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District mandates bill reworked

State “mandates” are a longstanding sore point for Colorado school districts, which complain that the legislature keeps telling them to do more things and file more reports even as state financial support of schools is dropping.

For the past couple of legislative sessions school districts have resisted such bills, even those on such apple pie issues as recess and school safety. For the 2011 session, the mandates discussion turned in the direction of eliminating – or at least streamlining – existing requirements.

The outcome of those discussions was House Bill 11-1277, an amended version of which was passed 13-0 by the House Education Committee Monday. The measure is not a sweeping overhaul of state requirements on schools, and it covers only a handful of issues.

A key part of the reason for that, according to those involved in the discussions that led to the current version, is that many education mandates are federal and not easily changed or worked around.

As originally introduced, the most interesting part of HB 11-1277 was a provision that any education requirement passed by the legislature had to carry funding with it. If an education law didn’t include funding, districts wouldn’t have been obliged to obey it.

That provision was dropped from the amended version passed Monday. Prime sponsor Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, told the committee that was impractical, given that “everything we do with regard to education is a mandate.”

What remains in the bill is a requirement that districts be given a week in which to reply to newly introduced education bills and estimate what the costs would be. Those estimates would have to be included in the cost memos written by legislative staff members, known as fiscal notes. Those notes currently contain estimates of what a bill would cost the state but no estimates of district costs.

Notable recent education legislation for which full costs remain to be estimated are the 2008 Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids and last year’s educator effectiveness law.

The rest of HB 11-1277 touches on about eight areas, some of them minor, others somewhat more important.

The largest part of the bill is a rewrite of various special education laws, designed to update language, conform state law to federal requirements and provide general clarification, according to Laura Freppel of the Department of Education’s special education unit, who testified Monday.

(The bill was vetted by a wide variety of education interest groups and CDE, and representatives of those groups trooped to the witness table Monday to voice their support.)

Another part of the bill deals with parts of the state accountability system. One key provision would allow districts with fewer than 1,000 students to submit a single improvement plan, rather than one for every school.

Other language in that section would streamline the improvement plan approval process, in some cases requiring fewer steps to be taken by CDE.

The bill also proposes some changes in state oversight of online schools, including elimination of the requirement for an annual report by CDE’s online office. The state’s online regulation law was passed in 2007, before passage of the new accountability system in 2009. Supporters of streamlining online regulation feel the accountability structure makes some original parts of the online law duplicative. This section of the bill may see further tweaking after the bill moves into the Senate.

The bill also includes a requirement that CDE provide annual academic growth data to individual schools within 10 days after it has been given to districts. Some groups, like the Colorado Education Association, have complained that some districts are slow to share detailed achievement and growth data with individual schools and their teachers.

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