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Discipline bill finally moves

It took more than three hours, but the Senate Education Committee Thursday finally passed Senate Bill 12-46, the proposal to ease state zero-tolerance laws on school discipline and give schools more discretion in handling suspensions, expulsions and student referrals to police.

The bill passed 3-2 and must go to the Senate Appropriations Committee before it reaches the floor.

The main thrust of the bill seems to aligned with wide agreement among educators and advocacy groups about the bad effects of student discipline policies that suspend students for infractions like sharing prescription drugs, bringing toy guns and kitchen knives to school or being repeatedly disruptive.

But crafting the bill has involved an endless discussion among interest groups – school districts, police, juvenile justice advocates, district attorneys, domestic violence groups and several more – about the details of the legislation.

The measure was originally crafted by a legislative/interest group study committee that met over the summer and fall. (Get more details here.)

That group produced a bill draft – which sponsoring Democratic Sens. Linda Newell of Littleton and Evie Hudak of Westminster announced last year would be changed before its first committee hearing.

The bill has gone through more than half a dozen drafts leading up to the version approved by Senate Ed Thursday.

“I truly believe that now … we really do have everybody to support or neutrality,” Newell said of the latest, compromise version of the bill. (The Colorado Association of School Boards, one of the big players on the bill, is neutral.)

Part of the problem has been caused by the bill’s second goal – collecting data that would tell policymakers how schools actually are overusing suspensions, expulsions and referrals to police. Interest groups have been picking over the data-reporting requirements for months with Newell and Hudak.

“The purpose of the data reporting is for us to actually have it on record … to really determine what’s going on,” said Hudak.

Two committee Republicans weren’t persuaded about the data-reporting part of the bill.

“Zero tolerance is of statewide concern … I support that 100 percent. But I think we’ve gotten so far into the weeds on the other stuff we’re losing sight of zero tolerance,” said Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial.

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, introduced amendments to cut back on the data reporting, but they were defeated on 3-2 Democratic/Republican votes. (Two committee members were absent, one from each party.)

A cautionary note about rolling back zero tolerance was sound by witness Cynthia Coffman, chief deputy attorney general. She warned that giving school districts greater discretion in discipline might lead to lawsuits about discriminatory and disparate treatment of students. “We need to make sure the pendulum doesn’t swing the other way” from zero tolerance, she said.

Coffman suggested the committee consider putting guidelines for districts in the bill. Newell said the sponsors had tried to do that but met resistance from interest groups.

Coffman’s comments seemed to give some committee members pause. But, they seemed to be reassured by a later witness, Adams 12-Five Star administrator Kevin West, who handles discipline cases. “The idea of discretion does not concern me at all. We use discretion every day. … Gives us the flexibility to address these things practically,” he said.

The committee briefly considered the idea of delaying action on the bill until next week. (The committee already has delayed a vote once.) Chair Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, left that decision up to the two sponsors. When Newell and Hudak said they wanted to move the bill forward – even though there are more amendments to come – the panel made its decision to send the measure to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

But King vowed that he’ll continue trying to prune the bill’s reporting requirements as it moves through the Senate. The bill has bipartisan sponsorship in the Republican-controlled House.

Read the latest version of the bill here.

Parent trigger bill off to the Senate

The full House voted 33-31 Thursday to give final passage to House Bill 12-1149, the modified parent trigger bill that would allow parents at some low-performing schools to petition the State Board of Education for school restructuring.

The bill became a partisan issue in the House, with Republican voting yes and Democrats opposing. The measure’s prospects in the Senate are uncertain, but Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver and an influential figure on education, is the Senate sponsor. See this Education News Colorado story for details on amendments added in the House.

Two PERA bills advance

The House Finance Committee Thursday approved two Republican bills to change operations of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, which covers all Colorado teachers and thousands of higher education employees, plus other civil servants.

The panel passed a significantly watered-down version of House Bill 12-1150, which would change the basis for calculating the retirement benefits of recent and future employees, and House Bill 12-1142, which would expand the number of employees who could choose the system’s defined contribution program.

Give us a little more time on this

The Joint Budget Committee this week was supposed to set proposed budgets for state colleges and universities and for K-12 support in 2012-13. But, after discussing both issues Wednesday and Thursday, the panel put off the key decisions in those areas until next week.

On Monday the committee also is scheduled to consider other parts of the Department of Education’s 2012-13 budget – including the contentious issue of whether to provide $25.9 million for development of a new state testing system.

For the record

Senate Education approved House Bill 12-1090, which would require moving the annual Oct. 1 student enrollment count day when it conflicts with a religious holiday.

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