Constitutional Matters

Hickenlooper: We need voters’ help to fully fund schools

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Gov. John Hickenlooper delivers the Colorado State of the State address in January 2018.

In his final State of the State address, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper called for more money for education but said it would take voters’ help to do that.

In an interview after the speech, Hickenlooper said he wasn’t calling for a ballot measure with a new tax for schools so much as he was pointing out Colorado violates its own constitution every year.

Even with increased funding for schools in recent budgets and the governor’s 2018-19 budget proposal, “we remain roughly three quarters of a billion dollars behind the funding Colorado voters placed in our constitution nearly two decades ago,” he said in his speech. “We need to be honest with ourselves and with our voters. This number isn’t going down much without their help.”

The Democratic governor was referring to Amendment 23, a constitutional amendment passed in 2000 that requires education spending to increase by population and inflation (it was inflation plus 1 percent from 2001 through 2011). However, the legislature has not funded education at that level since the Great Recession. The shortfall is known as the “negative factor” or more recently the “budget stabilization factor.”

Hickenlooper said in the interview afterward he and his staff “busted our necks” to get the shortfall down below $1 billion, but it’s still more than $700 million.

“That’s a big number,” he said. “We’re $770 million a year lower than what the voters told us to we should do. Were they just ignorant?”

Colorado voters have turned down several requests to raise taxes to put more money into K-12 education.

“I wasn’t specifically saying we have to go to the voters per se, but I thought it was worth noticing,” Hickenlooper said.

In this context, constitutional compliance could also look like voter authorization to spend less on schools.

“Maybe the solution is to go to the voters and ask them to reduce Amendment 23 to something more manageable,” Hickenlooper said. “Maybe it’s to have a transportation plan that also accommodates increased spending in education. I’m not sure what that looks like.”

“Maybe at some point – I don’t think it will be this year – we put an initiative on the ballot that says we want to take excess revenues every year and commit them to Amendment 23.”

Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights imposes a cap on how much revenue the state can collect each year, but with voter permission, the state could keep additional money and put it toward education.

That’s what’s proposed in a bill from state Sen. Andy Kerr, a Lakewood Democrat, that Republicans sent straight to a kill committee Wednesday.

Hickenlooper included a plan for funding K-12 education among his top priorities for the next year, and he linked it to plans to fund transportation and the state’s water plan. Those priorities, which he called a “common sense agenda,” are:

  • Solving the unfunded liability in the state pension system, which many public school employees participate in;
  • Passing legislation to cap orphan oil and gas wells;
  • Halting the opioid epidemic;
  • Enacting funding plans for K-12 education, infrastructure and the state water plan;
  • Passing legislation and authorizing money for a full buildout of rural broadband;
  • Addressing the negative impact of the Gallagher Amendment on rural communities.

Here’s what Hickenlooper had to say about K-12 education funding in his speech:

Today, in almost every part of Colorado, zip code still determines your educational outcome, and that determines your economic outcome. This needs to change.

We re-convened the Education Leadership Council, with your help, to build a long-term vision and path forward. It’s nonpartisan and comprehensive, with a focus on the building blocks of a child’s success from early childhood to workforce and beyond.

We’re pumping an additional $100 million above enrollment and inflation into our schools this year, and adding $10 million to address teacher shortages in rural areas.

We also proposed repeating this year’s $30 million to rural schools next year.

Even with these increases, we remain roughly three-quarters of a billion dollars behind the funding Colorado voters placed in our constitution nearly two decades ago.

We need to be honest with ourselves and with our voters. This number isn’t going down much without their help. And if we are being really blunt, it hurts rural Colorado more than the Front Range.

Hickenlooper also called for additional focus on being prepared for work and highlighted his apprenticeship programs.

We need to transition from a degree-based education system to one that also includes skill-based training.

Experts tell us almost 60 percent of our kids in America today will not get a 4-year degree, and that number is true in Colorado as well.

Careers and professions by the dozens will be swept away in the coming decades by automation and artificial intelligence.

But new industries will emerge at an equally frantic rate. We will need not just engineers but huge numbers of technicians and analysts with new sets of skills. We need to get more kids learning skills that matter. We need to do it yesterday.

That’s why we’re working with the state board of education to expose more students to coding in middle and high school years. Why not give those schools with a foreign language requirement the choice to offer coding as an alternative language?

But let’s not fall into the trap of instituting a bunch of coding classes and thinking we’ve solved the problem. We need flexible solutions that can adapt to what employers need tomorrow, not just what they need today.

This means training and apprenticeships.

Working closely with business and education leaders, in a public-private partnership, Colorado is igniting an apprenticeship renaissance with Careerwise, and it’s a model being copied around the country.

You can read his full speech here.

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”