The Colorado House this morning gave 49-16 final approval to the “breakfast after the bell” bill.

Fourth-graders at Alsup Elementary in Commerce City have breakfast in the classroom.
Fourth-graders at Alsup Elementary in Commerce City have breakfast in the classroom.

There was no discussion before the final vote, but members were mostly supportive during preliminary debate Wednesday on the bill, which has been nipped and tucked a bit to assuage concerns about its impact.

The measure, House Bill 13-1006, is intended to provide universal free breakfast at high-poverty schools in an effort to ensure hunger doesn’t detract from student learning. It’s sponsored by freshman Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, and is being pushed by Hunger Free Colorado and a coalition of other advocacy groups.

“I love this bill,” Moreno told fellow House members. “The breakfast after the bell model is proven to have an incredible success rates.”

Many schools offer breakfast before school starts, but HB 13-1006 supporters say participation rates are low. They cite Commerce City and Pueblo City schools where participation is much higher when breakfast is served after school starts.

The bill also requires that participating schools serve breakfast to all students, not just those eligible for free- or reduced-price meals. The rationale behind that is to remove the embarrassment some students feel about being labeled as poor if they eat breakfast.

Of course almost nobody’s against breakfast for school kids, but that didn’t mean some school districts, especially smaller ones, didn’t have questions. The cost of the program is intended to be covered by federal funds, but some districts were concerned the original form of the bill might have forced districts to bear some costs on their own because of technicalities in federal regulations. Smaller districts were worried that the bill might be too great a burden.

The bill has been amended in two House committees and on the floor to ease those concerns.

Here are the key changes:

• In its first year, 2014-15, the bill will apply only to schools with 80 percent or more of students eligible for free- and reduced-price meals. This was added to deal with the concern about extra costs. The percentage drops to 70 percent in 2015-16.

• Districts with fewer than 1,000 students (just over 100) wouldn’t have to participate. (The original draft of the bill exempted schools and charters that didn’t participate in the federal nutrition program.)

• There’s flexibility for schools that already have formal before-school programs and also serve breakfast and for districts where 90 percent or more of students ride the bus. (They can serve breakfast on the bus.)

The bill also has provisions allowing schools to drop out if their enrollment dips below the 70 percent threshold or if federal funding is eliminated. It’s estimated that participating schools will gain an additional $28 million in federal money by using the program.

Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City / File photo
Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City / File photo

There also have been concerns that serving breakfast after school starts would cut into instructional time. But Rep. Clarice Navarro-Ratzlaff, R-Pueblo, said Wednesday the experience in her city’s schools has shown breakfast can be served in 10 minutes, while teachers are taking attendance, collecting homework and doing other start-of-the-day tasks.

There were a few discouraging words on the House floor. Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, said, “Shouldn’t it be the parents’ responsibility to feed the kids?”

Minority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, agreed with that but said he was supporting the bill because “It’s about making sure students are prepared to learn.”

Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, said he too would support the bill but asked sponsors to monitor its effects.

“Test scores should rise significantly,” said Wilson, a retired superintendent who described himself as “a conservative Republican educator – which is an oxymoron.”

Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, proposed an amendment that would have required the breakfasts include meat or meat substitutes, but that was defeated.

Not everybody’s happy with the amended bill.

Moreno went to the State Board of Education Tuesday to brief members on the proposal, including the amendments he planned to add on the House floor.

Member Marcia Neal, who represents the Western Slope, told Moreno, “A lot of superintendents in western Colorado are opposed because it dictates the way they do breakfast. … They feel very strongly that they are being dictated to in a way that indicates distrust.”

Moreno replied, “That’s definitely not the intent at all.”

Early childhood consolidation bill moves

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee gave 6-1 approval to House Bill 13-1117, which would consolidate a variety of early childhood programs and offices around state government into the state Department of Human Services.

Passing the bill is a goal of the Hickenlooper administration as part of its initiative to improve early childhood services.

A long list of witnesses supported the bill, and the only discouraging words came from Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, who complained about government intrusion.

“It’s a fundamental question of the role of government, the role of the family,” Lundberg said. “I don’t think the government should assume larger roles of responsibility for families.”

Similar Republican concerns killed a 2012 version of the bill in a House committee. On Wednesday, Lundberg was the only ‘no’ vote in the Senate panel, with two other Republicans supporting the bill.

School resource officer bill clears Senate

The full Senate gave 34-0 final approval to Senate Bill 13-138, which would require better integration of school resource officers into the school safety planning efforts, give the state School Safety Resource Center $57,815 for a staff member to help districts find school safety grants and add a school resource officer (SRO) to the center’s advisory board.

The bill is the only measure directly involving school security still alive in the 2013 session.