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Higher ed bill a work in progress

The Senate Education Committee Thursday gave 6-1 approval to Senate Bill 11-052, the higher education performance-funding bill. But nearly three hours of discussion on the measure made it clear that there are lots of questions to be answered as the measure works its way through the legislature.

The core of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, and Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, would base 25 percent of the overall funding for higher education on institutional performance, starting in 2016-17. The Department of Higher Education and institutions would negotiate individual contracts, and performance on those would determine part of funding.

Heath, pitching the bill to his fellow committee members, called it “a pretty exciting opportunity for all of us.” He said the bill is needed to incentivize state colleges to graduate more students, close completion gaps and bring underrepresented groups into higher education.

“We are not graduating enough people at all levels … to occupy the jobs” the state needs in the future, he said.

The current draft of the bill sets a 2020 statewide goal – but not a requirement – of increasing the number of degrees and certificates awarded by 30 percent. About 43,000 degrees and certificates were awarded in 2010.

Contracts would be individualized by institution, so a community college, for instance, wouldn’t necessarily be held to the same expectations as CSU.

The bill envisions a strong role for the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, including preparation of a statewide master plan (required by existing state law) and setting specific goals and expectations for the tiers of the state system – research universities, four-year colleges, community and junior colleges, and vocational schools – and for individual institutions.

Heath said he and Massey initially hoped to keep the bill simple, but “It’s gotten a lot more complicated than we thought.”

Among other things, the revised version of the bill approved by the committee combines lots of existing higher education law – on performance contracts, master plans, tuition setting and other issues – with the performance funding proposal.

The Department of Higher Education is working with Heath on bill drafting. Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who’s also DHE director, and two top aides sat in on the hearing.

“The administration has not yet taken a position on the bill, but we have been working with the sponsor,” Garcia told the committee. The lieutenant governor, along with deputy director Matt Gianneschi and lobbyist Chad Marturano, spent a lot of time at the witness end of the committee table, answering questions about the bill.

Garcia said the department also has “tried to work with institutions and address their concerns” about the role of CCHE and how contract negotiations would be conducted. “All of the institutions had some concerns about a performance funding bill at a time when funding is diminishing,” Garcia said. He also noted that some institutions – such as the community colleges – haven’t yet fully weighed in on the bill.

The committee approved an amendment – proposed by Heath but drafted by a group of institutional representatives – specifying that the performance contracts will be developed through a collaborative process, not dictated by the department or commission.

Committee members raised questions about how the plan would be financed, the impact on students at low-performing colleges and whether financial incentives are needed.

“I really seriously question the whole incentive process and whether institutions need an incentive to do a better job,” said Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster.

Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, questioned the need for the bill, given that Garcia said colleges have done well on the existing system of no-consequences performance contracts.

Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, said she likes the bill but “I really need to hear from the institutions … and find out if it [the bill] is the best it can be.”

No college or university representatives testified, although lobbyists for several institutions were in the committee room.

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, several times criticized a provision of the bill dealing with DHE regulation of trade and professional schools that want to receive state financial aid funds, estimated at only $3 million a year.

Lobbyist Steve Durham, representing trade schools, and Bentley Rayburn, president of Colorado Technical University, testified against that portion of the bill. A King amendment to delete that section was defeated, but he promised to keep working on the issue.

In the end, all committee members present, except Renfroe, voted to move the bill to the floor.

Even Heath admitted that there’s one big question about the bill that can’t be answered now – whether there will be enough state funding available for higher education in 2016 to make performance funding workable.

School safety bill on ice

At the beginning of its meeting, Senate Ed spent more than two hours on Senate Bill 11-173, which is an attempt to prod school districts into conducting “all-hazards” drills instead of just fire drills and into using communications systems that connect with local emergency agencies.

There’s a fair amount of confusion and disagreement over whether the bill does or doesn’t mandate school districts to do certain things. Sponsor Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, insisted it doesn’t. But, Colorado Association of School Boards lobbyist Jane Urschel took a different view in her testimony.

The lengthy hearing didn’t do much to clear up confusion, and the bill finally was laid over until next week at King’s request.

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