State education leaders encouraged lawmakers Wednesday to refrain from passing big new school bills during the 2013 session, but some legislators suggested that executive branch officials aren’t taking that advice themselves.
That discussion was a key part of the Department of Education’s annual hearing before the Joint Budget Committee, during which CDE officials responded to JBC questions about agency programs and proposed 2013-14 spending.
The discussion on legislative restraint was kicked off early in the hearing by Marcia Neal, vice chair of the State Board of Education. “What the districts are telling us [is] this is not a year for a lot of new legislation,” she told lawmakers.
Education Commissioner Robert Hammond picked up the theme, saying, “I encourage you to hold strong to that system” of reforms passed in recent years and now being implemented. “You must be careful not to overburden that system. … Take that into consideration as you ponder new education proposals.”
Their comments echoed the views of many in education who feel schools need time to roll out new content standards, tests, early literacy requirements and teacher evaluation systems without the distraction of new mandates.
“I appreciate your concern about keeping things level as you work on what you have now,” said JBC member Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen. “I would hope you’re going to be delivering those same comments to the education committees. … It probably will be a challenge for your legislative liaison to keep the herd in check.”
Sen. Pat Stedman, D-Denver and JBC chair, said the hands-off concern is “one we’ve heard for a couple of years. But it seems like the General Assembly can’t resist the temptation to reform education every year we meet. … It seems to be inevitable, and in fact the department seems to be a willing partner.”
The unique relationship between CDE and the rest of the executive branch also came up during the discussion.
Unlike most state departments, CDE is not directly controlled by the governor but by the independently elected state board, which hires the commissioner of education.
Despite that, governors like to propose their own education initiatives, and Hickenlooper is by no means the first to do so. Those proposals sometimes get rolled into CDE’s budget request, putting department leaders in the position of taking questions about ideas they didn’t suggest.
Hickenlooper has a handful of proposals on the table this year, including requiring that districts shift about $21 million in funds for at-risk students to early childhood programs, also shifting some money from kindergarten to preschool and using $3 million for a Quality Teacher Pipeline program to recruit teachers for rural districts.
If the department doesn’t want new programs, why are those being proposed, Gerou asked.
Those ideas “were brought from the governor’s office,” Hammond explained, referring questions to David Archer, an education advisor to Gov. John Hickenlooper.
“We seem to be in the same place where we were last year,” complained Gerou, referring to past differences between CDE and Hickenlooper over how much to spend on new state tests. “To have the governor’s office and the department not in the same place makes our job that much more difficult.”
Hammond walked a fine line in response, saying, “We will support the governor’s office, but we do have some concern’s about the governor’s proposal.”
Archer said Hickenlooper’s proposals aren’t new programs but rather “building out existing programs. We are very cognizant of the reforms that are underway and don’t want to be disruptive.”
So, Gerou asked, will the department and the governor oppose any significant proposals that might emerge from the education committees?
“I think it’s premature to speculate about what we’ll support,” Archer said. “We don’t have an especially robust reform agenda at the moment. … We’re not trying to ask districts to design and implement new programs.”
Steadman said everybody has to be realistic. “The legislature will pass some education legislation” in 2013.
“I know there will be new bills. Just be cautious,” replied Hammond.
Several lawmakers had questions about Hickenlooper’s proposals, wondering about the effectiveness and fairness of some of the fund shifts.
Archer more than once replied, “We are open to that conversation” about tweaking or improving the proposals.
There were only passing references during the discussion to an expected school finance reform bill, a huge proposal for any legislative session.
State board member Elaine Gantz Berman said, “The one piece of legislation we believe should take place this year is rewriting the school finance act.” Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, is leading that effort. (See this EdNews story for a detailed look at the proposal as it stands now.)
BEST discussion is amiable
During the 2012 session both Gerou – then JBC chair – and Steadman talked about putting some limits on the Building Excellent Schools Today school construction program, but no bill was introduced.
The program receives funding from state school trust land revenues and pays for some larger projects with lease-purchase debt agreements. Some lawmakers think BEST is using money that should be directed to the school lands permanent fund and that there should be more legislative oversight.
“I’d like to do a little bit of an in-depth reappraisal of the way the system is set up,” Gerou said, stressing she’s concerned about the BEST law, not the way the State Capital Construction Assistance Board makes its grants.
But she and Steadman did wonder why the Denver Public Schools received a BEST grant in the latest cycle of awards, given that the program supposedly is aimed at districts with limited ability to raise their own revenues for construction.
Dave Van Sant, the retired superintendent who chairs the construction board, said, “I’d certainly agree to have a discussion” about tweaking the BEST law.
“I think a little more guidance from the legislature would be helpful to everyone,” Steadman said.