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School finance act moves to Senate

Backed-up floor calendars, especially in the House, were significantly reduced on Monday and several key education bills were swept along by the momentum, including the 2012-13 school finance act.

And the House Education Committee took an historic vote, passing Senate Bill 12-015, which would create a special tuition classification for undocumented students. The committee killed a similar bill during the 2011 session.

Also on the move Monday were bills that would set a sales tax holiday for school supplies, require another statewide test for high school students and modernize state regulation of for-profit colleges.

ASSET bill prompts measured debate

After a hearing of more than four hours, the House Education Committee voted 7-6 to pass Senate Bill 12-015, the measure that would create a new class of tuition for undocumented students at state colleges and universities.

As expected, chair Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, voted with six committee Democrats to advance the bill. Massey voted no on last year’s proposal but said weeks ago that he was leaning toward support of this year’s version, known as the ASSET bill.

But the committee vote added a new twist to the bill’s uncertain path through the Republican-controlled House. The bill next goes to the House Finance Committee, and then to House Appropriations. Originally the bill was assigned only to Education and Appropriations.

Backers of the bill said they only learned Monday that the bill would get an extra committee assignment. Speaking to reporters after the vote, Massey downplayed the significance of the extra committee, saying, “I don’t necessarily see it as problematic” and that it gives proponents “a second bite at the apple” to make their case.

The lengthy hearing didn’t start until 5 p.m., delayed by a long floor session and other bills on the committee’s calendar.

Well more than two dozen witnesses testified, including Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock in support. Students, educators and business and civic leaders, including school choice advocate Alex Cranberg, also supported the bill. Opposition witnesses, a smaller group, were mostly private citizens.

Most of the testimony was measured and calm, and both Republican and Democratic committee members complimented the quality of the discussion.

Supporters have mounted an extensive lobbying campaign in favor of the bill, relying on business leaders to make the case to Republican lawmakers. But not GOP minds were changed except Massey’s.

The bill would create a separate class of tuition for undocumented students, higher than that for resident undergraduates but lower than non-resident tuition. Such students would not be eligible for state financial aid or for the College Opportunity Fund tuition discount. Students would have to be graduates of Colorado high schools and have applied for legal status. Individual colleges and universities could decide whether to offer the special rate. Supporters of the bill believe it would generate $4 million in additional tuition revenue for state colleges, but the bill is expected to affect a relatively small number of students.

School finance keeps popping up in the House

House approval of the 2012-13 school finance act, House Bill 12-1345, came on a unanimous voice vote – there were no audible no votes when the vote was called. The bill proposes to hold per-pupil K-12 funding stable for the first time in several years.

Movement of the bill also signals that agreement apparently has been reached on amendments to House Bill 12-1238, the contentious early childhood literacy bill. Massey, sponsor of both the school finance and literacy measures, had been holding the funding bill until he got a sense of what the Senate might do with the literacy bill.

Negotiators met Friday and this morning to work on the literacy measure, and sources reported that key Senate and House members and the governor’s office are in agreement on a revised bill. The measure is scheduled in the Senate State Affairs Committee on Wednesday afternoon.

The school finance act proposes $5.3 billion in school total program funding next year and keeps average statewide per pupil funding at the same level as this year – $6,474.24.

Several legislators went to the microphone to hail the funding bill for keeping combined state and local K-12 funding stable. But the measure doesn’t mean that districts won’t have to make cuts in their budgets next year. Individual district changes in enrollment and other factors, plus rising costs, will require many districts to trim spending. (Get more details in this earlier article on the bill.)

School finance came up more than once on the House floor Monday. Preliminary approval was also was given to House Bill 12-1306, which would allow school districts to seek reimbursement from the state for pupils gained after the annual Oct. 1 enrollment count. New counts would be based on the count of students taking TCAP math and ACT tests in the spring, and districts would receive $5,911 for each additional student. Based on research by legislative staff members, bill sponsors say there isn’t much fluctuation from fall to spring. The bill would cost an estimated $1.2 million a year, to be taken from the State Education Fund.

School funding also came up during debate on House Bill 12-1075, a Republican measure that would reinstate a 6 percent ceiling on annual increases in spending from the state’s general fund. (A similar provision was repealed in 2009 through a Democratic-sponsored bill.) House Democrats argued that the ceiling would restrict increases in K-12 spending and make it impossible to recover the estimated $1 billion in education spending that’s been lost during the recession. The bill passed its initial vote, but it isn’t expected to survive the Senate if it gets final House approval.

The House also started to debate House Bill 12-1109, which would require 7.9 percent across-the-board cuts in most state agencies to generate additional money for K-12 education. Assistant Majority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, delayed the bill for a day after confusion developed over an amendment. The bill is given no chance of passage in its current form, but some House members see it as a vehicle for a broader discussion of school finance and the Lobato v. State court decision, which hasn’t been mentioned much this session. (See this story for background.)

Committee had more than enough to do

House Education had three warm-up acts before it turned to the ASSET bill.

The committee voted 13-0 to pass Senate Bill 12-121, which would create new charter school matching requirements for Building Excellent Schools Today construction and renovation grants. The measure also would create a loan program that charters could use for BEST matches. Some charters have felt the original requirements for the BEST program put them at a disadvantage, and BEST administrators also felt changes were necessary.

And the panel spent nearly 90 minutes on House Bill 12-1333, which would allow teachers to have dues deducted from their paychecks for organizations other than their local teachers’ union. The bill would allow teachers to withdraw from a union at any time, rather than during designated periods, as is now the case in most districts with union contracts. The bill, a variation of similar measures proposed in past sessions, is opposed by the Colorado Education Association and the Colorado Association of School Boards. Several members of a group named Professional Association of Colorado Educators testified for the bill, which would allow teachers to request payroll deductions for PACE fees. The name of the group was corrected on April 24.)

Committee Vice Chair Rep. Don Beezley, R-Broomfield, provided a surprise during consideration of Senate Bill 12-160, a routine measure to tweak the membership of state parent advisory board. Beezley introduced an amendment that basically was the text of his House Bill 12-1149, the parent trigger measure killed by the Senate State Affairs Committee on March 28 (see story).

After some polite but tense discussion with committee Democrats, Beezley withdrew his amendment, indicating that he’d made his point.

Other highlights of the day

Two other bills of interest got preliminary approval in the House:

House Bill 12-1069 – This measure would create a three-day “holiday” in August during which state sales taxes would be waived on some school supply and clothing purchases. If the bill passes, it wouldn’t go into effect this year because it contains a trigger tied to improvement in the economy.

House Bill 12-1331 – The third college name change bill of the 2011 session, the measure would rename Western State College as Western State Colorado University.

The Senate didn’t spend quite as much time on the floor as the House but did clear out several bills on preliminary votes, including a couple of education measures:

Senate Bill 12-047 – The pet project of Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, this measure would require school districts to give students skills assessment tests at least once during high school. King has in mind the Accuplacer test. He believes such test results would give schools the tools to help lagging students and reduce the need for remediation in college.

Senate Bill 12-164 – This is one of key higher education measure of the sessions but has been moving along with little debate. It would update the state system for regulating for-profit colleges that offer bachelors and graduate degrees. The measure also includes some consumer protections for students in situations when institutions close.

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