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Truancy bill gets cold shoulder

It may only be September, but education bills already are starting to take shape for the 2013 legislative session.

A case in point is a truancy reduction measure being floated by Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora.

Fields presented the bill draft Wednesday to the Educational Success Task Force, a panel of six legislators and 25 public members that has the power to propose bills for the 2013 session.

But the idea ran into the familiar objections about being a top-down state mandate and an infringement on local control. The legislator members of the task force voted 3-2 against endorsing the bill.

Asked after the meeting if she will introduce the bill next year on her own, Fields said, “Yes, I am.”

But, she said, the meeting “was a good opportunity for a trial balloon” and that the discussion gave her some ideas about how to “tweak” the measure.

The draft version of the bill would:

  • Require schools districts to monitor student attendance.
  • Include excused absences in the calculation of truancy, defined as four absences in a month or 10 in a school year.
  • Require districts to use “best practices and research-based strategies” to improve the attendance of truant students and work with parents and social-service agencies.
  • Allow districts to take a truant to court only if other interventions don’t work.
  • Limit to five days the amount of time a truant could spend in juvenile detention. Fields said the average detention now is 18 days.
  • Make it easier for students in detention to get GEDs and set new requirements for the instruction districts have to provide to students who are in detention.

Fields said she definitely wants to limit the amount of time students have to spend in detention and to improve district services and procedures for truants.

While the task force didn’t endorse the bill, it still spent more than an hour chewing on it.

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, was uncomfortable about adding excused absences to the definition of truancy. Lame-duck Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, shared that view and also was concerned that the bill was a little vague about the details of intervention methods.

Judy Skupa, superintendent of the Thompson school district, said she and colleagues were concerned the bill infringed on local control.

Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, supported that view: “Our school districts are just inundated with a ton of requirements from us.”

Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Castle Rock, picked up the same theme: “What makes me nervous is requiring the districts to do this.”

Task force members discussed various amendments to the draft, but in the end decided not to endorse the bill in any form. The value of having a bill endorsed by an official between-sessions study committee is that the bill won’t count toward the prime sponsor’s five-bill limit. But Fields stressed she’s going to introduce a bill on her own.

The committee also declined to endorse a bill that would have added two elements, student completion of Individual Career and Academic Plans and student attainment of the “21st century skills” that are part of state content standards, to the definition of postsecondary and workforce readiness.

That definition, which now includes graduation and dropout rates and ACT scores, is part of the accreditation system the state uses to rate high schools and districts.

“I think this dilutes the three existing standards that are there,” King said.

The task force did endorse drafts relating to the creation of new community college programs that would combine basic skills and vocational training, accelerated high school graduation and tracking of adult education students.

Convening of the 2013 legislative session is about four months away, and the question of which party will control the House and Senate is up in the air until after the Nov. 6 election.

But that doesn’t mean lawmakers, interest groups and lobbyists aren’t already working on education bills for 2013. In addition to truancy, school finance and teacher licensing are issues that are under study now.