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Bill would limit detention of truants

A bill intended to reduce the use of juvenile detention for habitually truant students passed its first test in the House Education Committee Monday, but parts of the measure remain under construction.

And on a party line vote the committee killed a broadly worded “academic freedom” bill that was promoted by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which advocates for the intelligent-design theory of human evolution.

Also at the Capitol Monday, a bill to protect the confidentiality of teacher evaluations was introduced, and a mid-year budget boost for state colleges and universities passed the Senate.

Truancy bill slimmed down

House Education voted 8-5 to pass an amended version of House Bill 13-1021, which now goes to the House Appropriations Committee.

The original version of the bill would have required school boards to adopt truancy reduction policies and set detailed requirements for those policies and for district record keeping on truancy.

At the request of sponsor Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, House Education stripped most of those requirements from the bill. Various school district lobbyists had concerns that the original bill was too much of a top-down state mandate and would cost money that school districts don’t have.

As amended, the bill focuses on truant students who end up in juvenile detention centers because they’ve disobeyed court orders to go to school.

The bill says court proceedings should be “a last-resort approach” and sets up several intervention requirements for districts to meet before they could go to court. The bill also would set a five-day limit for the amount of time a truant student could be held in juvenile detention for a single violation of a court order to return to school.

“We really want to limit the number of kids who are truant going into detention,” said witness Meg Williams, an official of the state Division of Criminal Justice who has worked with Fields on the bill.

Fields and witnesses said a little less than 500 students a year are detained for truancy violations, and that in at least one case a youth was held for more than 100 days.

“We understand it’s a tool for the court, but we want to put a limit on it,” said Regina Huerter of Denver’s crime prevention and control commission, who also testified in support of the bill.

The other part of the bill would specify what kind of education students would get while being held in detention. That’s the section that’s still under construction, and Fields is negotiating with interest groups to come up with language that’s agreeable.

“It’s a very complicated issue,” Fields told her fellow committee members, noting that she’s been working on the issue since last summer. (See this EdNews story about Fields’ initial concept for the bill.)

No go for “academic freedom” bill

The outcome never was in doubt, but House Education spent nearly 90 minutes politely taking testimony on House Bill 13-1089, which proposed to create “academic freedom” laws that would encourage and allow teachers and university professors to discuss alternative views about such scientific issues as evolution, climate change and human cloning – and to protect them from retaliation is they did so.

Critics of the bill saw it as a stalking horse to allow teaching of creationism and climate change denial in schools and colleges.

The bill was sponsored by freshman Rep. Steve Harvey, R-Severance, whose website describes him as “a Christian committed to the timeless and eternal principles that honor the God who created us equal and make for a good life and thriving communities.” Humphrey also is the sponsor of a bill that would ban all abortions.

Katie Navin, a representative of the Colorado Alliance for Environmental Education, opposed the bill and said it “could potentially weaken science education.”

Responding to her testimony, committee member Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, referred to “what I believe to be the myth of climate change and global warming.”

Witness Scott Horak, who said he represented a group call Christian Outdoorsmen, supported the bill and said, “I just want to let you know that evolution is not a science and can’t be proven by a scientific process.”

Witness Joshua Youngkin, who identified himself as a lawyer with the Discovery Institute of Seattle, said the bill originated with his group, which supports the intelligent design theory of human origins.

The committee’s seven Democrats voted to kill the bill; all six Republicans supported it. Ranking minority member Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, said she entered the committee room prepared to vote “no” but voted “yes” after hearing the testimony.

Bill would keep teacher evaluations confidential

Among new bills introduced in the last few days is House Bill 13-1220, which would require that educator evaluation information must remain confidential. The release of evaluation data has been controversial in other states, including California. The bill was developed from concerns raised by the state Quality Teachers Commission and is sponsored by freshman Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton.

A bill introduced last Friday, House Bill 13-1211, would change the state’s program for providing language training to students with limited English proficiency so that funding would be provided for students for seven years, rather than the current two.

For the record

Other education-related bills advanced Monday at the Statehouse, including:

  • House Bill 13-1144 – The House gave 40-24 final approval to this measure, which would make permanent an additional sales tax on cigarettes and devote the $28 million in annual revenue to higher education.
  • Senate Bill 13-090 – The Senate voted 27-6 to approve this bill, which would give state colleges and universities a $9.3 million boost in their current budgets.

One bill that didn’t survive Monday was Senate Bill 13-055, a Republican-backed measure that would have changed the basis for calculating the actuarial soundness of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association. The bill would have had the effect of downgrading the soundness of the pension system, which covers all Colorado teachers and many other public employees. The Senate State Affairs Committee killed the bill.