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Rural paperwork relief bill advances; teacher incentive bill does not

A measure to give some small rural districts a bit of a break on state education paperwork won 12-0 approval Monday from the House Education Committee.

The committee also approved a bill that would make cyber bullying of young people a separate crime in the state law books. And the panel rejected a proposed $4 million pilot program that would have provided extra pay to highly qualified teachers who worked in low-performing schools.

The rural flexibility measure, House Bill 14-1204, was considerably more modest than rural districts would have liked, and the bill was trimmed down from the version originally introduced by Republican Rep. Jim Wilson of Salida, a retired rural superintendent.

Rural superintendents, who often are the only administrators in their districts, “are focused more on reporting than on student achievement,” said Paula Stephenson, representing the Colorado Rural Caucus and the Colorado BOCES Association. She claimed there are 500-550 reports a year that districts must submit to the Colorado Department of Education.

The amended version of Wilson’s bill would provide two main benefits to districts with fewer than 1,000 students and defined as rural by CDE, based on remoteness from population centers.

First, districts rated as accredited or accredited with distinction would have to submit performance plans only every two years, instead of the annual plans required now. Just over 100 districts meet the small-and-rural definition. About 70 of those districts would be eligible, according to a Chalkbeat Colorado review of accreditation status.

Second, the bill would allow such districts to work with BOCES to obtain the services of literacy specialists for implementation of the READ Act, the state’s early-literacy law.

The paperwork requirements of state accountability law and READ Act mandates have been a sore point for small districts. Superintendent Paul McCarty of the 250-student Hanover district east of Colorado Springs testified that he has only four or five students who need the special services required by the literacy and gets only $4,300 in state reimbursement. He has no reading intervention specialists on his staff of fewer than 20 teachers.

Hopes by Wilson and the rural caucus to ease other paperwork requirements and even give rural districts access to the kinds of waivers enjoyed by charters schools fell by the wayside before Monday’s meeting because they conflict with federal requirements or faced opposition.

Strong support for cyber bulling bill

Consideration of House Bill 14-1131 consumed nearly 2 ½ hours of the committee’s four-hour session Monday.

The measure is fairly simple – it would establish cyber bullying of a minor as a specific misdemeanor in state law. The measure brought sometimes-emotional testimony from a long list of witnesses.

“Some kids — you’ve heard the terrible stories — even commit suicide” because of cyber bullying,” said sponsor Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora. “Now is the time for state of Colorado to add cyber bullying to the criminal code.”

Ashley Berry, a Littleton student who’s become an anti-bullying activist, said, “I went into complete depression” at one point because of cyber bullying.

It’s possible but not particularly easy to prosecute cyber bullying under current harassment and stalking laws, legal experts indicated, saying a specific new law will be more useful for prosecutors.

“It give me an extra tool, and a tool that I don’t have right now,” said Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler. He said a cyber bullying law also would give prosecutors leverage to put juvenile offenders into diversion programs.

The bill passed 12-0

Teacher incentives bill fails the test

The one measure that didn’t make it out of House Education Monday was House Bill 14-1262.

The proposed pilot program would have provided stipends of between $3,000 and $12,000 a year to highly effective teachers who worked in low-performing schools. The $4 million program would have provided grants to about 100 teachers over four years.

The measure had bipartisan sponsorship (one Democrat and 10 Republicans) but was the brainchild of Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Brighton. The bill was backed by Colorado Succeeds, the business-oriented advocacy group, and the Colorado Children’s Campaign. It was partly inspired by a 2013 study by Mathematica Policy Research (more details on that report here).

Lobbyists for the Colorado Association of School Boards and the Colorado Education Association opposed the bill, saying the money could be better spent on basic school support and that the bill is premature because the state’s teacher evaluation system isn’t fully rolled out.

Some committee Democrats went out of their way to compliment Priola’s effort. “While I support what you’re trying to do … I just haven’t heard the compelling evidence that this is the right strategy,” said Dillon Democratic Rep. Millie Hamner, committee chair.

Majority Democrats killed the bill on a 7-6 vote.

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