The sense of relief was palpable in the Capitol last Wednesday after it became clear that lawmakers had come together behind a compromise bill to reduce the amount of statewide standardized testing.

Sen. Rollie Heath called it “the absolute elation of getting the testing bill done.” The Boulder Democrat participated in the negotiations that led to the final bill.

Testing was education issue No. 1 for the legislature from the first day to the last, but things didn’t start to come together until the last week of the session.

School safety and K-12 finance were the year’s other big issues. Beyond those, things dropped off pretty quickly, even though the sheer volume of education bills was at record levels.

Despite split party control of the General Assembly, partisanship wasn’t a deciding factor for key education measures. Both houses had their own main testing bills, each backed by different coalitions of Democrats and Republicans.

In the end it was an unsatisfying session for lawmakers and activist groups that wanted big changes in the state’s system of academic standards, tests, school and district ratings, and educator evaluations. But the way things turned out was a relief for interest groups that have helped build the current system over the last seven years.

Some 119 education-related bills were introduced this year, a big increase from 80-90 of recent sessions (See this year’s full list in the 2015 Education Bill Tracker.).

This year’s mortality rate also was high; 74 of those education bills were killed, or 62 percent. In recent sessions the percentage of bills “postponed indefinitely” ran in the 30-40 percent range.

The high bill count can be attributed partly to lots of “statement” bills, both from freshmen fulfilling campaign promises and from veteran lawmakers. And an unusually high number of higher education bills were introduced. Many of those were unsuccessful Democratic proposal aimed at the rising costs of college.

Much debate, last-minute action on testing

Most legislators felt they had to do something this session about testing. The problem was it took them a long time to figure out what that “something” was.

Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker / File photo
Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker / File photo

Discussions were “back and forth and back and forth,” said Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker and a key figure in the ultimate compromise.

The 2015 legislature was teed up to face the issue by the 2014 legislature, which created a study committee to review the state testing system and make recommendations for changes. That panel, the Standards and Assessments Task Force, generally recommended that state tests be reduced to the so-called federal minimums, but it couldn’t reach agreement on what to do about 9th grade and social studies testing.

Parent groups, usually referred to at the Capitol as “The Moms,” had been energized by expansion of testing into the 11th and 12th grades. They pushed for big rollbacks in exams, protection of parent opt-out rights and greater privacy protections for student data. Allied groups agitated to pull Colorado out the Common Core State Standards and the PARCC testing network. The Colorado Education Association also pushed for less testing.

On the other side, education reform groups rallied to warn against radical testing changes that they felt could compromise the quality of student and school achievement data and thereby threaten past education reforms intended to improve educational equity for low-income and minority students.

The 11 testing-related bills proposed a range of options from restrained tinkering to wholesale uprooting of the Common Core and PARCC and wide-open freedom for districts to choose their own tests.

Little progress was made as the session clock ticked toward adjournment.

Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon
Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon

Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, noted the debate “was polarized most of the time.” House Speaker Dickie Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder, said, “This came close to falling apart almost every day of the session.”

Finally, with less than two weeks to go, legislative leaders took the issue in hand and convened a bipartisan group of senior lawmakers to hammer out the compromise.

Heath acknowledged that a “nudge” was needed “to make sure something happened.”

In the end, said Senate President Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, “It really was this organic confluence.”

Key elements of the compromise (HB1323) significantly reduce high school testing, streamline school readiness and early literacy assessments, guarantee parent opt-out rights, give districts and teachers a bit of breathing room on use of assessment data for accreditation and evaluation, and offer some modest steps toward district testing flexibility. Gov. John Hickenlooper said he would sign the bill.

A stand-alone bill on opting out of tests died, as did a measure on student data privacy. Both are issues closely related to assessment reform.

Get the details on the testing measure here.

K-12 funding will rise, but little dent made in negative factor

The session opened with hopes of further shrinking the state’s K-12 shortfall this session, building on decisions made by the legislature in 2014, when finance was the top education issue.

Hickenlooper proposed a $200 million increase in K-12 support on top of automatic increases triggered by inflation and enrollment growth. On top of the governor’s plan, the state’s superintendents proposed adding $70 million, with some of that money earmarked for at-risk students.

Additional proposals to divert various surplus funds to K-12 and to increase support for full-day kindergarten and at-risk preschool capacity all quickly died.

The final version of next year’s school finance bill (SB267) will increase K-12 funding by $306 million of state and local funds to about $6.23 billion. Most of that is driven by constitutionally required hikes to cover enrollment growth and inflation.

Gov. John Hickenlooper
Gov. John Hickenlooper

Instead of Hickenlooper’s $200 million, the key discretionary increase in the bill is $25 million that will be applied to the funding shortfall, the so-called negative factor. That shortfall currently is about $880 million. Average per-pupil funding would rise to $7,295 from this year’s $7,026. Another $5 million was added and will be divvied up among school districts based on at-risk student enrollment. And a separate bill gives $10 million in per-pupil aid to small rural districts.

Funding “one place we didn’t get as far as we would have liked,” Hickenlooper said the day after the session adjourned.

See how your district will fare in this Department of Education spreadsheet.

The finance bill also includes a legislative “promise” that if district tax revenues rise more than currently forecast, the 2016 legislature will consider adding that amount to 2015-16 school funding. The usual practice when local revenue increases rise is to reduce the state contribution by the same amount.

Plans for a bigger cut in the negative factor were blighted by the state’s paradoxical financial situation. A healthy economy is driving higher state tax collections and other revenues. But that income has pushed the state above the annual spending limit imposed by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which is enshrined in the state constitution. That surplus triggers refunds to taxpayers. And some of the money in the 2015-16 state budget was earmarked for transportation and building construction by a prior state law.

Lawmakers could have asked voters for permission to keep the excess revenue rather than refund it, but there was no interest in doing that.

Late in the session some Democratic senators pushed hard to boost school spending by taking money from the dedicated account called the State Education Fund. The problem is that using money from the education fund for basic school support puts additional obligations on the main General Fund in future years. So that effort was rebuffed in the face of warnings that spending from the education fund would consume all the new money available to the general fund in 2016-17.

As a nod to anxieties about school funding, a bipartisan group of House members proposed a two-year legislative study of K-12 finance (HB1334), with the study panel empowered to recommend proposed laws and constitutional changes to the 2016 and 2015 sessions. That bill sailed out of the House but died for murky reasons in a Senate committee, and the House ultimately chose not to press the issue.

School funding may be a tougher issue in 2016. Rising state collections from both taxes and fees have pushed state revenues past constitutional spending limits, triggering taxpayer refunds. A last-minute bill proposed to take some Medicaid-related fees out of that calculation, freeing up tax revenues for education and transportation. That failed in the Senate, meaning the 2016 legislative will have little or no flexibility in raising K-12 funding.

Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder
Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder

“We are facing a budget crisis,” Hullinghorst said. “As we reach more of a crisis on the budget there may be more interest in this,” referring to the proposed change in Medicaid fees.

Focus turned to school security

School safety emerge as a somewhat unexpected education issue this session, with most of the attention on a bill that creates limited liability for schools districts in cases of school violence (SB213). In the past districts have had immunity from such lawsuits.

The bill was named the “Claire Davis Act” in honor of the Arapahoe High School student killed in a December 2013 shooting. The bill had the support of top bipartisan leadership in both houses and was backed by skillful lobbying.

To the relief of districts, the bill gained some guardrails along the way. The main elements of the measure allow districts and charter schools to be held liable if they don’t use “reasonable care” in protecting students, faculty or staff from “reasonably foreseeable” acts of violence – murder, first-degree assault and sexual assault — that lead to serious bodily injury or death. Damage caps would be set at $350,000 for individuals and $900,000 in cases of multiple victims.

A key change gives districts two years to implement new safety policies before they could be held liable for incidents. And individual teachers would be protected from liability.

The bill also makes it easier for victims’ families to gain information about violent incidents before cases go to trial.

Two other bills passed by lawmakers have their roots in the Davis tragedy.

One measure (SB214) establishes a legislative study committee on school violence and youth mental health. A second bill (HB1273) is designed to improve statewide reporting of violent incidents at schools.

Other education issues

Higher education – Two-dozen bills related to higher education were introduced this session, part of the reason for the inflation in the total number of education-related bills. Most were of little consequence and included various changes in resident tuition eligibility, measures related to campus sexual assault, all those Democratic bills on tuition and student loan costs and various technical measures. Higher education officials were concerned about possible legislative tinkering with the performance funding system created by the 2014 legislature, but the changes made were minor.

Workforce development – This issue was an under-the-radar bipartisan favorite this session. Several bills intended to improve the quality of worker skills for new jobs were introduced. Among those related to education measures to expand the number of high schools that offer early colleges programs (HB1270), create new career pathways programs for students (HB1274), and add career and technical courses to programs eligible for concurrent enrollment (HB1275).

Ideological bills – These didn’t fare well in a split-control legislature. Take for example the Republican-backed parents’ bill of rights (SB77) and the Democratic bill to give the state veto power over schools’ use of American Indian mascots and symbols (HB1165). The first was killed in the Democratic House and the second in the GOP Senate.

Big ideas, little success – Proposals to pay extra stipends to high-performing teachers who work in low-performing schools, to create a system of electronic vouchers, and to provide colleges scholarships to the top graduates of every Colorado high school all dropped by the wayside. But a bill that would allow the state to create “pay for success” contracts to allow private funding for social services like early childhood programs did pass.

Other ideas that didn’t make it – Split partisan control and lack of money were factors in the high mortality rate for some education bills. Among other proposals that died were:

  • Expansion of full-day kindergarten and preschool for at-risk students
  • Changes in regulation of multi-district online schools
  • Increased salaries for community college faculty
  • Expansion of the state Charter School Institute’s ability to authorize schools in struggling districts
  • A grant program for districts to expand use of student learning objectives as a way to measure student growth as teacher performance
  • Expansion of free meal programs in schools
  • State sale of bonds to shore up pension funds for teachers and for state employees