The mix of big, complicated issues with a new cast of characters in the legislature could mean an intense and unpredictable year for education in the 2013 Colorado General Assembly.
The 120-day session opens Wednesday morning with Democratic control of both houses, new leadership in each chamber, a large cadre of freshman members and a list of significant education issues waiting in the wings.
And those issues will have to compete for legislator time and attention with a packed agenda of other topics, including civil unions, mental health services, child protection, marijuana regulation, gun control, the death penalty, economic development, Medicaid expansion and drilling regulations.
The question of school finance is expected to overshadow all other education issues. Democratic Sens. Mike Johnston of Denver and Rollie Heath of Boulder are crafting a plan that would significantly overhaul the school funding formula – contingent on subsequent voter approval of new revenues for schools.
Tuition rates for undocumented students and teacher licensing also are expected to be top 2013 education issues, perhaps along with school security.
Lawmakers, lobbyists and interest groups start making plans months before a legislative session convenes. But the details of proposed bills often are still in flux as opening day approaches and the general chaos of a legislative session makes predictions foolhardy.
“You know what the issues are, but you don’t know what the bills will be,” notes Frank Waterous, lobbyist for the Bell Policy Center.
That said, what follows is a session’s eve review of 2013’s likely big education issues, based on interviews with a wide selection of lawmakers, lobbyists, interest-group advocates and others.
The big issues
Funding for schools is a daunting subject. The system is costly – $5.4 billion a year in state and local funds. The system is complicated and much studied but little changed since it was set up in 1994. And it’s under legal assault, with the Colorado Supreme Court is expected to rule this spring on a lower court decision in the Lobato v. State lawsuit.
But some lawmakers and education advocates think 2013 is the year to create a new system that better serves the needs of schools today.
“There’s no reason for the legislature to wait. The time is now to do this,” says Lisa Weil, policy director of Great Education Colorado, a group that long has advocated for improved school funding.
Johnston and Heath are working on a two-step proposal that would have the legislature create a new financing structure – contingent on voter approval next November of increased school funding.
Another key player will be Democratic Rep. Millie Hamner of Dillon, incoming chair of the House Education Committee.
“I will be very involved in revising our School Finance Act and finding long-term funding solutions for K-12 education,” Hamner said.
(Learn about details of the plan in this December Education News Colorado story.)
“It’s a topic that will consume a lot of attention,” lobbyist Jennifer Mello recently told the State Board of Education, which she represents at the Capitol.
Mello also alluded to the likelihood that there will be lots of compromises and tweaking along the way.
“The bill that gets introduced won’t be the same bill that gets passed.”
Shuffling the interlocking pieces of the school funding system has the potential to hurt some districts while helping others. Yet some observers think the sheer complexity of the issue, not battles of self-interest, could be a bigger barrier to passage of comprehensive change.
But advocates are optimistic barriers can be overcome.
“I really do believe we have an opportunity,” says Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, which has been at the center of school finance study and discussions over the past two years.
Because Johnston’s plan – if passed – wouldn’t go into effect unless voters approve new funding in November, the 2013 legislature still will have to pass a school funding bill for the 2013-14 budget year, which starts July 1.
Westminster Democratic Sen. Evie Hudak, incoming chair of the Senate Education Committee, says she will be carrying that bill and may try to use it to restore some of the equalization factors that have been diminished by budget cuts in recent years. Those factors are intended to give different amount of per-pupil funding to districts based on such things as number of at-risk students and staff cost of living.
ASSET – Undocumented student tuition
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With the Democrats back in control of both houses, most observers agree this is the year for what’s called the ASSET bill to pass.
As part of the larger debate over immigration, ASSET has been a touchy issue. Versions of the bill died in the Republican-controlled House in both 2011 and 2012.
Undocumented students can enroll at state colleges and universities but have to pay non-resident tuition, the highest rate. The 2012 bill would have created a rate between non-resident and resident levels and was crafted to avoid any taxpayer subsidy of undocumented students. That was done in a bid to attract at least some Republican support.
Because there’s no longer a mathematical need for GOP votes, there’s a lot of speculation about whether the 2013 bill will have more generous terms and about what those might be.
But there’s still a political calculus in the ASSET debate. Asked about the issue during a November meeting of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s Education Leadership Council, Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia said, “The governor will be cautious about pushing for any bill that doesn’t have some Republican support.”
“We’re hopeful that it will pass this year,” said Sonja Semion, acting executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, one of the many advocacy groups that have backed ASSET. “I wouldn’t say it’s going to be a slam dunk.”
Over the last five sessions the legislature has tackled education issues ranging from content standards to testing to school ratings to teacher evaluations. But lawmakers haven’t tackled teacher licensing or preparation.
That may change in 2013.
Hamner said she was in conversations with other legislators about revisions to the state’s teacher and principal licensure processes.
“These processes are currently out of date and do not align well with our new procedures for determining teacher and principal effectiveness,” Hamner said.
Johnston also is a key player in this discussion, as is Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, the ranking Republican on the House Education Committee.
Interest in the issue was prompted by a suggestion from the State Council for Educator Effectiveness and by a report submitted to the State Board in September.
That study, done by the New Teacher Project for the Department of Education, suggested a new test for incoming teachers and tying license renewal to the new teacher evaluations that will be in place in a couple of years. (Read study here.)
That latter suggestion makes the Colorado Education Association nervous, and any proposed evaluation/renewal link will get close scrutiny.
Mello, in her recent briefing to the State Board, predicted, “We anticipate a bill that represents only the beginning stages of a possible move towards tying licensure to effectiveness.”
(Learn more about the licensing discussion in this EdNews story.)
There’s been a lot of chatter about gun control in the weeks since the shootings of children and teachers at a Connecticut school.
““I’m sure we’ll hear ideas about how to improve school safety,” Hamner predicts.
Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, has been discussing a possible bill that would provide some state financial support for districts and cities that add armed school resource officers to schools. King, a former police officer, has been a tireless advocate for school security but has had mixed success with his bills in recent years.
Lawmakers also are expected to face other gun-related legislation, including controls on assault weapons, and it’s possible school security will become entangled in that broader debate. Democratic members started discussing the issue after the Aurora theater shootings last July.
A bill also is expected that would modify the state’s concealed carry law as it relates to guns on college campuses.
This session will be the first since 2009 when the legislature won’t be preoccupied with budget cuts as a reviving economy has generated improved tax revenues for the state.
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The brightening revenue picture has enabled the Hickenlooper administration to propose an increase of nearly $200 million for K-12 schools and of $30 million for higher education in 2013-14. (See this story for details.)
“Spring is here,” says Weil of Great Education Colorado.
“It’s going to be a more traditional year” without budget woes dominating other issues, predicts Chad Marturano, legislative liaison for the Department of Higher Education.
But the good feelings don’t mean the state’s budget problems are over or that there won’t be budget debates.
State economists believe recent revenue growth may have been driven by one-time capital gains tax revenues and that the legislature should be cautious about increased spending that would be difficult to sustain if revenues level off in subsequent years.
Hickenlooper proposes to take virtually all of the increased K-12 spending from the State Education Fund (SEF), a separate account from the main General Fund. Some lawmakers think the increase should be spread across the two accounts.
In good years lawmakers often are tempted to tap the SEF for pet education projects, and any attempts to do so this year could create conflict with the administration.
The governor’s budget plan proposes that districts take part of the increase and earmark it for at-risk preschool students and an incentive fund to attract teachers to rural districts. Some districts are uncomfortable with the proposed mandates.
Other issues to watch
The state’s system for rating and accrediting districts and schools, created in 2009, calls for restructuring or closure of low-performing schools that fail to improve in five years. The rating system starts its fourth year on July 1.
That has ramped up the level of anxiety in struggling districts and schools, and the issue could come up in bills this year.
Bills are being developed to alter the accountability system for alternative education centers, which have the highest numbers of at-risk students.
Hudak says she is working on several ideas, including requiring a larger parent role in the future of schools in the lowest accreditation categories or perhaps expanding the number of options available to schools that face conversion.
The Building Excellent Schools Today program, which provides grants to districts and charters for renovation and construction, was widely hailed when it was created in 2008. But the program has gained critics in the last couple of years, including those who are concerned that BEST takes money that should be going to the state school lands permanent fund and that the program should have more legislative oversight.
Legislation to “rein in” BEST was discussed but never introduced last session. Look for the issue to return this year, focused on tighter management of BEST reserves and legislative oversight.
The highest-profile education bill of 2012 was the READ Act, which requires expansion of literacy education for students in the early grades.
It was a big bill, and the details of implementing it are still being worked out by the Department of Education.
But that doesn’t mean early childhood won’t be an issue this year. The top priority will be a bill to consolidate a variety of state ECE agencies, a proposal that died last year. The idea is being pushed by the Hickenlooper administration and a variety of interest groups, and Hamner says she plans to carry the bill in the House.
Energy efficient schools
Democrat Andy Kerr of Lakewood, now a senator after service in the House, is expected to introduce a bill that would set high energy-efficiency standards for new school buildings. He floated the idea more than once as a representative but never was able to get it passed.
The key education reform bill of the last five years was Senate Bill 10-191, which requires annual evaluations of principals and teachers. It calls for 50 percent of evaluations to be based on student academic growth and allows for loss of non-probationary status based on poor evaluations.
The state is in the second year of piloting evaluation systems in selected districts but there is some concern about whether the original SB 10-191 timelines can be met. All districts are supposed to start using new evaluations next year, although low evaluations won’t count against teachers’ non-probationary status.
Johnston, the father of the law, insists that deadlines don’t need to be changed and that lawmakers can fix any problems in 2014. Most education lobbyists say they think SB 10-191 should be left alone this year.
But concerns persist, and Hudak says, “It might be too soon to tweak it; it might not.”
It’s also possible that this year will see a bill designed to protect the confidentiality of evaluation information.
The Colorado Children’s Campaign, along with a coalition of other groups, is pushing legislation that would expand “after the bell” free breakfasts in schools. The idea would require the program in schools with 70 percent or more of students eligible for free- and reduced-price lunches, although some smaller districts and schools would be exempted.
The proposal would provide free breakfasts to an additional 85,000 children, advocates estimate.
Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, is considering legislation that would require or encourage school districts to step up efforts to reduce student truancy.
A version of Fields’ idea failed to gain the endorsement of a legislative study committee last summer (read original bill draft here), but she’s said she intends to pursue the idea on her own.
Higher education usually has a lower profile than K-12 during any given legislative session, and 2013 looks to be no different.
But the Hickenlooper administration is considering legislation that would allow colleges and universities to seek voter approval for local/regional property or sales taxes to supplement state support, which has been slashed in recent years.
A similar proposal died at the statehouse a few years ago and any new legislation would face a lot of questions from higher education leaders with competing interests.
Questioned about the idea at a meeting late last year, Lt. Gov. Garcia said,
“It does bring new money into the system. Why would we deny the schools that have that ability the right to do that?”
Potential wild cards
Every session brings surprises, from unexpected twists on major bills to controversial ideas that spark lots of discussion but end up going nowhere.
Hamner summed up some of the potential wild-card issues.
“I’m also hearing about concerns about student assessment – the costs, the impact on instructional time, and the feasibility of conducting all assessments on-line,” Hamner said. “There is concern about whether a standardized, online assessment can truly measure what we value in student learning, such as the importance of critical thinking and problem solving. I also expect that we’ll hear a variety of proposals to improve outcomes for English language learners, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we also have some serious conversations about sex ed.”
Other issues that could pop up include regulation of online-only schools, district consolidation, a parent trigger bill, teachers’ union collective bargaining and the solvency of the state pension system, which covers all Colorado teachers.
Hamner, Heath, Hudak and Johnston will be among key lawmakers to watch this year.
Johnston is expected to be a central figure on school finance, teaching licensing and the ASSET bill, and some Capitol observers wonder if he’ll be overextended. As new chairs of the education committees, Hamner and Hudak will be watched closely for how they handle those roles. (See this story of details on the members of the two education committees.)
Democrats control the House 37-28 and have a 20-15 majority in the Senate. The House has 28 new members, including one with previous legislative experience, while the Senate has 10 new members, including six with prior experience in the House.
“I think we’re going to be spending more time bringing people up the speed, especially in the House,” Hudak said. “It might even slow down the Senate to some extent.”
Both chambers have new Democratic leaders, House Speaker Mark Ferrandino of Denver and Senate President John Morse of Colorado Springs. (See this story for details on the full legislative leadership.)