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‘Proficiency Act’ advanced by House Ed

A bill designed to improve teaching of English language learners cleared the House Education Committee on a 9-2 vote Wednesday. But the measure doesn’t contain funding for the two new programs it proposes, and its sponsors were unclear on the prospects for revenue.

House Bill 13-1211, named the English Language Proficiency Act, is sponsored by two freshman House members, Republican Clarice Navarro-Ratzlaff of Pueblo and Democrat John Buckner of Aurora.

The measure would update requirements for school district ELL programs and for reporting to the state on those programs, and it outlines how the Department of Education oversees such programs. (There are existing federal and state requirements for ELL programs. Get more information here about the current English Language Proficiency Act.)

The current flow of state money for ELL programs, about $14.5 million in state funds this year plus $11.3 million in federal money, would continue to districts.

Current law allows districts to spend state ELL dollars on individual students for only two years. The bill would change that to five years. Educational research cited more than once during the hearing indicates most students need five to seven years to gain English proficiency.

Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida and a former superintendent, noted that the state support amounts to only about 19 percent of what districts have to spend on ELL programs. (School districts have to pick up the slack for program costs from their general budgets.)

Wilson asked Buckner how he proposed to pay for the bill, to which Buckner – smiling – replied, “That was a question I was hoping to avoid.”

“I support this concept,” Wilson said later during the hearing. “There are a lot of things I like, but the list gets shorter when I have to pay for them.”

The bill also proposes creation of two new funds, the English Language Proficiency Act Excellence Award Program and the Professional Development and Student Support Program. While the bill says the two funds should be paid for by the State Education Fund, the measure doesn’t suggest any amounts of money for them.

Committee members raised several questions about that. “It’s just a little difficult to figure out what the budget is,” said chair Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon.

Lisa Escárcega, a senior administrator in the Aurora schools, testified that “this bill could possibly result in an unfunded mandate.” She was representing the Colorado Association of School Administrators. Karen Wick, a lobbyist for the Colorado Education Association, also had issues with the bill. “We do have concerns over some of the funding,” Wick said.

Buckner acknowledged the funding questions but stressed that the value of the bill is that it will provide more CDE support of districts that need help with ELL programs and make it easier to share information among districts about successful programs.

Bill Jaeger of Stand for Children and Reilly Pharo of the Colorado Children’s Campaign both supported the bill, citing the need to improve the language proficiency and the academic performance of ELL students.

The bill heads next to the House Appropriations Committee, where it and lots of other bills may linger for some time while lawmakers sort out how much money they have left to spend in 2013-14.

Funding for HB 13-1211 may be dependent on what happens with two other bills. The yet-to-be-introduced school finance act for 2013-14 could theoretically be amended to include funding for the proficiency act.

There’s also increased funding for ELL students proposed in Senate Bill 13-213, a bill that proposes a major overhaul of the entire school funding system. That measure in awaiting Senate floor action.

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