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Panel holds off on parent trigger bill

Rep. Kevin Priola got the full hearing he wanted on his parent trigger/school grades bill, but he’ll have to wait to learn if his measure survives the House Education Committee.

Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson
Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson

His House Bill 13-1172 combines two education reform ideas, a partial parent trigger for conversion of failing schools and an A-F grading system for the state’s schools. Those ideas have enjoyed some popularity in other states but have never gained traction in Colorado.

The measure originally was routed to the House State Affairs Committee, known as the “kill committee” and not known as a reservoir of expertise on education issues. Priola, a Republican from Henderson, got it sent to House Education, which gave the bill got a two-hour airing Monday afternoon.

The measure is given little chance in the Democratic-majority committee, but Priola asked that a vote be delayed – probably until Wednesday – because the panel’s senior Republican, Rep. Carole Murray of Castle Rock, was out sick on Monday.

Support for bill mixed

The bill has plenty of polite opposition from mainline education interest organizations and lukewarm support from reform groups, as borne out in testimony at the hearing.

Priola called the bill “a parent empowerment law” and said the state’s current school ratings labels are “Greek to a lot of our parents.”

“Information about school academic performance needs to be made more accessible,” Priola said.

STATE RATINGSFor districts

  • Accredited with distinction
  • Accredited
  • Accredited with improvement plan
  • Accredited with priority improvement plan
  • Accredited with turnaround plan

For schools

  • Performance
  • Improvement
  • Priority improvement
  • Turnaround

The process

The accreditation law requires the state board to act on schools that have been listed in the two lowest categories for five consecutive years. Such schools can be closed, converted to charters or otherwise transformed. The system enters its fourth year in July, and the conversion clock is ticking louder for several schools around the state.

The trigger portion of the bill is fairly mild. It would allow parents of students at schools that have been tagged with the lowest ratings – “priority improvement” or “turnaround” – for two or more years to petition the State Board of Education for school conversion or change. The board could deny the petition, direct a local school board to act or defer a decision for a year.

Variations of the parent trigger idea have died in the last two legislative sessions.

The current system assigns five rating categories to districts and four to schools. Both would be converted to letter grades by the bill, which wouldn’t change the underlying data and calculation system used to rank schools – just the names of the categories.

School letter grades are used in some other states, and Colorado flirted with the idea early in this century before settling on a five-level rating system that ranged from “excellent” to “unsatisfactory.” A 2009 law replaced that with the state’s current “accredited with …” system.

Representatives for the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Association of School Executives, the Colorado Education Association and the Cherry Creek Schools testified against the bill, generally arguing that A-F schools grades are too simplistic and that the parent trigger portion of the bill would disrupt the state’s system for improving schools that are struggling.

There were fewer witnesses in support of the bill. Vinny Badolato, lobbyist for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, supported the parent trigger portion of the bill but didn’t address school grades.

Scott Laband, president of Colorado Succeeds, a business-oriented reform group, made a strong pitch for the A-F rating system but says his group has no position on the parent-trigger portion of the bill. (Colorado Succeeds, along with several other advocacy groups, is behind Colorado School Grades, a website that uses Department of Education data to grade schools on an A-F scale.)

But Laband, a former aide to Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, said his group has no position on the parent trigger part of Priola’s bill.

Another group, Democrats for Education Reform, has no position on the bill, and no representative testified.

For the record

Before diving into Priola’s bill, the committee made quick work of two other measures, passing both on 12-0 votes.

Senate Bill 13-112 – This measure would cap diversions from state school lands revenues at $36 million a year. In recent tight budget years the legislature has gotten into the habit of tapping school lands revenues to balance the state budget. The Joint Budget Committee wants to get that practice under control, so has proposed this cap bill. The measure wouldn’t affect transfers to the BEST program.

Senate Bill 13-015 – This bill would allow school boards, if they chose, to develop policies for electronic participation – by phone, Skype, etc. – by members in school board meetings. There’s been a lot of chatter and some concerns raised about the bill, but the committee approved the measure without amendments. Some districts do this already, but there is concern that current state law is unclear on the matter.

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