rural roadblock

It seemed like a sure thing. Now a Colorado bill limiting early childhood suspensions and expulsions is on life support.

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post

Legislation that would significantly limit suspensions and expulsions for Colorado’s youngest students has hit a late and possibly fatal roadblock — opposition from the state’s rural school districts.

While House Bill 1210 is still alive, it’s been assigned to a Republican-controlled Senate committee that has a track record of killing legislation that leadership opposes. The assignment to the Senate State Affairs Committee is a major setback for supporters who believe the legislation would put Colorado on the forefront of early childhood discipline reform.

Although advocates garnered substantial bipartisan support among lawmakers and worked for months gathering feedback from school districts and other groups, a late-breaking push by a coalition of rural school districts sidelined the effort.

The group had an opportunity to weigh in earlier, but did not. Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance, said she knew about the bill and was included in supporters’ outreach efforts, but didn’t initially voice opposition on behalf of her members.

“I wouldn’t say we ever supported the bill, but we weren’t taking an active approach,” she said. “This was just one I didn’t vet well enough.”

Murphy said she and some lawmakers began hearing major concerns from rural superintendents as the bill wound through the legislative process, with many district leaders saying the new rules would tie educators’ hands.

“Sometimes we need to suspend or expel young students,” Murphy said. “It’s a tool that’s in our limited toolbox.”

On March 21, the same day the Democratic-controlled House approved the bill, the alliance’s board of directors voted unanimously to oppose it. Two days later, the bill was assigned to the Senate State Affairs Committee.

“I learned a few lessons here,” Murphy said. “I somewhat regret the late nature of it all.”

Although rural school districts educate only about 20 percent of Colorado students, they hold sway at the state Capitol, especially among Republicans. This year, two Senate Republicans who represent rural areas were given leadership positions.

State Rep. Susan Lontine, a Denver Democrat and one of the bill’s sponsors, said she was disappointed about the bill’s likely fate.

“I thought we had support with all the diverse stakeholders,” she said. “We sat down with (the Rural Alliance). We went through a draft of the bill and asked them what their concerns were and addressed them. I was frankly very surprised where the pushback was coming from.”

House Bill 1210 would curb out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for students in kindergarten through second grade, as well as preschoolers in state-funded programs. It would permit out-of-school suspensions only if a child endangers others on school grounds, represents a serious safety threat or if school staff have exhausted all other options.

In general, suspensions would be limited to three days. Expulsions would be prohibited under the bill except as allowed under federal law when kids bring guns to schools.

State Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, said he hopes the bill could make it through the committee. He’s lobbying committee members and Senate leadership, he said.

“I think it’s good policy, there’s data there, and this is a good conversation for the Senate to have,” he said.

While some of his co-sponsors are open to amending the bill to meet the demands of the rural superintendents, Priola said he was hesitant to provide rural schools districts exceptions.

“It’s hard to cut out a section of the state on something that should be a no-brainer,” he said.

Murphy, the alliance’s executive director, said she doesn’t think the bill could be amended in a way that the alliance would support. Bill backers floated one possible change last week — involving the expulsion standard — but her board rejected it, she said.

Senate President Kevin Grantham, in a statement to Chalkbeat, said House Bill 1210 and a sister measure that would provide culturally appropriate discipline training for teachers would get a fair hearing.

“These bills include provisions that could have justified assignment to a number of committees, but we concluded that State Affairs, on balance, was the right place to send them,” he said. “People often jump to conclusions about what such committee assignments mean, but I trust the bills will get a fair hearing there and I believe stakeholder discussions continue to take place that could potentially improve their chance of success.”

Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign, one of many groups that pushed for the bill, said one of the biggest concerns for school districts during the bill-drafting process was to ensure that suspensions would still be allowed if young students posed a safety risk.

While the bill addresses that concern, he said, “We have more work to do apparently than we thought.”

For supporters, the bill’s passage would be a milestone in the years-long discussion in Colorado and the nation about the disproportionate use of harsh discipline tactics on boys of color.

But some superintendents said the bill wasn’t a good fit for rural districts.

Rob Sanders, superintendent of the Buffalo district in northeastern Colorado, said he’s had young students flipping desks over or trying to stab other children in the eye with scissors. In such cases, especially when other parents are threatening to pull their children out of the school for safety reasons, suspension or expulsion can be necessary, he said.

The bill, however, would give districts the ability to suspend children behaving in the way Sanders described.

Sanders also said Bill 1210’s time limits on suspensions — from three to five days — are more rigid than what’s in the nation’s special education law.

A better solution would be more funding for schools, including for more school social workers, he said.

Chris Selle, superintendent of the Meeker district in northwestern Colorado and a member of the Rural Alliance’s board, said the overuse of suspensions and expulsions is not an issue in his district.

“Is it a situation where the Front Range has a cold and we have to take the medicine?” he said.

Selle said educators in Meeker think carefully before handing out suspensions, and that for kindergarten to second grade students, they rarely exceed one day.

In addition, he said, when suspensions are given, they often help lead to a productive partnership with parents.

Last year, 7,800 preschool through second-grade students in Colorado received out-of-school suspensions and 14 were expelled, according to the Colorado Department of Education. Boys, black students and students with disabilities were over-represented in those discipline cases.

A new floor

Colorado’s new minimum wage means raises for child care workers and tuition increases for parents

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Loveland's Teaching Tree Early Childhood Learning Center was one of the first two centers in the state to get a Level 5 rating in the Colorado Shines rating system.

Child care teachers and assistants absolutely deserve the raises that come from Colorado’s new minimum wage of $10.20 an hour, their bosses say, but the pay increases also mean that many providers will pass on the new expenses to tuition-paying parents already stretched thin by child care costs.

“I don’t know how much more parents can pay,” said Diane Price, who heads a nonprofit network of seven centers in Colorado Springs.

In some parts of the state, early childhood advocates also worry that the raises mandated by the minimum wage hike will cause some workers to lose public benefits by pushing their income just above the eligibility threshold — making it harder, not easier to make ends meet.

In a field working to professionalize its ranks, pay its workers more, and raise awareness about the educational and economic value of quality child care, many observers say the minimum wage increase is a step in the right direction.

“It’s an important move,” said Christi Chadwick, director of the “Transforming the Early Childhood Workforce” project at the nonprofit Early Milestones Colorado. “The thing I struggle with is we’re still not getting people out of poverty and paying them on par with the public school system.”

Price, the president and CEO of Early Connections Learning Centers, said, “Shame on us that we even have to have this discussion that early educators are in a category that pays minimum wage.”

The latest minimum wage increase, which took effect Jan. 1, is the second of four annual increases mandated by a ballot measure approved by Colorado voters in 2016. The last step of the phase-in process will boost the minimum wage to $12 in 2020.

Colorado is among 29 states — most in the northeast and west — that have set a minimum wage higher than the federal rate of $7.25 an hour, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Child care providers here say advance planning and clear communication with parents have helped them incorporate raises into their budgets.

Price, who raised tuition slightly at her centers last August, said she anticipates a budget hit of about $600,000 over the four-year phase-in period.

But that’s not just because her lowest paid staff members are getting raises to comply with the minimum wage law. Like many other child care directors, she’s giving raises across the board out of fairness to veteran employees.

Price said she didn’t want entry-level employees to catch up with those who already hav a Child Development Associate credential or an associate’s degree.

Heather Griffith, who leads the for-profit Young Peoples Learning Center in Fort Collins, is taking the same approach. Her whole staff, except two brand new employees, have received raises.

She’s already sent out a letter notifying parents that tuition will go up 6.5 percent on February 1 – that’s an additional $16 a week for a full-time preschool slot. It’s the second of three tuition hikes Griffith will institute during the minimum wage phase-in period.

While the higher costs are hard on parents, “it’s a lot tougher for these teachers to survive on non-livable wages,” Griffith said. “I’m 100 percent in support of this minimum wage hike.”

Griffith hasn’t gotten much pushback over the impending tuition increase. The thriving economy helps. Also, she said, parents like the care her centers provide and wouldn’t be able to find it for much less unless they switched to unlicensed care, which is mostly unregulated.

Anne Lance, who heads the non-profit Teaching Tree Early Childhood Learning Center in northern Colorado, said she began planning — and frontloading — wage increases for all staff shortly after the 2016 ballot measure passed.
Currently, her entry-level teaching assistants start at $10.50 an hour even though she’s only required to pay $10.20.

“I had to get way ahead of the game … so in a couple years when it gets closer to that $12, it’s not going to kill me,” said Lance, who operates one center in Loveland and one in Fort Collins.

While the center’s two sites serve many low-income children who qualify for state child care subsidies or state-funded preschool slots, there are some tuition-paying families in the mix, too.

It’s those parents who may feel the sting of the minimum wage increases over the next couple years. Lance said she’ll keep her tuition increases to a modest 3 percent this year, but may have to jump up to 5 percent in 2019 and 2020.

On average, lead teachers with several years of experience at Teaching Tree make about $13.50 an hour. While that’s above the minimum wage, it’s not much to live on for employees on their own or those who are single parents, Lance said.

In Colorado, about one-third of child care teachers qualify for some kind of public assistance to cover housing, food, health insurance, or child care costs, according to a 2017 survey of child care workers in the state.

Chadwick, of Early Milestones, said during visits last fall to the San Luis Valley and southeastern Colorado, early childhood leaders explained that some child care workers were quitting their jobs due to fears they would lose government benefits when minimum wage-related raises took effect.

To alleviate such concerns and make child care a profession that pays a living wage, more substantial raises are needed. But Chadwick and other leaders don’t expect further funding to come from a state-level effort.

Instead, they say it will be locally-funded initiatives — already underway in some Colorado communities — that pick up the slack.

“We have to pass things like mill levies and taxes that support early childhood,” said Griffith, of Young Peoples Learning Center. “We have to do it. We have to say yes to these things if what we want is a community that has educated kids ready to go into kindergarten.”

year in review

Early childhood discipline, child care deserts and funding challenges in the spotlight during 2017

Malanna Newell is a toddler teacher at the Mile High Early Learning center in Denver's Westwood neighborhood. She started as a teaching assistant before taking Mile High's Child Development Associate training last fall.

Amid national debate on the disproportionate number of suspensions and expulsions given out to young boys and children of color, Colorado lawmakers and educators grappled with the best approach to discipline in 2017.

The year kicked off with a bill in the legislature to curb suspensions for early elementary and preschool students — a shift that would have put Colorado on the forefront of school discipline reform, some observers said. Although the bill had a broad array of backers, a Republican-controlled Senate committee killed the proposal after last-minute opposition from a group of rural school district leaders. Some of those leaders said suspensions weren’t a “rural problem,” but a Chalkbeat analysis found otherwise.  

Despite the defeat, advocates of the bill expect a renewed push for the measure during the 2018 legislative session.

In the meantime, Colorado’s two largest school districts — Denver and Jeffco — spearheaded changes to reduce the number of suspension handed out to young children. In June, Denver’s school board instituted a policy limiting the suspension of preschool through third grade students, though some educators worried they weren’t being given enough support to handle kids who misbehave.

In Jeffco, after Chalkbeat wrote about the district’s high rate of early elementary suspensions, administrators commissioned a report on the issue with recommendations to increase the use of restorative justice practices and other alternatives to suspension.  

Also in 2017, local early childhood leaders launched or expanded efforts to address key problems in the field — including teacher recruitment and retention and kids’ sometimes rocky transition to kindergarten.

At the same time, some early childhood advocates were forced to reckon with the perennial lack of funding that plagues the industry and constricts families’ choices. One of Denver’s most well-known child care providers, Clayton Early Learning, closed one of its two facilities last summer — a move observers said spotlights the high cost of quality child care.

But there were also bright spots in the funding landscape — some growing out of local efforts in Colorado’s rural towns and resort communities. A preschool in Holyoke found a way to give staff members generous raises and a growing number of cities and towns are getting new dollars for early childhood programs through sales or property taxes.

In Denver, several efforts — using a combination of public and private funds — aim to improve child care options in the city’s Elyria-Swansea neighborhood, which is designated a “child care desert.”

At the state level, officials promoted recently-created financial incentives for child care centers with top quality ratings, though some providers say earning those ratings is too much work.

Looking ahead to 2018, early childhood advocates hope to renew a tax credit that helps child care providers make ends meet. Plus, winners of a new early childhood innovation competition will get financial help to scale up their ideas.