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Data privacy, school finance top education issues for 2016 legislative session

For education, the 2016 legislative session was more about what didn’t happen than what did.

To be sure, the session will be remembered for passage for a comprehensive student data privacy bill and for avoiding an increase in Colorado’s K-12 funding shortfall.

But lawmakers didn’t make much progress on other critical issues, settling for a compromise on charter school funding and failing to agree on a budgeting change that could have yielded more cash for schools.

Other hot-button issues — including testing, accountability reform and inequitable school funding really weren’t on the table.

“It was one of those sessions where many people were happy we kept the status quo,” said Lakewood Sen. Andy Kerr, the senior Democrat on the Senate Education Committee. “We were sent here to solve problems. I don’t think we solved many.”

The legislature has the power to change life for hundreds of thousands of kids, parents and teachers. Think of the 2008 standards-and-testing plan, 2010’s educator evaluation law and the early-literacy initiative launched in 2012.

Not many lives were changed this year.

Here is a look at what the 2016 session means for you.

Students – Colorado kids will be taking the same statewide tests next year as they did this spring. An attempt to expand concurrent enrollment — courses that give high school students the chance to take courses for college credit — stalled. But other legislation could give kids incentives to take science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, classes.

Parents – Much more detail on what student data is collected will be available once the privacy law is fully rolled out. But the responsibility will be on parents to read that information on district websites. Parents who want to exempt their kids from immunization laws will continue to file paperwork at school; a bill to centralize filing with the state didn’t survey emotional squabbling over immunizations.

Teachers – With K-12 funding up modestly, many teachers won’t see salary freezes, job losses or more crowded classrooms. As always, the budget situation can vary significantly between districts. Half of teacher evaluations will continue to be based on student academic growth because a bid to eliminate that requirement died.

Administrators – Principals and central office staff will be spending less time at their computers typing up improvement plans because most schools now will have to file them every other year instead of annually.. But the data privacy bill will impose new work on the district offices.

Board members – Starting in 2017, school board candidates will be required to report their campaign spending more frequently. But they can continue to raise as much money as they want because a bill to limit contributions failed.

Rural superintendents – The men and women who struggle with crumbling, decades-old buildings will have a better shot at getting to build new schools because lawmakers injected more money into the Building Excellent Schools Today, or BEST, program.

College kids – Tuition will increase next year at almost every state college and university. But it won’t grow as much as it could have, given that legislative budget writers were able to hold state higher education support flat rather than take the $20 million cut proposed by the administration of Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Get the details

Those are the highlights. But the details of those and other issues are noteworthy, too. Those are detailed below. The links will take you to articles with more details. The numbers of major bills are noted so you can check out the details in the Education Bill Tracker.

Charter schools – There’s no question the session’s biggest education fight was over two charter school measures, Senate Bills 16-187 and 16-188.

They proposed mandatory sharing of district tax override revenues with charters and a variety of administrative changes charters wanted. A complicated compromise jelled in the session’s final days, although the rushed parliamentary tactics used to make that happen ruffled some members’ feathers.

Charters didn’t get revenue sharing but did win on other points, including reduction of some paperwork and greater transparency on the cost of district services provided to charters. Who won and who lost depends on whom you ask, but there seemed to be general relief that a deal was struck.

“With the cooperation of Senate leadership we decided it would be better to do something smaller” than originally proposed, said House Speaker Dickie Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder. Doing so “avoided tremendous disruption” in the session’s final days, she said.

Charters won a few more points through provisions of other bills, including a fix for a funding problem facing some schools overseen by the state Charter School Institute rather than districts and loosening of restrictions on applications for BEST construction funds.

And a bill that would have required more paperwork from charters seeking waivers from various state education laws died quietly after the main compromise was reached.

Data privacy – “We started addressing the data issue, which is huge,” said Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida. House Bill 16-1423 sailed through the process without a single no vote and few amendments.

The bill sets detailed requirements on the Department of Education, schools districts and software providers for protection and appropriate use of student data plus transparency requirements for privacy policies and details on what student information is collected. The centerpiece of the bill is a lengthy definition of personally identifiable information that has to be protected.

Why did a big, complicated bill pass so easily? Passions had cooled after 2015’s stalemate on the issue, and lawmakers uniformly credit Reps. Paul Lundeen of Monument and Alex Garnett of Denver, the bipartisan duo that wrote the bill, for smoothly negotiating with interest groups.

Districts & boards – Districts generally escaped new mandates this session, even though there was the tradeoff between less accountability documentation (thanks to House Bill 16-1440) and more data privacy work.

Proposals that would have made it harder for districts to outsource some non-education services and to create an independent ethics commission to investigate complaints against school board members quickly died.

Early education – There really wasn’t any movement in this area. Proposals to increase state support for full-day kindergarten were politely heard early in the session and then quietly killed at the end. It’s not that lawmakers of both parties don’t like the idea, it’s just that there’s no money available.

Wilson, a vocal advocate of full funding, said, “I’ll be back with a vengeance next session.”

The idea of spending more money to trim the backlog of kids who can’t get into the state preschool program didn’t even come up.

A bill that would have given districts the choice of whether to give K-3 literacy assessments in English or Spanish passed the House but died in the Senate. That leaves in force a State Board of Education rule requiring English language learners to take at least one literacy assessment a year in English.

Families – Its Democratic sponsors worked hard but weren’t able to save a bill to revive an expired state law that gave parents unpaid time off from work to attend a limited number of school meetings. Democrats also made an issue of college affordability, proposing bills to create more consumer protections for college loans and to create bigger middle-income tax deductions for investment in college savings plan. All failed in the Republican-majority Senate.

Funding – Year in and year out school finance remains the biggest and toughest education issue.

Thanks to creative work by the Joint Budget Committee, the 2016-17 school finance act holds the negative factor – the amount that K-12 support falls short of full funding under state law – steady at $831 million. Early estimates had the negative factor rising to as much as $905 million next year.

Total school funding will be $6.4 billion next year, an average of $7,425 per student and $112 more than this year.

Anticipated shifts in state revenues and Colorado’s complex budget rules may make it lot tougher for legislators next year to hold the negative factor steady in 2017-18.

Lawmakers killed a variety of other fringe funding schemes from both sides of the political aisle, including proposals to close offshore tax loopholes, tap state lottery revenues for schools and allow tax credits for the cost of private school tuition.

The biggest bid for extra school funding was the Democratic effort to reclassify the hospital provider fee so that it doesn’t count against the state revenue limit and divert tax funds to citizen refunds instead of spending. Even though the hospital fee and the federal funds it draws can be spent only on medical care, it still counts against the revenue limit.

Two measure on that issue (House Bills 16-1420 and 1450) died Tuesday after a ceremonial hearing in the Republican-majority Senate Finance Committee.

Democrats from Hickenlooper on down vow to bring the plan back in 2017, when they hope their party will control both chambers. This issue is bigger than education because the biggest beneficiary of any new money would be transportation.

But defeat of the hospital fee bill “was a vote to cut education funding,” said Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder.

Simmering below the surface of this year’s finance debate was the issue of funding equity. The state’s funding formula is designed to tailor individual district revenues to needs that are driven by size, location and percentages of at-risk students. But the way those factors are weighted actually advantages larger, wealthier districts.

Three legislative committees chewed on the issue during a series of joint meetings, but the group made no recommendations and talk of continuing the study came to nothing.

Outgoing Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Commerce City, tried to raise the issue in a concrete way with an amendment to the finance bill that would have taken money away from big districts. But his timing for unlucky, as his amendment came up late one night after an acrimonious debate on other issues.

On deck for 2017
  • Legislators come and go, but most education issues live on forever.Expect school finance and equity, teacher evaluations, kindergarten funding, concurrent enrollment and charter schools to be on the agenda for 2017. Plus a lot more.
  • One key issue that lawmakers didn’t tackle this session was tinkering with accountability, assessment and evaluation to take advantage of greater state flexibility offered by the new federal ESSA law. A panel of legislators will study the issue over the summer and autumn.
  • “That will be a big discussion next year,” said Lakewood Democratic Rep. Brittany Pettersen, chair of the House Education Committee.
  • The 2017 legislature could look very different. Some key education figures are leaving the Senate, most of the party leaders in both houses are term-limited and November elections will bring a big class class of freshmen who will have to learn the issues once lawmakers convene next January.

Rural schools – Colorado’s 144 rural districts may have been the biggest winners this session, if in a modest way.

They won funding for programs intended to improve recruitment and retention of teachers (Senate Bill 16-104) and the increases in BEST funding (Senate Bills 16-035 and 16-072). Also passed was a measure to boost funding for supplemental online and blended learning programs used by some rural districts to provide classes their own limited staffs can’t teach (House Bill 16-1222).

Rural advocates also won a provision in one bill that requires the State Board of Education to consider the special circumstances of rural schools when issuing rules and regulations. Paperwork and state reports have been a particular grievance for small districts.

Safety & health – This was another low-key issue in 2016.

The highest profile measure was House Bill 16-1373, which allows parents and caregivers to give medical marijuana to children at school. School districts were leery of this from the start, nervous about federal rules for drug-free schools. But legislator sympathy for kids struggling with epilepsy and other illnesses carried the day.

On school safety, lawmakers approved a measure that allows mental health professionals such as school psychologists to break client confidentiality rules in some cases when they believe there’s a threat to schools or students.

Students – Lawmakers made modest attempts to boost STEM training. One measure allows districts to use computer science classes to fulfill math and science graduation requirements. Another will give districts financial incentives for students who successfully complete courses or apprenticeships in fields that are in high demand by industry.

For students taking college classes while in high school, a successful bill requires districts and colleges to tell them about which courses are eligible for credit at any state college. Students have encountered problems with courses that are good at only one college. However, a broader measure intended to create uniform concurrent enrollment rules statewide and to change funding of the programs died.

Also killed was a bill that sought to make history and civics classes more inclusive of minority groups and another that would have allowed districts to issue certificates of biliteracy with high schools diplomas.

Teachers – The measure to reduce the role of student achievement in evaluations (Senate Bill 16-105) died in the first committee that considered it and didn’t spark a broader debate about evaluation.

“I’ll bring it back until I’m through in the Senate,” vowed sponsor Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs.

The same thing happened with other bills backed by the Colorado Education Association — the state’s largest teachers union — including an effort to change state law that requires both a teacher and a principal to agree on teacher placement in schools. Also killed was a measure to give whistleblower protection to teachers and other local government workers.

Testing – Exhausted from last year’s assessment battles, lawmakers didn’t want to touch this issue. Efforts to eliminate state ninth grade tests (Senate Bill 16-005) and require a new online civics test in high school (Senate Bill 16-148) both died on Senate floor votes, something that happens rarely.

One small testing bill snuck through the process and will require the state Department of Education to study possible assessment alternatives and report back to lawmakers next year.