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.

leading the state

Three things we heard at a gubernatorial candidates forum on early childhood

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat
Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate for Colorado governor, and Lang Sias, the Republican lieutenant governor candidate, spoke at forum on early childhood issues.

Stark differences in how Colorado’s two would-be governors plan to tackle early childhood issues were clear at a candidate forum Monday evening.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, the Democratic nominee, envisions free full-day preschool and kindergarten for all Colorado children — a sweeping and pricey expansion of what’s currently available.

Republican lieutenant governor candidate Lang Sias, who stood in for gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton, said Republicans would focus public funds on narrower programs that benefit the poorest children.

Currently, Colorado funds early childhood programs for some of its young children. The state provides half-day preschool to 4-year-olds with certain risk factors, but the program covers only some of those who qualify. In addition, the state reimburses districts for just over half the cost of full-day kindergarten, leaving districts to pay for the rest or pass on the cost to families through tuition. Last spring, lawmakers expanded the state income tax credit for child care costs, but most families still need to come up with hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month.

Monday’s event at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science represented a rare opportunity to hear candidates address early childhood issues, which are often overshadowed on the campaign trail by topics such as housing, roads and health care. While the forum highlighted some of the big early childhood ideas championed by each campaign, it also left plenty of unanswered questions.

Stapleton, Colorado’s state treasurer, was originally slated to speak at the forum, but backed out citing family obligations. Sias, a state representative from Arvada and a member of the House Education Committee, spoke in his place.

Polis and Sias didn’t debate each other at Monday’s forum, or otherwise interact. Polis went first, giving a short statement about his early childhood platform then answering several questions posed by moderator Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign. Sias followed suit.

The event was sponsored by Constellation Philanthropy, a group of funders focused on early childhood issues. (Constellation is a Chalkbeat funder.)

Here are three things we learned from the forum:

The candidates have different ideas about which young children need help and how to provide it

In discussing his plans to create universal full-day preschool and kindergarten, Polis talked about using a public-private financing mechanism that’s sometimes called “social impact bonds.”

In this kind of financing — also called “pay for success” — private investors or philanthropists pay up front for social programs and get repaid with interest if those programs save public money by reducing the need for costly services such as special education or reading remediation. If a project doesn’t yield the hoped-for savings, the investors lose some or all of their money.

Polis said if he wins in November, he’ll immediately “work out how to partner with philanthropy to create more early childhood education for all income levels.”

Currently a version of social impact bonds is being used to pay for full-day preschool for some students in the Westminster school district north of Denver, a fact Polis mentioned Monday. Still, the financing mechanism is relatively untested in Colorado’s education sphere and it’s unclear how it might be scaled to pay for something as ambitious as statewide full-day preschool and kindergarten.

When talking about the Republican ticket’s early-education priorities, Sias described early childhood education as “incredibly important” but “very inequitably distributed.”

“We want to focus our public spending on those who are least able to afford it on their own,” he said.

He cited a proposal for education savings accounts that allow families to set aside money tax-free for educational expenses, including early childhood education.

“We realize that is more focused on middle-class and above families,” he said, “but by targeting that money using that program, we feel we will have more available to target the folks at the bottom of the spectrum who really cannot avail themselves of that opportunity.”

Education savings accounts don’t typically work for low-income parents because they have no extra money to set aside for future expenses.

The candidates would take different approaches to strengthening the early childhood workforce

In a field marked by low pay and tough working conditions, recruiting and retaining qualified teachers is a chronic problem. The candidates had ideas about how to bulk up the workforce.

Sias advocated for a residency program to help turn out new early childhood teachers, similar to what he’s previously proposed to help address the K-12 teacher shortage. He said such programs are data-driven, helping retain teachers for longer periods and improving student results.

He also floated the idea of recruiting midlife career-changers to early childhood work — “folks north of 50” — and hinted that they would work in the low-paid field.

“Is that an opportunity to tap into … folks who would like to fill those spots who maybe don’t have the same set of issues that millennials do in terms of how long they want to stay and how long they need to be committed, and frankly how much they need to be paid?”

While some middle-aged people do enter the field, mediocre pay, a maze of state regulations, and the growing push to boost providers’ education levels could make it a tough sell.

Polis talked about creating partnerships with colleges to beef up the credentials of people who currently work in the early childhood field.

He said it’s important to “bridge the skills gap” for those whose hearts are already in the work. He didn’t address how he could dramatically expand preschool and kindergarten simply by focusing on the existing workforce, where turnover can be as high as 40 percent annually.

Neither candidate talked about how he would boost compensation for early childhood workers, whose median pay in Colorado is $12.32 an hour, Jaeger said.

Both candidates agree that Colorado can do much better by its youngest residents

When asked how Colorado is doing overall in supporting young children and their families, both candidates agreed that the state has a long way to go.

Sias emphasized that low-income children continue to be left out. Polis talked about the lack of uniform access to full-day kindergarten.

Both candidates expressed interest in working with bipartisan coalitions on solutions.

“There’s so many people in our state who want to do right by their kids,” said Polis. “It’s really going to take folks from across the spectrum coming together.”

Sias, who argued for a combination of business-minded acumen and public money for early childhood, asked the audience to partner with lawmakers in finding what programs work.

He said he and Stapleton are “more than willing to work across the aisle with folks that we like and respect, and have knowledge in this area.”

Threes please

As 4-year-old preschool programs become the norm, Denver looks to reach 3-year-olds next

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat

The Denver Preschool Program, most well-known for providing millions of dollars to help the families of 4-year-olds pay for preschool, is expanding its scope.

Starting this month, the nonprofit will put a share of its funding from a citywide sales tax toward improving preschool classrooms for 3-year-olds — something it has long done in 4-year-old classrooms. Those improvements could take the form of teacher training or coaching, teacher scholarships for educational programs, or new blocks and playground equipment.

The $700,000 initiative pales in comparison to the $15 million that the Denver Preschool Program will spend on tuition assistance for the city’s 4-year-olds this year. Still, it’s another sign of growing recognition that investments in younger children help amplify the benefits of widespread and politically popular 4-year-old prekindergarten programs.

The push to serve more 3-year-olds can be seen around the state and nation. Colorado’s two largest school districts — Denver and Jeffco — both plan to add new preschool seats for 3-year-olds if tax measures for education pass in November.

Last year, New York City school leaders began phasing in free universal preschool for the city’s 3-year-olds, an expansion of the city’s ambitious Pre-K for All program, which served about 70,000 4-year-olds in 2017-18. In 2008, Washington, D.C., passed a major preschool overhaul law, which helped make it one of the few places in the country where a large majority of 3-year-olds attend free preschool.

Jennifer Landrum, president and CEO of the Denver Preschool Program, said when city voters first passed a sales tax in 2006 to fund the program, the ballot language specifically earmarked the proceeds for 4-year-olds. But in 2014, when voters approved a 10-year extension of the sales tax, they also OK’d language that allowed spending on 3-year-olds.

The expanded age range fit with the shifting national policy conversation at the time, which increasingly emphasized the importance of starting with children younger than 4, said Landrum.

Research shows that early childhood programs can produce huge long-term gains for children, particularly those from low-income families. But there’s a caveat: The programs must be high-quality.

That’s part of the reason the Denver Preschool Program will focus its new 3-year-old funding on boosting quality.

“It’s such a logical next step when you can see the gains 4-year-olds can make in that one year of high-quality preschool,” said Landrum. “It just makes sense.”

The improvement efforts will focus on the preschool classrooms of about 3,400 Denver 3-year-olds.

Unlike the city’s 4-year-olds, those 3-year-olds will not get tuition help from the Denver Preschool Program. There’s not enough money for that, said Landrum.

In Colorado, a fraction of 3-year-olds attend publicly funded preschool through Head Start or the Colorado Preschool Program, a statewide program that pays for preschool for young children with certain risk factors. Some 3-year-olds also qualify for free preschool because they have disabilities.

Denver district officials say they hope to add 500 new preschool seats for 3-year-olds if the statewide ballot measure, Amendment 73, passes in November. Right now, there are long waitlists for that age group.

In Jeffco, which serves 3- and 4-year-olds together in the same classrooms, expansion plans also hinge on the outcome of November’s election. A proposed district bond measure would help renovate 70 classrooms for the preschool set, for a total of about 1,100 additional seats. Currently, the district serves about 3,500 preschoolers — about half of them 3-year olds.

And if Amendment 73 or the district’s mill levy override  — or both — pass, district officials say it would allow them to convert more half-day preschool slots to full-day slots, hike teacher pay, and improve the qualifications of early childhood staff.