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Key education bills raise hopes and uncertainties

Education legislation signed Thursday by Gov. Bill Ritter included bills that represent some of the highest policy hopes of the 2009 legislative session but that also illustrate the limitations Colorado faces.

As the governor noted, “Education reform is never easy or fast, but we are making great progress and are leading the nation with our reform agenda.”

Here’s a rundown and analysis of those major bills.
Education Accountability Act of 2009 (Senate Bill 09-163)

Snapshot: The measure creates a new accountability system for Colorado schools and merges the way schools are accredited and the public reporting of individual school and district performance.

What it does: Districts will be accredited at different levels, with improvement plans required and state assistance offered to districts at the lowest levels. Those levels will translate into how districts and schools are “ranked” in information available to the public. The philosophy behind the bill is an intention to offer more help to struggling schools, in contrast to what many have seen as the punitive tone of the CSAP-based system.

When it goes into effect: July 1.

When it will have an impact: The public will see a new way of reporting school performance in August when 2009 CSAP scores are rolled into the Department of Education’s online reporting system, which places greater emphasis on year-to-year academic growth of students, schools and districts than on one-year snapshots of CSAP scores. The full rollout of the new system, which eventually will include other performance measures in addition to test scores, will take two to three years.

How it’s funded: Some of program is being paid for with savings from reduction in the number of School Accountability Reports printed, but officials also hope to gain federal stimulus funds to help with implementation.

Takeaway: SB 09-163, along with 2008’s Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, marks the end of an accountability system that basically relied on schools’ CSAP scores for a given year. Over time new performance measures such as student and school improvement over time, dropout rates, student performance on pre-collegiate tests and other measures will determine a district’s accreditation – and what’s reported to the public.

The ultimate impact of SB 09-163 – and CAP4K – ultimately will be determined by how effectively it’s implemented, whether sufficient funding is available to effectively assist schools and whether there’s appropriate training and professional development in every school.

Educator Identifier System (Senate Bill 09-1065)

Snapshot: The bill is considered an important piece of education reform, but it will be at least a few years before its effectiveness can be gauged.

What is does: Authorizes the state Department of Education and the Teacher Quality Commission to create unique identifying numbers for teachers and principals.

Data about individual educators can be correlated with student and other data to study such issues as the teacher gap and possible solutions to it; teacher training and development; teacher mobility and retention; recognizing, rewarding, and developing the careers of teachers; identifying ways to improve teacher and student learning, including teacher placement based on skills and students’ needs, and helping teachers enhance instruction using performance and growth data.

The bill was passed after prolonged interest-group negotiations reached a compromise allowing extensive use of the data for research, protection of teachers from punitive use of the data and protection of existing school district systems that do allow use of such data for teacher evaluation.

When it goes into effect: CDE is supposed to have a pilot program for assigning numbers and using data in place for the 2009-10 school year in just five districts. Based on the experience in those districts, it will be up to the State Board of Education to decide when to take the program statewide. But, the bill includes a repeal date of July 1, 2012, which means the 2012 legislature will get a chance to review whatever’s in place, tinker with it and decide whether to continue it.

When it will have an impact: It likely will be two years or longer until such a program is up and running statewide and sufficient data has been gathered and analyzed to gauge its usefulness.

How it’s funded: It’s a sign of the state’s budget problems that such a seemingly major program was created with no state funding. The identifier is to be supported by “gifts, grants and donations.” In this case, CDE officials are counting on federal stimulus money and perhaps foundation grants to cover the estimated $1 million in 2009-10 costs and $331,538 in spending needed in 2010-11. Among other costs, the bill envisions $25,000 payments to each of the five school districts expected to participate in the first phase. If money isn’t raised, CDE isn’t required to implement the program.

Takeaway: Good data and lots of it are considered by many experts to be vital for effective school reform. Creation of this program could give Colorado an advantage in the competition for federal Race to the Top funds. But, it will take awhile for the program to have an impact.

Concurrent Enrollment Programs Act (House Bill 09-1319)

Snapshot: The program will offer dual high school and college enrollment to all Colorado high school students once their school districts make agreements with colleges. The bill also creates a way (named ASCENT) for fifth year high school students to participate, with certain special requirements.

What is does: Students will have to apply to and receive approval from their school district or charter to enroll in college classes. (There will be a standard application form statewide.) Districts are required to notify families annually of the program’s availability. Districts also need to approve students’ plans of study, and students can enroll only at colleges with which their district has a written agreement. (Individual colleges are not required to participate.)

When it goes into effect: The bill requires creation of an advisory board, which must be appointed by Oct. 1 and meet for the first time no later than Nov. 15. The SBE must issue rules for the program by July 1, 2010, and the first report on the program isn’t due to the legislature until Feb. 1, 2011.

When it will have an impact: Expect to see some activity in the 2010-11 school year, with more participation in 2011-12.

How it’s funded: Districts will pay college tuition for their students, based on community college tuition rates. Students are eligible for College Opportunity Fund stipends and college financial aid. School districts will be able to continue counting such students in their pupil base, and colleges also can include them in enrollment counts. Some $30,031 in CDE administration costs is expected to be covered by federal stimulus funds in the first year.

Takeaway: The policy goal here is to encourage more students to stay in high school and get a head start on college. For this bill to have a significant impact, it probably will depend on hard work by teachers and already-pressed counselors to recruit students and help them through the application process.

Dropout Prevention and Student Re-engagement (House Bill 09-1243)

Snapshot: The bill creates a two-person Office of Dropout Prevention and Student Re-engagement in CDE.

What is does: The office is assigned to review data on dropouts and student return to school, work with other agencies and organizations involved in the issue, identify districts that require special assistance, help school districts and administer a student re-engagement grant program. The office also is required to make annual reports.

When it goes into effect: The office is supposed to prepare a study on dropout prevention best practices by Dec. 31 and a report to the legislature by Feb. 1, 2010.

When it will have an impact: (See Takeaway below)

How it’s funded: This bill is another classic example of the Colorado education dilemma –trying to meet a perceived need without any money. Although the bill authorizes spending next year of $157,772, no state funding is provided. It’s intended that the money will be raised from “gifts, grants and donations” and the federal government. The program doesn’t have to be implemented if sufficient money isn’t raised.

Takeaway: Good idea, but only time will tell if enough resources can be mustered to have an impact. About 4-5 percent of Colorado high schoolers drop out each year.

Advisory Council for Parent Involvement in Education (Senate Bill 09-090)

Snapshot: Creates an Advisory Council for Parent Involvement in Education within CDE. The bill also specifies parent membership on a wide variety of state and local district volunteer committees. (The bill replaces school advisory committees with accountability committees.)

What is does: The council is assigned to advise school districts on best practices for improving parent involvement and administer a grant program. The hope is that changing the composition of various advisory committees will involve more parents directly in districts and schools.

When it goes into effect: The board is supposed to be appointed by Oct. 1 and meet no later than Nov. 15.

When it will have an impact: (See Takeaway below.)

How it’s funded: You guessed it – “gifts, grants and donations.” The program can’t start until at least $20,000 is raised.

Takeaway: The value of parent involvement is one of those received truths that almost everyone in education accepts. Whether this bill ultimately will affect nitty-gritty parent involvement like attending teacher conferences, making the kids do their homework or visiting classrooms is anybody’s guess – and probably impossible to measure.

Alternative Teacher Licensing (Senate Bill 09-160)

Snapshot: The bill aligns and standardizes the state’s two existing programs for alternative teacher preparation.

What is does: The State Board of Education is required to establish common content and coursework requirements for the teacher and residence (two-year) and alternative teacher (one-year) programs that currently are operated by school districts, BOCES, colleges and other agencies under state supervision. (The one- and two-year options will remain available, however.)

When it goes into effect: The bill goes into effect for the 2009-10 school year.

When it will have an impact: When the first teachers finish the revised programs.

How it’s funded: $5,500 for CDE administrative costs, taken from teacher licensing fees.

Takeaway: Teacher development is one of Colorado’s top education issues, so any improvement in the preparation process is welcome.
School Finance Act for 2009-10 (Senate Bill 09-256)

Snapshot: The annual school finance act is designed to pay for “extra” education programs not included in the base state support of schools. (That money is contained in the annual state budget bill.) The finance bill is very different year to year, depending on available funds, which political party is in power and the perceived needs of education at any given time.

What is does: The bill includes funding for a boarding school for at-risk students – if a Department of Education study decides it’s a workable idea and comes up with a plan – and creates more predictable (but not larger) funding for charter school facilities. It also provides a modest amount of at-risk incentive funding. A key feature “escrows” $110 million in state school aid until January, allowing the 2010 legislature to cut that amount if revenue conditions require.

When it goes into effect: July 1

When it will have an impact: School year 2009-10.

How it’s funded: Tax dollars from the State Education Fund.

Takeaway: The most interesting things about the bill are what’s not in it. The original Senate version shifted some types of funding to devote more money to at-risk schools, creating winners and losers among the state’s 178 school districts. That turned out to be a political non-starter. Ideas such as that and a lot more will undoubtedly be aired in the interim committee on school finance, due to begin working within the next couple of weeks.

DPS-PERA Pension Merger (Senate Bill 09-282)

Snapshot: Merges the Denver Public Schools Retirement System into the state Public Employees’ Retirement Association.

What is does: Puts DPS employees into a separate PERA unit and makes possible for teachers to move into or out of DPS without losing pension earnings. This culminates a years-long effort to bring Denver, the state’s only stand-alone district, into the state system.

When it goes into effect: Jan. 1, 2010

When it will have an impact: It probably will take a few years to assess the merger’s impact on teacher mobility.

How it’s funded: No new money is required. But, both pension systems face significant pressures, and PERA this fall is scheduleed to make recommendations to the legislature for future reforms, which could involve benefit reductions, contribution increases and other changes.

Takeaway: Almost everybody agrees this should have been done years ago, but that the overall future may not be bright for public employee pensions.

Healthy Choices Dropout Prevention Pilot Program (Senate Bill 09-123)

Snapshot: The bill creates a structure for operation of after-school programs designed to improve the academic achievement and health of at-risk middle school students.

What is does: Grants for the programs would be available to middle schools with specified at-risk profiles.

When it goes into effect: Once the SBE issues rules.

When it will have an impact: Hard to predict.

How it’s funded: Yes – gifts, grants and donations again.

Takeaway: Yet another example of starting a program with no money.