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Trio of bills raises hot topics

Updated 10 p.m. – New bills on sex education, tuition tax credits and science teaching could enliven education debates at the Capitol this year.

Introduced Wednesday were a measure that proposes creation of a “comprehensive human sexuality education” grant program, a bill to allow tax credits for private school tuition and a proposal that would create an “Academic Freedom Act” affecting teaching of evolution, global warming and other scientific subjects.

The sex-ed bill is proposed by Democratic lawmakers; the other two are proposed by Republicans, who are in the minority in both houses.

House Bill 13-1081 would add language to state law defining standards for human sexuality education and create a program of grants for school districts that want to implement such programs.

The program would be run the Department of Public Health and Environment, and the grants would be funded by non-tax sources.

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The bill defines comprehensive human sexuality education as “medically accurate information about all methods to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and infections, including HIV and AIDS, hepatitis C, and the link between human papillomavirus and cancer. Methods must include information about the correct and consistent use of abstinence, contraception, condoms, and other barrier methods.”

Money from the grant program “must only be used for the purpose of providing comprehensive human sexuality education programs that are evidence-based, culturally sensitive, medically accurate, age-appropriate, reflective of positive youth development approaches, and that comply with statutory content standards,” according to the bill.

The measure also requires that schools that receive grant money “are required to implement an opt-out policy rather than an opt-in policy for comprehensive health and sexuality education programs.”

The state constitution gives school boards authority over school curriculum, but the state can set requirements for grant programs.

The bill has been assigned to the House Health, Insurance and Environment committee. The prime sponsors are Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, and Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, along with six other House Democrats.

Tuition tax credits

Sex education hasn’t been an issue during recent legislative sessions, but the tax credits proposal is a familiar topic at the statehouse.

A group of 23 Republican lawmakers introduced Senate Bill 13-069, which would allow taxpayers to receive credits for private school tuition and for home schooling. The credit also would apply to people who contribute scholarship funds to private schools.

The bill is similar to proposals that have failed in recent legislative sessions.

Starting in 2014, the credit for a full-time student would be equal to the amount of the child’s scholarship or half of average statewide per pupil funding for public schools, whichever is less.

The credit for home schooling would be $1,000 for a full-time student and $500 for a half-time student.

Corporations and other entities that contributed to scholarships would be eligible for the credit.

The prime sponsors of what’s titled the “Quality Education and Budget Reduction Act” are freshman Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, and Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker. The measure will have its first hearing in the Senate Education Committee at a date to be scheduled.

Variations on the tax-credit idea were proposed in 2011, when Republicans controlled the House and Democrats ran the Senate, and in 2010, when Democrats controlled both houses, as they do now. All of those bills died.

In 1998 voters defeated a ballot measure that would have allowed taxpayers to claim credits of up to $2,500 for private school tuition.

In 2011 the Douglas County school board approved a voucher program that would allow students to spend district-provided vouchers for private school tuition. The program is on hold and a challenge is pending in the Colorado Court of Appeals.

In 2003 the Colorado Supreme Court invalidated a pilot voucher program that had been approved by the legislature.

Academic freedom proposal

The legislative declaration of House Bill 13-1089 says that the measure is intended to “direct teachers to create an environment that encourages students to intelligently and respectfully explore scientific questions and learn about scientific evidence related to biological and chemical evolution, global warming, and human cloning.”

The bill continues, “The General Assembly further finds that the teaching of some scientific subjects, such as biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy and that some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they may present information on such subjects.”

The bill appears to be intended to protect teachers who raise questions about generally accepted scientific teaching on such topics as evolution and global warming.

The bill states that schools districts and administrators “must not prohibit any public school teacher in this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in a given course.”

The prime sponsors are freshman Rep. Steve Humphrey and Sen. Scott Renfroe, both Greeley Republicans. The bill has been assigned to the House Education Committee.

Other new bills

Also introduced Wednesday was Senate Bill 13-055, which would change how the actuarial soundness of the Public Employee’s Retirement Association (PERA) is calculated.

Republican lawmakers have criticized PERA for what they feel are overly optimistic projections of the pension system’s future soundness. The pension plan was overhauled by bipartisan legislation passed in 2010. All subsequent efforts to change that law have failed.

The PERA system covers all teachers in Colorado and many higher education employees.

This bill’s sponsors are Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, and freshman Rep. Lori Saine, R-Dacono. It will be heard by the Senate State Affairs Committee.

Senate Bill 13-065 would allow local governments to use “approval voting” in non-partisan elections. Under such a system voters cast votes for as many candidates as they want. The winner is the candidate with the most votes, or the top vote getters in elections to fill multiple seats on a board. The bill would apply to school districts.

The bill has bipartisan sponsors, freshman Sen. David Balmer, R-Centennial, and Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont. It goes to State Affairs.

Also introduced Wednesday was Senate Bill 13-053, which would formalize current practices for exchange of student data between K-12 school districts and state colleges and universities. Sponsors are Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, and Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon. It will be heard first by the Senate Education Committee.