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Party lines sharply drawn on Common Core, PARCC

Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, argues for cutting funding for PARCC tests.
Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, argues for cutting funding for PARCC tests.
Chalkbeat Colorado

During a procedural roll-call vote early Thursday evening, all 17 Republican senators voted for a motion to pull $16.8 million in funding for the coming PARCC tests from the proposed 2014-15 state budget.

The motion failed, as all 18 Democratic senators voted against it. The vote was not on a bill, merely on an amendment to a small portion of the budget.

The vote came exactly a week after the House defeated a similar amendment during its consideration of the budget, House Bill 13-1336. But three House Republicans opposed the move to defund PARCC, including Cheri Gerou of Evergreen, Frank McNulty of Highlands Ranch and Carole Murray of Castle Rock.

The votes spotlight erosion of Republican support for key elements of the mainline education reform agenda. In past sessions many Republicans have supported major reform legislation such as school and district accountability and educator evaluation, programs that depend on statewide test results.

“It’s really a vote in support of or in opposition to the state proceeding with the Common Core,” said conservative Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud. “I don’t know of a more substantive decision we can make today.”

The vote was the culmination of a discussion that started earlier in the afternoon when Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, proposed two amendments to trim the $16.8 million from the budget. The two amendments consumed about 45 minutes of debate, and both were defeated on initial votes.

Both were doomed from the start, but that didn’t dampen Marble’s emotional rhetoric. She’s emerged this year as the Senate’s most strident critic of testing, the Common Core Standards and almost anything else associated with education reform.

She talks a lot about returning to the way education used to be, and on Thursday she said, “Going back to basics is not a bad thing.” Earlier she commented, “ ‘Dick and Jane’ wasn’t such a bad reading book after all.”

Lundberg picked up the theme, saying the Common Core “has a whole lot to do with indoctrination [in] a unified set of values.”

But Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, argued, “This amendment turns the clock backwards instead of moving us forward into the 21st century.”

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver and a central figure on education reform legislation, also spoke against defunding PARCC.

The roll-call vote came at the end of the debate, when attempts to overturn earlier votes are permitted under legislative rules.

“Voracious appetite” beats out fiscal caution

The simmering fight over campus construction projects boiled up again Thursday as the Senate debated the budget.

While ideology and partisan feeling play a role in the testing and K-12 discussions, opinions in the college construction debate are driven by local interests, and they cross party lines.

And the funny thing is the fight is largely over state revenue hasn’t yet been collected. The tussle is largely about a priority list of campus construction projects that, under the plan approved by the House, would receive up to $119 million in funding only if the 2013-14 budget year surplus ends up being larger than currently forecast by executive branch economists. (It’s complicated; see this story for the explanation.)

After the dust settled Thursday evening in the Senate, the price tag for wish list projects has risen to $129 million. And senators had decided a new science building at Fort Lewis College would be split between $10 million in certain funding and $10 million in surplus “wish list” funding and that a $20 million building at Western State Colorado University in Gunnison had been added to the surplus-funding wish list.

Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, fought hard against the pork-barrel spending spree, repeatedly referring to lawmakers’ “voracious appetite” for building projects. But his amendments to trim the cost of the wish list were defeated.

“There is a voracious appetite to fund projects,” he said. Rather, he suggested, lawmakers shouldn’t commit future revenues now but let the 2015 legislature decide how to spend any surplus from this year.

“Let the army of lobbyists for all the higher education institutions take care of that with next year’s Capital Development Committee,” he said. “I wish we could restrain ourselves.”

After losing a vote on one amendment, Steadman quipped, “The voracious appetite marches on.”

Steadman did get some support from Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs. “What we’re fighting over is phantom dollars for phantom projects,” he said.

The dispute over spending future revenues is partly a feud between the Capital Development Committee and the Joint Budget Committee, of which Steadman is vice chair.

Rep. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village and chair of capital development, objected to Steadman’s “voracious” comments. A former CU regent, Schwartz is known for her advocacy of higher education spending.

Use of to-be-collected surplus revenues for campus buildings would have the effect of capping at $31 million a 2013 law to transfer extra money to the State Education Fund, which is used to support various K-12 programs.

That was mentioned only once during Thursday’s debate. Majority Leader Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, said while he supports the college funding plan, “It also means less money going into the State Education Fund.” (K-12 interests have decided not to oppose the plan and focus instead on bigger education funding bills.)

Trying to steal from various Peters to pay Paul

One of Marble’s amendments would have shifted the $16.8 million of testing money into K-12 funding to reduce what everyone at the Capitol calls the “negative factor,” or the current $1 billion shortfall in school funding.

Republicans had drafted nine other negative-factor amendments that proposed to generate varying amounts of money by taking it from a grab bag of state programs.

Steadman kept pointing out that the negative factor can’t be affected by amendments to the budget bill but rather can only be changed through the annual School Finance Act, which is House Bill 14-1298 this year.

Republicans made their points on three of the amendments, all of which lost, and they withdrew the other six, to the relief of everyone in the chamber.

(Sen. David Balmer, D-Centennial, provided a little insight into the intensity of negative factor as an issue this year. “I’ve received almost 700 emails from parents in my district that the negative factor be reduced with no strings attached.”)

The Senate is expected to take the final roll-call vote on HB 14-1336 Friday. Then the Joint Budget Committee will have to reconcile differing House and Senate amendments and make sure the whole thing balances.

“I think we have some work yet to do,” Steadman said.

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