Down to business

Here’s a look at the first education bills to hit the floor in Colorado

DENVER, CO - January 10: The Pledge of Allegiance in the House of Representatives on opening day of the second session of the 71st General Assembly at the Colorado State Capitol. January 10, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post)

These are some of the education and child care-related bills that caught our eye on the first day of the Colorado General Assembly’s 2018 session.

Some make tweaks to existing laws and policies, some tackle long-standing deficiencies, and some are message bills doomed to die an early death. The bills are loosely organized based on a non-scientific assessment of how interesting they are. Bills with bipartisan support and support from legislative leadership are closer to the top.

HB18-1002 Rural School District Teaching Fellowship Programs

This bill from state Rep. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican, and state Rep. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat, would create a fellowship program with a $10,000 stipend to lure students in their last year of a teaching program to rural school districts. The state would pay half the cost for 100 teaching fellows each year, and districts and institutions of higher learning would also contribute. Fellows who were offered full-time employment and turned it down would have to pay back the money. To qualify, districts need to have a history of being unable to fill teaching positions, among other criteria. These lawmakers from rural districts, who both serve on the Joint Budget Committee, have a history of teaming up on education issues with mixed success.

SB18-011 Students Excused from Taking State Assessments

This bill with bipartisan sponsorship would prevent districts from issuing consequences to students whose parents excuse them from state assessments. State law already bars punishment for not taking the tests, but this bill defines what that means. Students couldn’t be barred from activities or prevented from receiving awards.

HB18-1070 Additional Public School Capital Construction Funding

This bill from state Rep. Cole Wist, a Centennial Republican, and Rep. Dave Young, a Greeley Democrat, would increase the amount of money available under the Building Excellent Schools Today Act through two mechanisms. It would increase the annual lease payments allowed for under lease-purchases agreements authorized by that bill, and it would dedicate more retail marijuana tax money to school construction.

HB18-1004 Continue Child Care Contribution Tax Credit

This bill with bipartisan sponsorship takes an existing tax credit for people who donate to child care providers and extends it for five years past its expiration in 2020. 

SB18-013 Expand Child Nutrition School Lunch Protection Act

This bill with bipartisan sponsorship would expand an existing state subsidy that lets kids who would otherwise pay for a reduced-price lunch get the lunch for free. The program currently covers children in preschool through fifth grade. This bill would provide between $500,000 and $750,000 a year to subsidize free lunches for kids in grades six through eight.

SB18-012 Military Enlistment School Performance Indicator

This bill from state Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, and state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, would make enlistment in the military within one year of high school graduation an indicator of school performance, with equal weight to enrollment in college. Hill and Pettersen chair the education committees in their respective chambers.

HB18-1005 Notice to Students of Postsecondary Courses

Current law already requires school districts and charter schools to tell parents and students about opportunities for concurrent enrollment in postsecondary courses. This bill from state Rep. Jon Becker, a Fort Morgan Republican, and state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, would require that notice to include information about the benefits of taking college or technical school classes while still in high school and timelines that could affect enrollment decisions.

SB18-008 Reward Access to Arts Education in Public Schools

This bill from state Sen. Michael Merrifield, a Colorado Springs Democrat, would add a performance indicator to reward schools for the degree to which they provide access to arts education, including dance, music, theater and visual arts. It has bipartisan sponsorship.

SB18-004 Funding for Full-Day Kindergarten

This bill with a single Democratic sponsor, state Sen. Andy Kerr, went straight to a kill committee, but it might not be the only effort this session to finally find the money for this long-standing deficiency. This bill would refer a measure to the voters asking them to authorize spending above the cap imposed by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. Previous efforts to get taxpayers to pay more statewide have not been successful.

HB18-1019 Kindergarten Through 12th Grade Accreditation Weighted Factors

This bill from state Rep. Mike Foote, a Lafayette Democrat, would require the state board of education to create a weighted accreditation system that gives more credit for graduation rates to high schools with more rigorous curriculum.

HB18-1037 Concealed Handguns on School Grounds

This Republican-sponsored bill would allow concealed-carry permit holders to bring their firearms on school grounds. It went straight to a kill committee in the Democratic-controlled House.

HB18-1014 Social Studies Assessment in High Schools

This bill from state Rep. Perry Buck, a Windsor Republican, would get rid of the requirement to do a social studies assessment for high school students.


Still walking

Colorado teachers plan more walkouts, and Jeffco canceled classes one day next week

Colorado teachers march around the state Capitol Monday, April 16, to call for more school funding and to protect their retirement benefits. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Teachers from Colorado’s two largest school districts are planning back-to-back walkouts next week to call for more funding for education – and they could be joined by other districts.

Jeffco Public Schools canceled classes for April 26, next Thursday, after many teachers there said they plan to go to the Capitol, while the union representing Denver classroom teachers said they plan to walk out midday April 27, next Friday, to rally at the Capitol early in the afternoon.

In a press release, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association said Denver teachers would be leading a statewide walkout. Corey Kern, the union’s deputy executive director, said he’s not sure yet how many other districts will be represented.

The announcements come after hundreds of teachers marched at the Capitol during a day of action Monday to protect their retirement benefits and call for more school funding. Enough teachers left the suburban Englewood district that classes were canceled there.

Colorado consistently ranks in the bottom tier for school funding and teacher pay, though there is considerable variation around the state. A recent study ranked Colorado last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries, and nearly half the state’s districts are now on four-day weeks. The 2018-19 budget takes a big step toward restoring money cut during the Great Recession, but the state is still holding back $672 million from what it would have spent on K-12 education if it complied with constitutional requirements to increase per-pupil spending at least by inflation each year.

The wave of teacher activism reflects a national movement that has seen strikes, walkouts, and marches in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky. Unlike other states, lawmakers here can’t raise taxes to send more money to schools or approve teacher raises on their own. Voters would need to approve more money, and local school boards would need to increase salaries.

Teachers interviewed at Monday’s march said they recognize the fiscal constraints in Colorado, but they’re also inspired by the actions of their colleagues in more conservative states.

Many teachers also said they fear that reductions in retirement benefits could lead to an exodus of younger teachers, further squeezing a profession that struggles to recruit new workers and suffers from high turnover.

A House committee made changes to a pension overhaul this week that removed the provisions teachers found most objectionable, like raising the retirement age and making teachers pay more out of their paychecks, but the final form of the bill still needs to be hashed out between Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate.

Jason Glass, superintendent of the 85,000-student Jefferson County district, sent an email to parents Tuesday that said classes would be canceled next week due to a “labor shortage.” Teachers who miss school are required to use their allowed leave time.

Glass called the level of education funding in Colorado “problematic.”

“Public education staff, parents, and other supporters have become increasingly vocal in their advocacy for increased funding for our K-12 public schools and the stabilization” of the state pension plan, he wrote. “There is a belief among these groups that years of low funding is having a significant impact on our ability to attract quality candidates into the teaching profession, and is impeding the ability to effectively deliver the high level of educational experience our students deserve.”

Glass apologized for the “inconvenience” to families and reminded parents that April 26 is also “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day.”

Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district with 92,000 students, announced late Tuesday that there would be early dismissal April 27, with more details to come.

“Officials across the country and specifically lawmakers in the statehouse must finally recognize that a quality education cannot be provided on the cheap.” Denver union president Henry Roman said in a press release about the walkout. “If we want Colorado’s current economic prosperity to continue, we need to realize the importance of strong schools.”

Advocates are trying to place a $1.6 billion tax increase for education on the November ballot. Voters have twice rejected similar measures in recent years.


With school finance act, Colorado lawmakers try to pass the hot potato of teacher pay to local districts

State Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat, calls for more money for education during a rally with teachers and fellow Democratic members of the House Education Committee at the Capitol Monday, April 16. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

A school finance act that puts more money into K-12 education than Colorado has spent at any point since the Great Recession passed a key House committee Monday with easy bipartisan support.

Democratic lawmakers on the House Education Committee urged local school boards to turn this money into teacher raises – and Colorado voters to provide even more funds next year.

The hearing on the school finance act occurred as hundreds of teachers descended on the Capitol as part of a day of action to ask for more school funding and protections for retirement benefits. Before the hearing started, Democratic committee members met with teachers in the foyer of the Capitol and joined them in chants of “not enough” and “no more B.S.,” a reference to the state’s budget stabilization or “negative” factor. That’s the difference between what Colorado spends on schools and what it’s constitutionally required to allocate, based on inflation and numbers of students.

A group of education advocates hopes to place a $1.6 billion tax increase for schools on the November ballot. Colorado voters have twice before rejected tax increases for education, most recently in 2013.

“We need to support our teachers, and we need to support our schools, and we need you to ensure not only that we pass the bills that we are bringing this session, but that we unite this November to ensure our kids are put first in Colorado,” said state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, the Lakewood Democrat who chairs the House Education Committee.

The school finance act, which provides more detail on the education funding already set aside in the 2018-19 budget, calls for a little more than $7 billion in total program spending in 2018-19, a 6.95 percent increase from this year. The state portion is $4.5 billion, a 10 percent increase from this year; local districts would provide $2.5 billion, a 1.4 percent increase.

In addition to mandated budget increases, the bill adds $150 million more for education. That leaves the negative factor at $672 million, the smallest it has been since this budget maneuver was created during the Great Recession.

Average per-pupil spending for 2018-19 will be around $8,137, a $475 increase from this year.

During the hearing, state Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat, asked Matt Cook of the Colorado Association of School Boards why teacher raises seem to come last when districts get more money, and state Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, asked if the legislature needs to have more oversight of how districts spend state money. Colorado does not have a statewide teacher salary schedule, and districts have a lot of discretion on how they set their budgets.

“The people on the ground are hurting,” Garnett said. “They can’t meet their basic needs. And I want to help them, but it’s really your members who hold the key to their solution.”

Colorado consistently ranks in the bottom tier for school spending and teacher pay, and a recent study ranked Colorado last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries.

Cook said school boards are acutely aware of how low pay hurts their ability to hire and keep teachers. The availability of more money from the state will be a factor in union negotiations currently underway in districts around the state, he said.

But districts have to balance teacher pay with a wide range of needs, including services for students learning English and students with disabilities that are not funded by the state at their full cost, he said.

“We recognize that a qualified, highly motivated teacher in the classroom is a major part of a child’s education,” Cook said. “We’re doing the best we can. Nobody wants to not pay teachers.”

School district representatives told the committee that a promising state budget forecast is already turning into more services for students. An official from the Adams 12 Five Star district said the district had increased interventions for students with dyslexia in anticipation of more state money, and a superintendent from the rural Hanover district said $30 million in extra funding for rural schools – first allocated last year and now extended for a second year – allowed him to hire a second science teacher and a school counselor.

State Rep. Jim Wilson, the Republican co-sponsor of the school finance act and a former district superintendent, said he could just as easily ask lawmakers why the entire $1.3 billion budget surplus isn’t going to schools.

“I won’t ask you to answer that because you already know the answer,” he said. “That’s the same situation that a school district finds itself in.”

The school finance act also:

  • Sends an extra $30 million to rural schools,
  • Creates 1,000 new spots for children with certain risk factors in publicly funded preschool and kindergarten,
  • Allocates money for English language learners based on the actual number of students at various levels of need, rather than dividing it based on a formula,
  • Calls for any general fund surplus at the end of this budget year to go into education next year,
  • Requires that the negative factor for 2019-20 not be any larger than it is in 2018-19.

The school finance act still needs to pass the full House before it goes to the Republican-controlled Senate.