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Ed bills jump first hurdle

Legislative leaders Tuesday cleared six proposed education bills for introduction in the 2012 legislature, but they’ve all got a long way to go, especially two of the more interesting ones.

The bills were proposed by three legislative study committees and therefore required approval of Legislative Council, the leadership group that handles various administrative tasks for the General Assembly.

Any bill approved by the council has to go through the full legislative process after the session starts in January so runs the same risks as any bill. The advantage of council approved bills is that they don’t count against the five-bill limit imposed on legislators.

The council usually approves bills unless members feel a proposal doesn’t fit under a committee’s stated assignment. But, the council review process sometimes provides hints of questions about support for and potential weaknesses of individual bills.

Here’s a rundown on what happened Tuesday, organized by study committee.

Educational Success Task Force

This group, a hybrid legislator-citizen group, proposed four bills. (See this Education News Colorado story for details.) All were approved by the council with only a couple of stray no votes on two bills.

The most interesting proposal in the package is a bill pushed by Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, that would require school districts to administer the Accuplacer test at least once high school students.

King’s proposal would have the state pay for the tests, but he hasn’t come up with a source of money yet. Funding for a new program could be tough next year, and King publicly said for the first time Tuesday “We may have to scale this back to a pilot program.”

The other three bills approved would direct development of a system for adult students to gain academic credit for work experience, create a way for some students to earn associate degrees with credits earned at four-year colleges and encourage school districts to develop programs to identify middle school students who are lagging behind and provide help for them. (See task force webpage for links to bill texts.)

Legislative Task Force to Study School discipline

This panel of lawmakers and education, advocacy and law enforcement representatives forwarded only one bill, a proposed overhaul of state laws related to school discipline. The overall thrust of the measure is to roll back the zero tolerance philosophy that has dominated the subject in recent years.

But, some council members raised concerns after panel chair Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, noted that the measure isn’t in final form and that members still are meeting with interest group representatives to hammer out another version. (See this EdNews story about the panel’s final meeting.)

House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, said he was worried that the final version of the bill might end up exceeding the task force’s assignment.

The council went back and forth about whether a decision could be delayed but eventually voted and approved the proposed bill 11-7. All the no votes were Republicans.

Part of the bill’s back-story is that some district and administration interests aren’t happy with all of its provisions, and that’s part of the continuing negotiations Newell mentioned.

She told the council she expects “to come to the first committee [hearing] with a hefty amendment.”

Early Childhood and School Readiness Interim Commission

This all-legislator panel is proposing a bill that would create a new office of Early Childhood and Youth Development in the state Department of Human Services, consolidating several programs and funding sources now scattered across multiple state departments. (Read bill text.)

The bill actually originated with an executive branch advisory group, the Early Childhood Leadership Commission, and the idea is a legislative priority for the Hickenlooper administration. The state’s recently filed application for federal Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge funds includes a promise to consolidate disparate programs.

Legislative Council approved the bill 13-5. All the no votes were Republicans. Even though she voted for the bill, Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, D-Gilpin County, said she believes the new agency might be better placed in the Department of Public Health and Environment rather than in human services.

Legislation also in the air at Leadership Council

Third-grade literacy, another education issue that’s expected to be key during the 2012 session, was a central part of the discussion earlier Tuesday at the second meeting of the governor’s Education Leadership Council.

Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs and chair of the House Education Committee, is planning to introduce legislation that, among other things, require that some third graders be held back if they don’t meet certain standards of literacy.

Improving reading performance by third graders also is a key 2012 initiative for the Hickenlooper administration and some education interest groups.

Holding students back is a touchy subject for many educators, and some of that concern was reflected in the council discussion.

Five council members gave brief presentations on the issue before general discussion opened up.

Kelly Brough, CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, and Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, both expressed support for the idea, citing the experience of a 10-year-old program in Florida.

Watney said nearly 30 percent of Colorado third graders score below proficient on CSAP reading tests and that 8-10 percent of third graders are functionally illiterate.

She said the children who are held back shouldn’t be put through the same third-grade curriculum a second time but need other support, a view echoed by several council members.

Christine Scanlan / File photo
Christine Scanlan / File photo

Christine Scanlan, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s top lobbyist, said, “We are aware of the competing data that is out there” about holding students back, “and we know the fiscal impact is real.” She also noted the difficulties such a policy could create for small districts.

“Retention would be a last resort,” Scanlan said. “I think Tom [Massey] is in the same place.” (Massey is a member of the council but wasn’t at Tuesday’s meeting.)

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who chairs the council, said Hickenlooper “doesn’t yet have a position on this.”

Council member Helayne Jones, executive director of the Colorado Legacy Foundation, commented that “intervention in the third grade is about four years too late,” saying children with language and reading problems need to be identified and helped much earlier.

Deputy Education Commissioner Diana Sirko said about 2.4 percent of Colorado students currently are held back each year, mostly in kindergarten and first grade. “The results are mixed on those.” Sirko attended the meeting as an observer.

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