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JBC mulls testing cost options

Department of Education leaders will face lots of questions on testing costs and a couple of other key issue when they meet with the Joint Budget Committee later this month.

The committee was briefed Thursday on proposed CDE spending in 2012-13. (The session didn’t involve state aid to school districts, which was covered at a separate meeting last month – see story.)

As committee analyst Craig Harper noted, the JBC faces a knotty situation with the CDE budget, because the department and Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration differ on two key issues – funding for a new state testing system and for implementation of the educator effectiveness law.

Harper himself raised another possibly controversial idea – cutting back funding for the Building Excellent Schools Today program.

“This is a unique situation,” Harper said, referring to the fact that CDE can make direct budget requests to the legislature because it is governed by an elected body, the State Board of Education. “This year there’s a big disagreement” between the administration and the department, he added.

Here are the key differences:

Testing: The department has asked for $25.9 million to pay for development of a new state testing system to launch in 2014. The administration isn’t asking for that money, and budget officials have suggested Colorado should perhaps wait for the expected launch of multistate tests in 2015.

Educator evaluation: The department wants $424,390 from a state cash reserve fund to continue paying the salaries of staff members working on implementation of the educator effectiveness law, Senate Bill 11-191. But Hickenlooper has asked for $7.7 million from state tax funds to be spent over two budget years on additional staff members for the project.

Harper’s briefing paper sums up the differences in this way: “It appears that the State Board is requesting $25.9 million General Fund for assessments that the Governor is not requesting … and the Governor is requesting $7.7 million General Fund for educator effectiveness implementation that the State Board is not requesting.”

Harper didn’t make recommendations on the issues other than to suggest the committee closely question CDE leaders about them at a scheduled Dec. 16 hearing.

“This conversation should happen. I think they [CDE] need to be heard,” said Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen and JBC chair.

BEST funding questioned

Harper did make a recommendation on a third issue – funding of the Building Excellent Schools Today construction program – that’s likely to raise alarms at CDE and in school districts across the state.

He recommended that the committee introduce a bill to limit the revenues that BEST receives from state school trust lands and that the legislature also put limits on the practice of “sweeping” other trust land revenues into general education spending.

The school lands and their revenues are administered by the State Land Board, an arm of the Department of Natural Resources. According to a JBC staff document, in 2010-11 “the Land Board collected a record $120.6 million for the school trust, $46.5 million more than the previous record year in FY 2008-09. … In FY 2010-11 the BEST program received $60.3 million … and $52.2 million [was] diverted into the State Public School Fund for school finance.”

Those revenues may not be as high in the future, Harper said, suggesting it would be prudent to reduce the diversions so more money could flow into what’s called the permanent fund. That fund has been stagnant at about $581 million for the last three years, Harper said. “My recommendation would be that you start growing it again.”

The BEST program already is approaching the point where it will have to scale back on new major grants so it can service the debt on big projects approved in the last few years. Cutting down the revenues from state lands could hasten that.

Democratic Sens. Pat Steadman of Denver and Evie Hudak of Westminster both expressed support for the idea, as did Rep. Ken Summers, R-Lakewood. Steadman is a member of the JBC; Hudak and Summers serve on the Senate and House education committees. Several members of the education committees attended the two hour and 45-minute hearing Thursday. (Get more information about the BEST program in the Education News Colorado archive.)

Delay of new tests raises complicated issues

While he didn’t make recommendations, Harper did provide the committee with lots of detail about the questions involved in delaying launch of new state tests.

He noted department concerns that delaying new tests could put Colorado’s new content standards out of synch with the tests, possibly disrupting state achievement data and threatening implementation of the educator effectiveness law.

“Without the assessments it’s going to be difficult for anyone to implement that piece of Senate Bill 10-191,” Harper said, referring to the law’s requirement that 50 percent of principal and teacher annual evaluations be based on student growth, as measured by statewide and other tests.

Harper’s briefing paper noted that the new tests would cost $25.9 million in 2012-13, $16 million the following year and $15.5 million in 2014-15 – on top of the base $21 million annual cost of testing. Part of the additional cost is due to the addition of interim tests and social studies assessments to the testing system.

The paper included several possible options for reducing those costs, including phasing in new tests, delaying interim tests or delaying the switchover until the multi-state tests are ready. The final CSAP tests were given last spring; transitional tests called TCAPs are to be given in 2012 and 2013.

“The department has concerns about the momentum behind reform efforts” stalling if new tests aren’t launched in 2014, Harper said. “That’s the big-picture concern here.”

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