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Key week looms for education bills

Monday is the 62th legislative day of a session that can run no more than 120 days, and this week is an important one for education legislation.

On Monday, the House Education Committee will take up House Bill 12-1238, the much-discussed, much-tweaked proposal to upgrade literacy in the early grades. The bipartisan measure would replace existing state law on the subject and require schools districts to beef up K-3 literacy programs.

The big cloud hanging over the bill is “retention” – holding third-graders back if their reading skills are too weak. The bill would create a process by which parents, teachers and administrators would determine if a third-grader should be held back. Superintendents would review those decisions. Individual improvement plans would have to be developed for students who are held back.

Backers of the bill, led by business-related advocacy groups and education reform organizations, originally wanted mandatory retention, but that idea was dropped in the face of wide opposition. Still, the bill’s preference for retention still makes many educators and some legislators nervous.

The idea is based on a Florida law, and it has sparked lots of discussion about what education research says about the good and bad effects of retention on students. About 2 percent of Colorado students are held back every year, mostly in the early grades, according to the Department of Education. While many educators still resist the idea, others are working to end social promotion, like the Harrison district in Colorado Springs.

The last few weeks have seen a seemingly endless series of meetings between sponsors, lobbyists, educators and the governor’s office to negotiate the bill’s finer points. Expect to see several amendments that were negotiated in those sessions proposed today.

The current version of the bill proposes to pay for the program (which would include administrative costs for the Department of Education and grants to school districts) by tapping into old tobacco settlement revenues and by abolishing the existing Read to Achieve grant program and sweeping its fund balance. Program funding is put at $5.4 million in 2012-13 and $4.3 million the following year, which is when school districts would have to implement the new literacy measures.

Some interested parties, including members of the State Board of Education, aren’t happy with the idea of raiding Read to Achieve, and some SBE members also have broader concerns with the bill. If the measure becomes law, the board would be assigned to approve regulations for program and set up the grant program for districts.

Read the bill text as introduced here, and read the legislative staff description here.

Committee also will consider charter bill

Serving as the warm-up act at the Monday meeting is House Bill 12-1225, an important but low-profile proposal. It would set up a system under which school districts could become “model” authorizers for charter schools if they subscribe to a certain set of best practices in how they review and grant charter applications.

A key feature of the bill would create a presumption in favor of such districts during charter school appeals to the state board. (Read summary of bill.)

With a big crowd expected, Monday’s hearing is scheduled for the Capitol’s Old Supreme Court Chambers.

House Ed stays busy on Wednesday

Colleges will be in the spotlight during Wednesday’s House Ed meeting, when it considers House Bill 12-1155, one of the key higher education measures pending this session.

The goal of the bill is to increase – and speed up – college completion, and there are two major provisions.

One would allow the higher education system to offer more flexible remediation measures, such as allowing four-year schools to remediate some students with targeted help while they’re enrolled in regular college classes. (Remedial work is now concentrated at community colleges and generally requires students to take full basic classes.)

The second major provision of the bill would reduce the amount of state aid students could get, with the hope of prompting students to finish faster. Resident students now receive College Opportunity Fund stipends – basically a tuition discount – for up to 145 credit hours. The bill would reduce that 140 and make a similar eligibility cut for state financial aid. The bill also would cut off stipends for classes that a student has taken more than twice and received an incomplete. (Read the bill summary here.)

The prime sponsor of both the early literacy bill and the college completion measure is Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs and chair of House Ed.

The Wednesday meeting also has a warm-up act – two bills that would upgrade Adams State College and Metro State College to university status. Massey is serving his final session in the House and is the central figure in most major pieces of education legislation this year.

More to come

Although the statehouse clock is ticking, some expected major pieces of education legislation have yet to even be introduced. They include:

  • A reworking of state school finance laws being considered by Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver.
  • A revision of the funding system for the Building Excellent Schools Today school construction program being developed by Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass.
  • Possible legislation to increase regulation of online schools being considered by Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver.
  • A upgrade of state regulation of for-profit, four-year colleges that’s proposed by the Department of Higher Education.

And on ice in the Senate is Senate Bill 12-015, the measure that proposes a special tuition rate for undocumented students. Johnston is holding up a final Senate vote on this while he works to find support – or at least get a favorable committee assignment – in the Republican-controlled House.