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Five big issues that got lawmakers talking at Chalkbeat’s annual legislative preview

Sen. Nancy Todd, Rep. Brittany Pettersen, Rep. Jim Wilson and Sen. Tim Neville (Chalkbeat photo by Yesenia Robles).
Sen. Nancy Todd, Rep. Brittany Pettersen, Rep. Jim Wilson and Sen. Tim Neville (Chalkbeat photo by Yesenia Robles).

Two days before the dawn of another legislative session, Chalkbeat Colorado convened a bipartisan panel of five lawmakers Monday to handicap what to expect on the education front, from school finance to preschool discipline.

About 175 people bought tickets to our second annual legislative preview featuring:

  • Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, member of the Senate Education Committee
  • Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, chair of the House Education Committee
  • Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, member of the Joint Budget Committee
  • Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, member of the Senate Education Committee
  • Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, member of the House Education Committee

The following is a recap of the event, which was moderated by deputy bureau chief Nic Garcia, drawing from comments from the speakers and audience comments on social media.

You can listen to the full audio or relive it through Facebook Live (see bottom of story for both).

School funding

It comes as no surprise that school funding tops the list of Capitol priorities this year.

The state perennially ranks near the bottom nationally in school funding. Complicated tax laws, inequities in school districts’ ability to raise local taxes, pressures on lawmakers to fund transportation projects this year and other factors could make solutions elusive.

Rankin, Pettersen and Wilson are among a diverse group of lawmakers that have been batting around ideas. Rankin said the goal is to “bring order to the chaos” of school funding.

One possibility is drafting legislation that would ask for voters to set a uniform state tax rate on property, with the aim of helping level the playing field. Right now, every county and school district taxes personal and business property at varying rates, leading to vast funding disparities.

Rankin is leading the effort along with Rep. Millie Hamner, a Frisco Democrat. The duo is also talking about setting up a committee and hiring a third party to establish a new long-term vision for Colorado’s education system. The thinking is that before getting public buy-in in investing in public education, it’s essential to first lay out what exactly they’d be paying for.

One audience member — Douglas County school board member Anne Marie Lemieux — questioned Rankin’s comment that legislators should take the lead on the issue.

Pettersen clarified:

Rankin also had a grim projection for the “negative factor,” a controversial mechanism the state uses to rein in constitutionally mandated increases in per-pupil funding tied to inflation.

Rankin projected that the negative factor — in effect, a funding shortfall — will grow from roughly $831 million to more than $1 billion. That’s more than three times the $46 million increase in Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s November budget proposal.

The nation’s new federal education law

How will the arrival of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the nation’s new education law, impact education policy in Colorado?

Wilson, who is serving on a committee organized by the Colorado Department of Education responsible for drafting the state’s federally required education plan, noted that Colorado already has plenty of flexibility through waivers the state has obtained from the previous law, No Child Left Behind.

Still, there was optimism that changes could be afoot.

Pettersen urged caution in making any changes to Colorado’s system for holding schools, districts and educators accountable for student performance.

Neville said he’d like to get rid of the law altogether, drawing this rebuke from veteran Adams County educator Mark Sass:

During the audience Q&A, Jan Brennan of the Education Commission of the States pointed out that the phrase “well-rounded education” appears over 50 times in the new law. What, she wondered, would lawmakers like to see happen along those lines?

Wilson touted the importance of “the basics,” pointing to his encounters with what he described as “appalling” misspellings on school bulletin boards. Todd agreed that the basics are extremely important, but that education also must must consider the whole child, which means investments in music, the arts and physical education.

Charter funding equalization

The legislature is also expected to again consider a bill that would require local school districts to share the fruits of voter-approved tax measures with charter schools.

The divide on the panel is a good indication of why its political prospects are dim.

Pettersen said that given that the school funding shortfall is projected to increase and schools are facing cuts, “it’s going to be a difficult conversation.” And Todd made her position clear:

Neville, in contrast, supports requiring equal funding for charter schools.

Pettersen’s response:

Early childhood discipline

How to address the suspension of expulsion of preschoolers — a practice that disproportionately impacts black boys, especially — continues to be a vexing issue.

Last year, proposed legislation to tackle the question did not get traction. But the issue is expected to return this year after a group of early childhood advocates and state officials worked together to lay out possible solutions.

Among them: collecting more detailed suspension and expulsion data from more early childhood programs, creating policies limiting the use of suspension and expulsion, and giving providers more training in how to handle challenging behavior like chronic biting, hitting and tantrums.

Wilson wasn’t bullish on the issue getting much attention this session.

“We’ve got a lot of things we’re dealing with this year and I don’t see the suspensions and expulsions of early childhood students being a top priority with all the big dragons we’ve got to fight in education,” he said.

Lawmakers agreed that suspension and expulsion should be a last resort. But how to ensure that’s the case? Pettersen and Todd underscored the importance of gathering stronger data, which would allow officials to better grasp why the practice is used.

As former Democratic state Sen. Evie Hudak, who attended the panel, pointed out:

Licensing teachers

Should Colorado’s system of licensing teachers change to make it easier for nontraditional teachers to get a stronger toehold in the state’s classrooms?

The law governing teacher licenses hasn’t changed since the 1990s, and Hickenlooper has said he wants to revamp it. Wilson and other Republicans also hope to relax licensing rules for rural schools, where hiring a licensed teacher can be difficult.

Todd had a couple of thoughts.

The dean of the School of Education at Metropolitan State University of Denver had this response to the second piece of that:

Replay of event on Facebook Live:

Legislative Preview

Posted by Chalkbeat Colorado on Monday, January 9, 2017

Listen to the event here:

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