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Hick’s education council gears up

Education funding isn’t necessarily supposed to be a top issue for the new Education Leadership Council, but the subject kept popping up Tuesday afternoon at the council’s first meeting.

Gov. John Hickenlooper, who created the group by executive order last January, spoke briefly with members at the start of the meeting. Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, the administration’s education policy leader, did much of the talking during the nearly three-hour session.

The meeting took place on the same day as September state revenue forecasts were issued, renewing Capitol talk about the possibility of $200-$300 million K-12 funding budget cuts for 2012-13. See story.

Hickenlooper first raised the subject, saying, “We’re going to have to face the reality that we’re probably not going to have more resources than we did” during the 2011 legislative session.

Garcia picked up the topic later in the meeting, quoting administration budget chief Henry Sobanet that “Flat is the new up.”

He continued, “For next year, we still are looking at significant cuts … between $250 and $500 million” in the overall general fund budget. “You know where those cuts are going to come from” – K-12 and higher education, he added.

Garcia: Prop 103 ‘about the only short-term solution out there’

Garcia then turned to Proposition 103, the ballot measure that would raise state income and sales taxes for five years to raise some $3 billion for schools and colleges.

While noting that Hickenlooper has pledged not to seek new revenue during his first year in office, Garcia acknowledged that 103 “is about the only short-term solution out there.”

Significantly, he said, “We certainly are not going to do anything to get in the way of that effort.”

But, Garcia said, “Whatever happens … we can’t allow the state’s budget problems to serve as an excuse” for not seeking ways to improve education.

Later in the meeting, Garcia returned to the subject, saying, “I would encourage people to talk about what Proposition 103 might do for the state,” then adding, “That’s all I should say about it.”

During group discussion, Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, noted, “Resources always come to the surface when you talk about education.

“We need to find dedicated sources of revenue” for education, Massey said. “We could significantly increase our mineral severance taxes and devote that to higher education,” he suggested, freeing up money in the main state budget for K-12.

“We’re not trying to balance this on business,” Massey said, saying industry might be willing to pay higher taxes in exchange for lighter regulation. “It would go a long way toward shoring up the system.”

Kelly Brough, CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, sounded a cautionary note, saying other state study groups have looked at funding and that education reform should be the top priority of the leadership council.

Ken DeLay, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, noted the fiscal pressures on state colleges and universities and their importance to economic development: “If we do not put our fiscal house in order,” the state won’t have the higher ed system it needs.

DeLay also hinted that perhaps the administration should rethink its neutrality on Proposition 103.

Hereford Percy, chair of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, agreed, “We need to find a dedicated sustainable source of funding.”

What’s on the council’s plate – Hick’s ed goals, and more

The administration’s initial goal for the council is to have it assist with Hickenlooper’s current education goals – implementation of in-progress reforms like new state tests and education evaluation systems, improving third-grade literacy and reducing the college remediation rate.

First meeting of Education Leadership Council on Sept. 20, 2011.
First meeting of Education Leadership Council on Sept. 20, 2011.

Garcia said the council’s scope would encompass “birth to lifelong learning,” expanding the preschool-to-grad school emphasis of the council that advised former Gov. Bill Ritter.

But, Garcia said, “We don’t want to limit the group to those specific ideas. … We shouldn’t be bashful about adding our own ideas into the mix.”

The governor, who arrived at the meeting a few minutes after it started, acknowledged that his administration has focused on economic development in its first year and paid less attention to education, health care and transportation. He indicated that will change in the future.

“In education, there’s not a whole lot of mystery about what we need to do,” Hickenlooper said. “We are not training the kids for the jobs that are most likely going to be there for them. … How do we begin to address that?”

While Colorado has examples of successful education initiatives, Hickenlooper said, “We haven’t been able to put it together and maintain significant improvement over a significant amount of time.”

The state needs to work on “how quickly can we turn this around,” he said.

Garcia told the group he and the administration expect it (or at least a subcommittee) to be a sounding board and review panel for proposed education bills during the 2012 session. The chairs of the two education committees, Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, and Massey are members of the council.

Christine Scanlan, a former legislator who’s now Hickenlooper’s top lobbyist, said, “I expect that group to meet fairly frequently during the legislative session.”

Garcia said the council will divide into various working groups over the next three years, some short-term and some of longer duration. The council will use a consensus approach to make recommendations.

The next meeting of the full council is Nov. 8. See full list of members here.

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