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Early childhood bill is first round in school funding fight

Witness at committee hearing
Superintendent Walt Cooper (right) testified against a ECE bill. Sponsors Reps. Crisanta Duran (left) and Cherilyn Peniston (center) listen.

The House Education Committee Monday approved a bill that would spend $12 million to improve the quality of state preschool programs, but the measure faces an uncertain future in the upcoming tussle over how to spend a temporary surplus of education funds.

House Bill 14-1076 was drafted by a legislative early childhood study panel and is backed by the Hickenlooper administration, early childhood groups and the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

But mainline education interest groups oppose the bill, arguing that the money could be better spent on expanding preschool enrollment or on general funding for K-12 schools. (Heavy lobbying from those groups killed a version of the proposal in the waning weeks of the 2013 session.)

The House Education Committee on Monday worked on the bill for nearly 90 minutes before voting 7-5 to pass it on the House Appropriations Committee.

Representatives of early childhood programs and the lobbyist for the Colorado Children’s Campaign urged passage of the bill, arguing that improving the quality of state preschool programs for at-risk children will pay educational dividends as those children move through school.

“The highest quality programs provide the biggest gains for kindergarten readiness,” said Rep. Cherilyn Peniston, D-Westminster and the measure’s prime sponsor.

The bill would create an early childhood quality incentive grant program in the Department of Education. A school district could apply for a grant to cover the cost of a school-readiness quality rating for the its preschool program and, based on the quality rating received, receive an improvement grant to enhance the program’s quality.

The price tag for the bill is $11.9 million in its first year, to be taken from the State Education Fund (SEF). That account has a one-time surplus of about $1 billion in it, and legislators are vying to tap that money for a growing number of bills.

Opposing the bill was Walt Cooper, superintendent of Cheyenne Mountain School District in Colorado Springs. He was speaking for the Colorado Association of School Executives, the Colorado Association of School Boards and the Colorado Education Association.

Calling the proposal “one more overreaching and bureaucratic program,” Cooper said the money could be better spent on providing more slots in the Colorado Preschool Program, which serves at-risk students and which has a waiting list because of lack of funding.

Beyond that, the three organizations Cooper spoke for (known as “the Three Cs” at the statehouse) are taking a coordinated stand this year against bills that devote SEF funds to specific new programs. They want extra money devoted to basic school support, which is about $1 billion below what it otherwise would be because of budget cuts in recent years.

“I’m not sure we have the time or the energy to take on one more thing at this point,” Cooper said, referring to school district discontent about implementing new standards, tests and educator evaluation systems simultaneously this year and next.

The financial decision really wasn’t up to House Education. The bill now will sit on the calendar for weeks – if not longer – until the House and Senate appropriations committees sort out what new education and other programs the state can afford.

“We actually don’t know if this money will be available by the time we get through the session and have spent like a bunch of drunken sailors,” quipped Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver.

Peniston acknowledged that the fate of the bill is uncertain. “There’s quite a bit of money attached to this. … Right now I don’t think we know if we have the money for this. That will become more clear as time goes on.”

(Learn more about the bill in this legislative staff summary.)

The question of spending priorities also colored discussion of House Bill 14-1085, a measure not related to K-12 education. The bill would allocate $1.2 million from the general fund, the state’s main spending account, to beef up adult literacy and education programs in the Department of Education. (Learn more in this bill summary.)

Republican committee members repeatedly asked if the money would be better spent on K-12. Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Brighton, estimated that the money could be used to hire 27 teachers.

“In an ideal world we would have the money for both,” said Court. “I think this is a false choice being set up. … The appropriations committee will figure out where our money is best spent.”

So, on an 8-5 vote, the bill was sent to the queue of spending measures whose fates will be decided near the end of the session.

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