an increase in the percent of impoverished children in Shelby County. That report from the University of Memphis was commissioned by the National Civil Rights Museum to analyze poverty trends since King’s death.

“We think it’s very important because so many of our employees are actually parents of students in our district,” Hopson said.

The superintendent of Tennessee’s largest district frequently cites what he calls “suffocating poverty” for many of the students in Memphis public schools as a barrier to academic success.

Most of the employees currently making below $15 per hour are warehouse workers, teaching assistants, office assistants, and cafeteria workers, said Johnson.

The threshold of $15 per hour is what many advocates have pushed to increase the federal minimum wage. The living wage in Memphis, or amount that would enable families of one adult and one child to support themselves, is $21.90, according to a “living wage calculator” produced by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

Board members applauded the move Tuesday but urged Hopson to make sure those the district contracts out services to also pay their workers that same minimum wage.

“This is a bold step for us to move forward as a district,” said board chairwoman Shante Avant.