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Literacy advances; ASSET doesn’t

Two of the key education bills of the 2012 session meet different fates Wednesday evening.

The Senate State Affairs Committee voted 4-1 to pass House Bill 12-1238, which would create a new program to improve reading skills in grades K-3. The measure has been dogged by objections to retention of lagging third graders and concerns about lack of funding. The heavily amended version approved by the committee appears to clear the way for ultimate passage.

But Senate Bill 12-015, the so-called ASSET bill to create a special tuition rate for undocumented students, was killed on a 7-6 vote in the House Finance Committee. The bill had passed the House Education Committee on a 7-6 vote on Monday (see story).

The measure’s chances were considered iffy in the Republican-controlled House.

Amendments may have saved literacy bill

After passing the House, HB 12-1238 faced barriers in the Senate, given a skeptical Democratic leadership and lobbying from school district interests who saw the bill as too restrictive and underfunded. The bill was assigned not to the Senate Education Committee but to State Affairs, sometimes used as a “kill committee.”

But a compromise brokered in part by Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder and chair of State Affairs, helped soften opposition. The proof of the compromise’s success came in supporting testimony Wednesday from representatives of major education interests, including the Colorado Association of School Executives, the Colorado Association of School Boards and some major districts.

The reform group Stand for Children marshaled a long list of witnesses who testified in favor of stronger efforts to improve early childhood witnesses.

But other witnesses, including some teachers and former State Board of Education member Peggy Littleton, suggested money would be better spent doing comprehensive training of teachers in how to teach reading.

Other witnesses – and some committee members – wondered if expanded preschool and full-day kindergarten programs aren’t also necessary to improve the reading skills of young students.

But Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial and a prime sponsor of the measure, noted that the costs of expanded preschool and kindergarten “would be significantly higher” and that the money isn’t available.

An estimated quarter of Colorado third graders read below grade level, based on state test scores.

Here are the key elements of the amended literacy bill:

• A focus on students with a “significant reading deficiency” (to be defined by the State Board of Education). The House version of the bill also covered students with “reading deficiencies,” defined as those reading below grade level but above the level of significant deficiency. With the new focus, the bill is expected to apply to about 20,000 students statewide.

• Use of interest revenue from the state school lands permanent fund to provide about $16 million in per-pupil funding (about $700 per student) to districts working with students who have significant reading deficiencies. The House version of the bill included about $5 million in funding. That’s retained in the Senate version, putting the total price tag at about $21 million. If the bill passes as amended, it would be the first significant education reform bill in the last five years with significant funding. Proposed changes in the bill’s legislative declaration specifically note the need for financial resources.

• Easing of some of the more detailed requirements for parent consultation and notification contained in the House version.

• While the proposed amendments retain specific references to retention as an option for struggling readers, the language is somewhat softened compared to the House version. Superintendent review of retention decisions for third graders remains in the bill, but parents would have veto power over retention of students in kindergarten through second grade.

• Addition of specific interventions, such as enrollment in full-day kindergarten, summer school and tutoring, for K-3 students with reading problems. Districts would have to use those tactics to qualify for the per-pupil funding.

Measured debate but defeat for ASSET

House Finance spent five hours on SB 12-015, and the discussion was generally low-key, polite and even a little wonky. But in the end it was clear the intense lobbying campaign mounted by bill supporters hadn’t changed any Republican minds. Committee members engaged in extensive dialogues with witnesses. At Monday’s House Education hearing the witness count was much higher, but the there was much less committee questioning of those who testified.

Several Republican members of House Finance expressed sympathy with the bill’s goals but said, in the end, they just couldn’t vote for it.

The ASSET bill would have created 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.

The vote marked the sixth time such a measure has died in the Colorado legislature.

JBC saves funding for new test development

In another important development, the Joint Budget Committee Wednesday agreed to restore $6.4 million in funding for development of new state science and social studies tests to the 2012-13 state budget. The Senate earlier stripped the money from House Bill 12-1335, the main state budget bill, in order to pay for economic development programs.

The JBC, working to reconcile House and Senate budget amendments, found economic development funding elsewhere.

Teacher union dues bill roils House

The House had a lively partisan go-round Wednesday morning over House Bill 12-1333, which would allow teachers to withdraw from unions – and stop paying dues – on 30 days’ notice. Union contracts now typically allow withdrawal during only one period in the school year.

“Let’s face it, it is targeted” at the Colorado Education Association, said Rep. Cherilyn Peniston, D-Westminster and a former teacher and union official.

“This is a question of whether you’re going to stand with teachers … or whether you’re going to stand with labor special interests … organizations that seek to influence and peddle influence here at the legislature,” said Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, during a rare appearance at the microphone.

There’s no love lost between Republicans and the CEA, which is a regular and significant contributor to Democratic legislative campaigns. Bills such as HB 12-1333, sponsored by Rep. Jon Becker, R-Fort Morgan, regularly crop up in the legislature.

During a final ratification vote on all the bills given preliminary approval Wednesday, Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton, proposed an amendment to reverse the passage of HB 12-1333. It lost on a 32-33 party-line vote. Solano, another retired teacher and CEA supporter, will probably get her wish in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where the measure has a snowball’s chance.

Big higher ed bills often get little attention

The House voted preliminary approval to House Bill 12-1155, which would allow state four-year colleges to offer more flexible remedial work for students who need it. Under the bill, colleges could set up programs under which students could do targeted remedial work, rather than take full make-up classes, at the same time that they enrolled in for-credit courses.

As often happens with significant higher ed bills, there was virtually no discussion.

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