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Big bills, little debate

Senate Bill 11-052, potentially the most important education proposal of the 2011 session, passed the House Tuesday on a 62-3 vote.

The measure will set in motion an 18-month process of creating a new higher education master plan and a new system of performance contracts negotiated between the Colorado Commission on Higher Education and individual colleges and universities. But performance funding wouldn’t go into effect any earlier than 2016-17, and it might never kick in if a specified level of state base funding isn’t reached.

There was no floor debate either on final consideration Tuesday or on preliminary review Monday. Since there were no House amendments, the bill goes to the governor for signature. The administration was an active participant in the negotiations that crafted the bill, so the outcome’s not in doubt.

Also Tuesday, the Senate gave 34-0 final approval to House Bill 11-1301, a wide-ranging higher education flexibility bill that affects hiring, employee benefits, student fees, purchasing and construction. There was no floor discussion before Monday’s preliminary approval, nor any on Tuesday.

Many of the bill’s provisions would seem to be of interest only to bean counters at the University of Colorado. But, the measure does mark another step in a process that’s been building over several legislative sessions – the gradual separation of state colleges and universities from state government administrative and financial rules and procedures. Higher education leaders have argued that colleges need more flexibility to manage their own money as direct state support has continued to decline.

(The flexibility bill was a temporarily held up by parliamentary maneuvering over congressional redistricting as minority Republicans used delaying tactics to try to force Democratic leaders to hear a House GOP redistricting bill.)

The House later accepted Senate amendments to SB 11-1301 and re-passed it.

Both bills were hammered out during extensive negotiations among education interest groups, leaving few issues for legislators to settle – or be lobbied about.

While the Senate was tied up mostly with the redistricting fight, the House moved through a variety of bills and gave preliminary approval to several related to education, including:

• Senate Bill 11-184, the proposal to create a tax amnesty period for delinquent taxpayers next autumn, with an estimated $9.7 million going to the State Education Fund. This bill originated in the Senate Democrats’ effort to scrape up whatever extra money they could find for education.

• Senate Bill 11-109, creating a tax check off for the state preschool program. The revenue is expected to be negligible, and the bill was significantly changed in the House, which removed a Senate provision to put the program at the top of the tax check off list that appears on income tax forms. So, its future is uncertain.

• Senate Bill 11-266, requiring background checks of school contractor employees who have contact with students. The bill is targeted mostly at contract bus drivers, food service workers and custodians, who have become somewhat more common in schools as some districts have outsourced such work as a way to cope with budget cuts.

• Senate Bill 11-245, updating Department of Higher Education regulation of teacher preparation programs to conform to recent changes in state law. The bill also gives the Colorado Commission on Higher Education until the end of 2013 to develop a new system for evaluating teacher prep programs at public, private and proprietary colleges. (The bill doesn’t involve alternative teacher prep programs, which are regulated by the Department of Education.)

• Senate Bill 11-240, putting the private occupational school board in the Department of Higher Education under the state sunset review process.

Earlier in the day, the House Education Committee voted 7-6 to kill Senate Bill 11-080, which started out as a proposal to expand the options schools could choose from for turnaround plans and ended up as a proposal to require more reports about the progress of the small number of schools with turnaround plans.

Philosophy, not policy

The House spent 45 minutes Tuesdayt afternoon debating House Resolution 11-1009, which suggests that the State Board of Education create standards for the teaching of “American exceptionalism” in the state’s schools. The proposal prompted polite and predictable rhetoric from the right and left and passed on a voice vote, thereby fading from notice just about 24 hours after it was introduced.

Senate Ed also indulged in a little end-of-session rhetoric, spending about 10 minutes on Senate Joint Memorial 11-004, another non-binding expression of opinion that calls on Congress to repeal the No Child Left Behind law. There was no partisan divide on this one – the resolution passed 11-0.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information

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