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Education angst bared at JBC hearing

Hopes, fears and frustrations about public schools, reform and state finances were at the boiling point Friday during the Joint Budget Committee’s hearing on the Colorado Department of Education’s proposed 2012-13 budget.

The hearing was part of the end-of-year routine during which the JBC is briefed by staff analysts on proposed budgets for state agencies and compile questions for department executives to answer at follow-up hearings. The hearing for CDE was Dec. 3 (see story), and Friday’s morning-long event was the opportunity for department executives to answer those questions (read their written responses).

The session was expected to focus on costs for proposed new state tests, a key issue because CDE wants $25.9 million in additional funding for creation of new tests required by a 2008 law, because Gov. John Hickenlooper doesn’t want to spend the money and because the legislative is facing another tight budget year.

Testing costs did get a thorough airing, but the discussion also ranged into school finance in general and the Lobato decision in specific, state mandates on school districts, the risks of education reform without funding, the future of the BEST school construction program and even the roles of the State Board of Education and the legislature.

JBC Chair Cheri Gerou, an Evergreen Republican, admitted jokingly that she’d let the meeting get out of hand but said, “We’ve had a very rich discussion.” Time ran out, and some sections of the CDE budget will have to wait until a January meeting.

The large hearing room in the Legislative Services Building was packed with state officials and education group lobbyists. Afterwards, one observer called the session “a long overdue come-to-Jesus discussion.”

Just before the meeting ended, Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, said the discussion highlighted the need to change the school finance system. “I think we’re all keenly aware that our funding model for education is grossly broken.” Massey, chair of the House Education Committee, is expected to be a key figure on education issues during the 2012 session.

The meeting came exactly a week after Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport ruled in the long-running Lobato v. State school funding lawsuit, declaring the current finance system is unconstitutional and directing the state to come up with a new one. She stayed her order pending an expected state appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court.

What was said

Here’s a sampling of the discussion on key issues. In addition to the six JBC members, about a dozen members of the House and Senate education committees sat in on the three-hour session.

The Lobato ruling

Teeing off the testing cost issue, Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, said the state is “particularly under stress because we have the Denver District Court telling us we aren’t funding a thorough and uniform education.

“We have been told every aspect of our funding system is inadequate. … When we’re looking at estimates in the billions” to fix the system, “It seems to me we ought to be looking at the foundations” of education.

Turning back to a new testing system, Steadman said, “You’re looking at a very fancy measurement system to measure something that is premised on a very shaky foundation.”

Education Commissioner Robert Hammond responded politely, saying, “I would respectfully disagree. … We haven’t designed the Taj Mahal.”

A little later, Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, challenged Steadman’s characterization, saying a good testing system is the foundation of education reform. His comments might be a good Tweet or “a good headline in the education press, but that’s not what we’re about here,” she said.

Steadman responded, “I’m just questioning if we can put our money where our mouth is. … Our voters don’t seem inclined to invest” in education.

“We need to look at doing first things first. We have few options, and I don’t know how we’re going to meet our obligations to live with a balanced budget and live with the [education] system we created. It’s very challenging.”

Testing costs

Some JBC members are troubled by the conflicting recommendations on testing from CDE and the governor’s office.

“Why do we find ourselves in this position?” asked Gerou.

Hammond gave a long, rambling answer before finally saying, “We’re in a philosophical disagreement” with the governor’s office.

House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver and a former JBC member, said, “We have an independently elected board that isn’t accountable to the governor and doesn’t look at the big financial picture. Do we really need a state board of education?”

“Oh boy,” said Gerou as the crowd laughed.

A little later, State Board of Education member Elaine Gantz Berman, D-1st District, got in a good-natured lick at Ferrandino, saying, “One of the challenges we face is the number of bills coming out of the legislature relating to public education.”

“Should the legislature meet on an annual basis?” she asked, or would it be better for education if lawmakers convened only every two years.

CDE officials believe the state needs to launch its own new testing system in the spring of 2014 in order to ensure proper implementation of new state content standards, maintain the integrity of the state’s accreditation and improvement structure for schools and districts, and launch fair new principal and teacher evaluation systems in 2015 as required by Senate Bill 10-191.

“To remove or weaken any piece threatens the whole system,” Hammond said. “The assessments are a cornerstone.”

SBE member Angelika Schroeder, D-2nd District, said, “It will be very, very difficult for us to implement Senate Bill 191 without a stronger assessment system.”

The Hickenlooper administration has suggested waiting for multi-state tests to launch in 2015, but the CDE leaders warned doing so might not save money in the long run and carries other risks. The department also has offered the JBC options for partial implementation that could shave as much as 60 percent off the $25.9 million.

Legislative mandates & the cost of reform

Rep. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, reflected, “I’m not sure we had all the facts before we passed” recent education reforms. “We got the cart before the horse. … We haven’t had the money to fund the things we passed. … At what point do we go to the public, and we say we want the best and you want the best, but it isn’t free.”

Rep. Jon Becker, R-Fort Morgan, said, “We need to get a handle on this,” referring to mandates and testing. “It’s time to allow these teachers in the classroom to get back to teaching.” Becker’s wife is a kindergarten teacher.

Steadman said, “Maybe we ought to look at some of the bells and whistles the legislature has added in recent years.”

But Hammond cautioned, “If we go backwards, we’ll never get it back,” referring to momentum for education reform.

Building Excellent Schools Today

BEST, passed in 2008, is a competitive grant program that provides state funding to school districts that have difficulty raising construction funds on their own.

The program has been a feel-good effort with wide support in the legislature and in the education community. But this year, given continued budget pressures, questions have been raised about whether BEST funding should be capped, if the money could be better used for other education purposes and whether the state general fund might eventually be on the hook for payments on BEST projects.

BEST is funded largely with a specified amount of revenue from state school trust lands, such as rents, leases and mineral revenues. That revenue also has been tapped to help pay for school operating costs, known in budget lingo as “the sweep.” (There are some who feel BEST funding and the sweep should be ended in order to build up what’s called the permanent fund, interest from which could be used in the future for school funding.)

Friday’s discussion was an often-technical back-and-forth between Gerou, Steadman and Mary Wickersham, chair of the BEST board.

“We’re not going after you at all. We’re just trying to balance” needs, Gerou said.

Wickersham said the BEST board is following the law that the legislature passed.

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