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New bills started flowing again Wednesday in the legislature, including 10 education-related measures, four of which are of major interest.

Those measures would allow local governments and school boards to change employee pension contributions, create a new performance-based funding system for state colleges and universities, require physical activity for elementary school students and make education management organizations subject to state regulation.

Wednesday also marked the first convening of the House and Senate education committees, which held a joint hearing for a briefing on the state’s higher ed system from Joe Garcia, who is both lieutenant governor and the nominee to head the Department of Higher Education.

Here’s the rundown on the key education measures:

Senate Bill 11-074 – PERA contributions

The bill would allow school boards to lower the percentage of payroll they contribute to employee pensions – and raise the amount from their paychecks that employees have to contribute. Under current state law, local government employers contribute 10.15 percent of payroll while workers pay 8 percent of salary. The bill would allow employers to lower their contribution by up to 2.5 percent and raise the employee contribution by a like amount.

The state has done a similar thing with its workers, including many in higher education, and may extend the shift for another year. The measure is sponsored by Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, and Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Lakewood, who are among a group of conservative Republicans skeptical of the PERA reforms, Senate Bill 0-001, passed last year. Whether the bill will get anywhere in the Democratic controlled Senate is an open question. But the idea might be attractive to some school boards and local governments.

But, shifting employer and employee contributions isn’t necessarily neutral for PERA. Because employees who leave the system are allowed to withdraw their past contributions, higher contributions mean a larger payout for departing workers and less money in PERA trust funds. Employer contributions stay with the system, regardless of whether employees leave.

Senate Bill 11-052 – Higher education goals and accountability

This might be the “big” higher ed bill of the 2011 session and, like several education reform bills of recent years, it would have a long implementation horizon. It would set broad state goals for education – increased access affordability and productivity; reduction of ethnic gaps in college completion; affordability; and increased contribution of higher education to economic development. It would then assign the Colorado Commission on Higher Education to set more detailed goals for the higher ed system’s various levels – research universities, four-year colleges and community colleges – and to review the roles of all state colleges.

Ultimately, starting the 2012-13 school year, performance on those goals would be tied to part of institutions’ funding from the state. According to the bill summary, “over the following five years, an increasing portion, eventually 25 percent, of the state funding for the statewide system of higher education will be allocated to governing boards based on their respective institutions’ success in meeting expectations.”

The idea of tying college funding to performance – retention, graduation rates and more – is being widely discussed nationally. It also was suggested as a future direction for Colorado in the higher education strategic plan. But – and this was the subject of much discussion – drafters of the plan agreed that performance funding won’t work until state support of higher ed increases. Overall, the state system now gets only about a quarter of its revenue from tax revenues, and that contribution keeps going down.

The proposal should provide interesting discussion, and some college leaders won’t be happy with the increased power it gives to CCHE. The bill does have influential bipartisan sponsors: House Education Chair Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs; Senate Ed Chair Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins plus Senate Ed members Rollie Health, D-Boulder, and Keith King, R-Colorado Springs. Joint Budget Committee member Rep. Mark Ferandino, D-Denver, is signed on in the House. Heath and Massey are the prime sponsors.

House Bill 11-1069 – Required physical activity

This year’s version of the “recess bill” would require schools to provide elementary students with 150 minutes a week of “physical activity,” which is rather broadly defined in the bill. It’s hard to argue against student health, but school districts – spooked by seemingly endless budget cuts – may well fight this as an unfunded state mandate. They’ve done that before and won. Massey is the prime sponsor – and he doesn’t yet have a Senate sponsor.

Senate Bill 11-069 – Regulation of education management organizations

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, is proposing that all education management organizations – the kinds of companies and nonprofits that manage some charter schools, provide services for school districts and run projects for the state – be licensed by the Department of Education and that the length of such contracts be limited.

Hudak and some other Democrats with more traditional views about the structure of public education have become nervous about the influence of such organizations. But this bill may have a tough time, and it doesn’t currently have a sponsor in the Republican-controlled House.

Other bills

Senate Bill 11-070 – Special education services in college

Also sponsored by Hudak, this bill would require state colleges to offer the same services in colleges to disabled students as those students received under individual education plans in high school. Colleges may be concerned about the costs in tight budget times.

Senate Bill 11-075 – Bouncy castles

You’ve seen them at school carnivals – those inflatable castles the kids jump around in. They’re not currently regulated, as amusement rides are, but freshman Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, thinks they and other inflatable amusement devices should be.

House Bill 11-1077 – Gifted and talented law

Rep. Cherilyn Peniston, D-Westminster, wants to separate state laws covering gifted and talented students from the law covering special education students. Peniston tried to do this last year with a bill that gained a lot of additional costly sections and was defeated.

Also introduced Wednesday were House Bill11-1074, concerning financial aid and tuition at the Colorado Schools of Mines; House Bill 11-1062, a proposed study of a pilot farm-to-school program in the San Luis Valley; and House Bill 11-1060, changing the terms of University of Northern Colorado trustees.

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

Garcia’s first committee outing

“I don’t know what to call you,” one legislator said Thursday morning to Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who also has been nominated to be director of DHE.

“Joe is fine,” Garcia said.

Garcia was articulate and on point as he moved through a presentation about the state higher ed system, including such challenges as tight funding, completion gaps, lagging financial aid and other woes.

Mention of the completion gap between white and Hispanic students – Colorado has the second largest in the nation – prompted some lawmakers to raise the sensitive issue of resident tuition rates for undocumented students, something that’s expected to be a big fight later in the session.

None of the legislators got on their soapboxes; they just were curious how undocumented students figure into the completion gap.

Garcia noted that any way you figure it, “We still have a big gap.”

Complimented by lawmakers at the end of the nearly 90-minute session, Garcia said, “I think, for the most part, I was able to bluff my way through it.”

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