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Plan to reduce accountability paperwork clears the legislature

Many Colorado educators have been hoping the legislature would give them relief from an important but sometimes onerous chore – writing annual district and school improvement plans.

They got their wish Monday when the House accepted Senate amendments to House Bill 16-1440 and re-passed it on a 56-8 vote.

The main element of the bill allows most schools and districts to file unified improvement plans with the state every two years instead of annually. The new schedule will apply to all districts rated as accredited or accredited with distinction, the top two categories for districts. Schools in the top performance category would be eligible. That includes about 70 percent of districts and schools.

Districts and schools in the two lowest categories, priority improvement and turnaround, would continue to file annual improvement plans. Such schools and districts are on what’s called the “accountability clock,” meaning that if they remain at those levels for five consecutive years they’re subject to possible state intervention. The clock was stopped this year because of the data gap created by the change in statewide tests but will resume next school year.

Improvement plans are central to Colorado’s district and school rating system, created by a 2009 law. That law is among major education reforms passed starting in 2008, including the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, the educator evaluation law and the early literacy.

A few years ago, the idea of tinkering with improvement plans might have raised alarms, particularly among education reform groups, because of concerns doing so would have reduced momentum for school improvement. But now, more than five years after the first plans were written, there was no controversy about changing the schedule.

Improvement plans “have become a compliance exercise,” said Jen Walmer, state director of Democrats for Education Reform. She said she hopes the change will give districts and the Department of Education more time to focus on improving schools with the lowest achievement levels.

The change is expected to provide the greatest relief to about 40 districts that are classified as rural but have between 1,000 and 6,500 students each. Small rural districts – a separate classification that covers districts with fewer than 1,000 students – were granted every-other-year flexibility two years ago. Currently, 92 of those districts are on alternate-year filing.

Annual filing has been less of a burden for districts with more than 6,500 students because they tend to have more administrative personnel.

Nearly two-dozen education bills were in play Monday as lawmakers scrambled to meet their Wednesday adjournment deadline.

Two bills of note died Monday:

House Bill 16-1016 was killed 3-2 by the Senate State Affairs Committee. The bill would have created a grant program for districts that wanted to develop additional measures of student academic growth for use in educator evaluations. The idea has been a priority for Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley, and for the Colorado Education Association. But it faced long odds because of cost, even though Young had it amended in the House to make funding contingent on any year-end state surplus.

House Bill 16-1463 died on a Senate floor vote. The measure would have changed the breakfast-after-the-bell meal program so that some students would pay for meals.

The 2013 law requires schools with 80 percent or larger enrollment of students who qualify for free- and reduced-price lunches to provide free breakfast to all students after school starts. This school year that requirement kicked in for schools with between 70 and 80 percent of those students. The bill would have given schools in the 70-80 percent category the option of charging non-FRL students for breakfast.

The measure drew opposition from lawmakers and advocacy groups who argued the bill would complicate administration of the program. They also feared that creating separate groups of pay and no-pay students would exacerbate social divisions among students.