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House Education Committee passes gifted education spending bill

High school student Dylan McNally (right) testified in favor of gifted and talented bill. Sponsor Rep. Cherilyn Peniston, D-Westerminster, is at left.
High school student Dylan McNally (right) testified in favor of gifted and talented bill. Sponsor Rep. Cherilyn Peniston, D-Westerminster, is at left.
Chalkbeat Colorado

The House Education Committee Monday passed yet another schools spending bill, this one intended to improve gifted and talented education at a cost of $5 million.

The discussion and vote on House Bill 14-1102 followed a now-familiar pattern. First there’s lengthy testimony highlighted by opposition from school district witnesses who argue the money would be better spent on restoring past K-12 budget cuts. Bill passes by relatively narrow margin. Then the bill is sent to an uncertain fate in the House Appropriations Committee.

Key elements of House Bill 14-1102 would require that districts (or “administrative units” such as boards of cooperative educational services) hire qualified gifted and talented coordinators and also evaluate all students to determine gifted and talented status before the third grade.

Over the last two weeks the committee has passed bills to support Advanced Placement classes in rural districts ($1 million) and to improve the quality of early childhood education programs ($12 million).

Six bills with a combined draw on the State Education Fund of about $40 million already have been introduced in the legislature. Another 10 bills without specific price tags also are in the mix.

Such bills are at ground zero in a battle over how to spend additional K-12 funding in 2014-15. School districts, administrators and the state’s largest teachers union have drawn a line in the sand this year, insisting that any extra money available for K-12 education be used to backfill at least some of the $1 billion in cuts schools have taken in recent years.

(Statehouse jargon for this proposal is “buying down the negative factor,” referring to the formula used by the legislature to trim K-12 funding from what it otherwise would have been.)

Lawmakers of both parties have proposed earmarked uses of extra education funding, such as the gifted and talented bill. And Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, and a bipartisan group of allies are working on a bill to direct about $250 million into elements of Johnston’s 2013 shelved school-finance overhaul. (See this story for details on that.)

School district interest groups are hardening their position on this issue, and a majority of Colorado’s superintendents are expected to deliver a letter to lawmakers and Gov. John Hickenlooper, perhaps as early as this week, insisting that $275 million be devoted to “buying down” the negative factor in 2014-15. (If there’s no significant buy down of the negative factor, there’s even quiet talk of a lawsuit challenging it, on the grounds that it violates Amendment 23, the 2000 constitutional provision that was approved by voters and which sets the rules for annual increases in K-12 spending.)

The negative factor was mentioned repeatedly in opposition testimony Monday on House Bill 14-1102.

“We do see it as a mandate” on school districts, said Don Anderson, executive director on the East Center BOCES, which provides services to districts on the eastern plains. “These funds would be far more beneficial in buying down the negative factor.”

That theme was repeated by other witnesses, including Bruce Caughey, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, and Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards. “If we truly want to serve our students we much reduce the negative factor,” she said.

Supporters of the bill stressed the need to identify gifted students early so that they can receive the kind of instruction that will engage them and keep them in school.

“I was sitting in the classroom bored out of my mind,” said Loveland High School junior Dylan McNally, who said he wasn’t identified as gifted and talented until he was in the third grade. “I think we need to get kids identified early.”

Linda Crane, executive director of the Colorado Association for the Gifted and Talented, said, “gifted students from lower income families will continue to fall through the cracks” unless universal evaluation of students is implemented.

The bill passed on a party-line vote, with all seven committee Democrats voting for it and all six Republicans voting no. The sponsor, Rep. Cherilyn Peniston, D-Westminster, is committee vice chair and a longtime gifted-and-talented advocate who is serving her last term in the House. Passage of the bill in House Education reflected party solidarity among Democrats, something that may change when education spending bills are winnowed later.

In other action

House Education also voted 7-6 to pass House Bill 14-1156, which would make all students in grades 3-12 who are now eligible for reduced-price lunches eligible for free lunches. (A state law passed a few years ago made free lunches universal for students in grades PRE-2, regardless of whether family income made them eligible only for reduced-price lunch.)

“The reality is that when families are hurting that doesn’t stop at the third grade,” said sponsor Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City. He was sponsor of the earlier bill that applied to PRE-2 and also of last year’s breakfast-after-the-bell law.

The measure also goes to the House Appropriations Committee. Financing is less of an issue with this bill because its $2.4 million price tag would be offset by an estimated increase of $21.4 million in federal reimbursements to the school lunch program.

The committee was more bipartisan on Senate Bill 14-004, the measure that would allow community colleges of offer bachelor of applied sciences degrees in such vocational fields as dental hygiene, water quality management and culinary arts. The bill passed 11-2, with only two GOP members voting no.

Use the Education Bill Tracker to read bill texts and find additional information.

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