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Accountability bill heads to governor

“It’s kind of gone through quietly, but in the education world it’s making a big noise” was how Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, described Senate Bill 09-163 after the Senate accepted House amendments and just before it was repassed 28-5.

The bill, known as the Education Accountability Act of 2009, makes substantial changes in the ways that student, school and district performance are measured and reported, in how underperforming schools are improved and will expand what information is available about school performance.

It will merge the current separate accountability systems of accreditation, CSAP scores and federal requirements into a single system that will evaluate schools based on academic improvement over time and other indicators and create a system of improvement and assistance steps for schools at the lower end of the scale.

Many consider it 2009’s most important education measure, and it was the top legislative priority of the Colorado Department of Education.

The original bill envisioned elimination of the annual printed School Accountability Reports and posting of school information online. The House approved an amendment that provides highly detailed requirements for the kinds of information that will be provided to parents and the public. Hudak said she wasn’t enthusiastic about that amendment, but that it was time for the bill to move.

Senators weren’t so agreeable to House amendments on Senate Bill 09-226, which would require school districts to set policies for handling students with food allergies. At the request of sponsor Sen. Paula Sandoval, D-Denver, the Senate rejected House changes and called for a conference committee. With only next Monday and Tuesday left in the legislative session, the bill now faces a tight deadline.

Another measure still in play as the clock ticks is Senate Bill 09-295, which is designed to give state colleges and universities greater flexibility in construction projects, financial management and enrollment of foreign students. (Original provisions giving colleges wide control over their own tuition rates and financial aid were politically untenable this year and were stripped in the Senate.)

The House Education Committee voted 13-0 Friday afternoon to advance the bill. But, amendment language is still being drafted on the financial management and foreign student sections, so there will be a lot of work to do on preliminary floor consideration. The House Finance Committee approved Senate Bill 09-290, a related measure that includes only the provisions related to college construction projects.

In other Senate action

Senators spent a fair amount of time wrangling over Senate Joint Resolution 09-044, which proposes a between-sessions legislative committee to study the state’s “long-term fiscal stability.”

To oversimplify the arguments, minority Republicans fear Democrats will use the study as a forum to plot the repeal of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights and raise taxes. There was lengthy debate over committee membership, but the resolution received preliminary approval.

The Senate also reconsidered and repassed House Joint Resolution 09-1020, which authorizes an interim study of Colorado’s school finance system. The measure was reconsidered so Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, could add several more “whereas” clauses relating to the specific issues the panel can study.

The Senate did give final approval to three education bills:

  • House Bill 09-1267, which conforms state law on religious colleges to a recent federal court decision (32-1)
  • House Bill 09-1039, which makes veterans eligible for in-state tuition, even if they haven’t lived in Colorado long enough, and allows colleges to voluntarily give the same benefit to dependents (33-0)
  • House Bill 09-1290, which increases the amount of scholarship money available for National Guard members (33-0)

The Senate Local Government Committee postponed indefinitely House Bill 09-1362, the bill that would have allowed community and four-year colleges to partner with local governments to ask voters for property and sales taxes to support colleges.

In other House action

The House gave preliminary approval to Senate Bill 09-291, the measure that would reduce state matching money to school districts that lower their property taxes. This ignited a hot late-night debate in the Senate earlier this week. There was a brisk but mercifully short House debate before the bill received preliminary approval.

Representatives also gave a preliminary OK to Senate Bill 09-285, which would include career and technical education in the larger dual high school/college enrollment plan that’s moving in another bill.

Long bill ends long journey

Gov. Bill Ritter Friday afternoon signed Senate Bill 09-259, the state budget for fiscal year 2009-10, which starts July 1.

The budget, and many pieces of accompanying legislation, patched together fund transfers, program cuts, fee increases and accounting tricks to deal with a $1 billion shortfall in state revenues.

The next full state revenue forecasts are due in late June, and many observers fear those numbers will be bad, raising the need for a summer special session so the legislature to cut the budget some more.