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Critics pan arts education mandate

Senate Ed’s big day
Outdoor ed grants
Bicycle helmets

The Senate Education Committee Thursday cut Rep. Mike Merrifield’s big legislative finale down to a word of encouragement and a few lines of advice to the State Board of Education.

But, faced with big choruses of witnesses on both sides of the issue, dealing with House Bill 10-1273 took the committee two hours, about as long as a high school production of “Our Town.”

And, that debate was only one part of a five-act committee meeting that stretched out for 5 ½ hours, longer than some Wagner operas.

Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, listened to Senate Education Committee debate on his arts education bill on April 1, 2010.

Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, listened to Senate Education Committee debate on his arts education bill on April 1, 2010.

Oliver Morrison

Merrifield, a retired music teacher, is chair of the House Education Committee and is serving his last term. He’s long been a critic of the shrinking amounts of time and money schools are able to devote to the arts and other parts of a well-rounded curriculum.

As Merrifield originally unveiled the bill, which he titled “Concerning Improved Workforce Development Through Increased Participation In Arts Education In Public Schools,” it would have required all schools to offer arts and made demonstrated proficiency in visual and performing arts a condition of high school graduation.

Merrifield’s misfortune was to introduce the bill in a year when state revenues were plummeting and legislators had no choice but to cut basic school aid.

So, school board interests, always touchy about what they see as infringements on local control, have been on heightened alert for any bill that might impose additional costs on districts.

Merrifield trimmed his sails even before the bill left the House, changing the proficiency requirement to mere completion of an arts class, and defining class as broadly as possible.

That wasn’t enough for the Colorado Association of School Boards, which helped craft an amendment that said schools districts are “strongly encouraged” to provide arts courses. In the original bill the verb was “shall.” The new language also directs the State Board of Education to recognize the importance of the arts in development of future graduation guidelines.

The amendment ultimately was approved by the committee, but not until after CASB lobbyist Jane Urschel said, “We think this bill is bad policy” and then detailed everything she saw that was wrong with the bill without the amendment.

“Jane, Jane, Jane,” responded Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, who’s carrying the bill in the Senate. “I don’t mean to be confrontational, but I think your testimony was more antagonistic than I expected. We’ve already said uncle.” (A few moments earlier, Spence and cosponsor Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, had made it clear they’d accept the amendment.)

“I didn’t mean to offend anyone, but many of my members were offended by the bill,” Urschel responded.

There were many more witnesses who spoke before the amended bill passed 7-1.

Merrifield sat through the hearing, something that sponsors don’t often do when their bills are being considered in the other House. Spence said Merrifield “reluctantly” supported the amendment.

Get those kids outdoors

The committee voted 5-3 to pass House Bill 10-1131, which is being championed by Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien. She made a brief appearance at the witness table to say, “We hope kids will get real involvement in the Colorado experience. It’s also good for Colorado economic development.”

The bill would set up a grant program – dependent on private donations and still-in-the-future federal grants – that would award money to programs that involve kids in outdoor activities and environmental education programs.

Sponsor Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne, had lined up a big cast of witnesses to support the bill, ranging from economic development executive Tom Clark to a ski resort spokesman and lots of outdoor education and recreation types.

As was the case in the House Education Committee, Republican senators were unhappy with the bill’s reliance on federal cash and seemed suspicious about the agenda of environmental education programs.

The bill passed on a 5-3 party-line vote.

Get helmets on those kids

The committee also split 5-3 to pass House Bill 10-1147, which would require kids aged 2 to 18 to wear helmets when using non-motorized vehicles – tricycles, bikes, skates, scooters, skateboards and the like – on public streets.

The bill proposes no penalties for kids or parents; it’s meant to be an encouragement for wearing helmets and a way to educate the public. Other provisions of the bill require the Department of Education and other state agencies to help provide safety education materials to schools.

The witness list was shorter for this bill, with testimony highlighted with accident statistics and the effects of crash injuries on children.

This bill wasn’t an education issue in the House, where the transportation committee handled the measure. The only Senate sponsor right now is Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, and he’s chair of Senate Ed.

The committee Thursday also approved nominations of some college trustees and discussed but took no action on a charter schools bill.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.