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Speaker of the House K.C. Becker is sworn in on the first day of the 2019 Colorado legislative session.

Speaker of the House K.C. Becker is sworn in on the first day of the 2019 Colorado legislative session.

Colorado Democrats open the 2019 legislative session with a call for education investment

Colorado’s way of life depends on making a greater investment in the education of its children, Speaker of the House K.C. Becker said in her opening day speech Friday, to a standing ovation from Democratic legislators.

“Many of our educators are having to work multiple jobs just to pay their own bills, and many students have never had the experience of being in a fully funded school system,” Becker said. She cited the achievements of the previous session, including a significant increase in per-pupil spending and programs to reduce teacher shortages, but said that “if we intend to leave our state in a better position than we found it, then we must do more.”

How much more — and in what form — will be one of the big questions during the 2019 legislative session. Education is just one of the areas in which Democrats have made promises to voters. They also want to address affordable housing, health care, renewable energy, oil and gas regulations, paid family leave, and more.

But Democrats wasted little time in flexing their majorities in both chambers by immediately re-introducing two education bills that Senate Republicans killed last year, before a historic blue wave swept them from power.

One, sponsored by state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, would provide $5,000 of loan forgiveness for teachers who work in hard-to-fill positions, for example in rural schools or in areas like math or special education. The other, sponsored by House Education Committee Chair Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat, would provide training for school principals.

Both bills represent practical proposals to chip away at problems Colorado faces in attracting and keeping educators. Student loan debt makes it hard for new teachers to accept lower-paying positions in small school districts, and many teachers who leave the profession cite poor leadership from principals as a contributing factor. Strong principals are also an important factor in turning around struggling schools.

Other bills filed on opening day would expand mental health services for students in school and make state capital grants available for infrastructure to support career and technical education, reflecting the priorities that Democrats laid out before the start of the session.

Republicans, for their part, said they would be a loud voice questioning whether Colorado is getting a good return on the education dollars it already spends, even if they don’t have the votes to block legislation.

House Minority Leader Patrick Neville warned against planting “fiscal bombs into the budget in the form of costly new programs” and pointed to the large number of Colorado students not meeting expectations in reading and math. Those numbers are worse for black and Hispanic students.

Neville said Republicans would work to reduce regulations that push districts to hire more administrators, make it easier to fire bad teachers, offer better pay to good teachers, and expand school choice.

“Children deserve hope, but our status quo system robs them of it,” he said. “The time has come for us to have an open mind to new approaches to education because it is obvious that what we’ve been doing isn’t working. We will work with Democrats on any bill that offers real hope for educational success.”

In the Senate, President Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat, kept his remarks brief, calling on that body to address educational inequality as one of many areas in which the legislature could improve the lives of ordinary Coloradans.

Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican, addressed Garcia directly and reminded him that while voters overwhelmingly supported Democratic candidates, they also voted down tax increases, including one that would have raised $1.6 billion a year for education.

“That fact gives me confidence,” he said. “Looking back to the elections last November, it is clear that the people of Colorado voted with you when it came to candidates and they voted with me when it came to issues.”

Holbert said Senate Republicans would support $336 million in additional education spending — reducing by half the amount that Colorado lawmakers withhold from education for other budget priorities — if the economic forecast remains strong and if an equal amount is invested in transportation.

Senate Democrats did not join their Republican colleagues in applauding, according to a Colorado Sun reporter who was in the chamber. These tradeoffs are part of a complicated budget dance in which Republicans want to borrow money for roads, while Democrats fear that committing money to ongoing debt will force cuts to schools and other priorities in the next recession.

Republican education bills included a proposal from state Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs to waive many education regulations for rural districts and one from state Sen. Paul Lundeen of Monument to provide substantial bonuses to teachers deemed to be highly effective under the state’s current evaluation system. The bill calls for school districts and charter schools to get more than $20,000 per teacher for these bonuses, as long as the state has enough money.

No one spoke directly to the incoming governor’s top education priority: funding full-day kindergarten. Jared Polis campaigned on this promise, which would provide relief to parents who pay tuition and to districts covering the cost from other funds, but even some Democrats aren’t sure this is the best way to spend more than $200 million.

Earlier in the week, House Majority Leader Alec Garnett said decisions about education funding would not be finalized until after the March economic forecast.

“We all know and understand that early childhood education has to be a priority,” he said. “We all want to make sure all families have access to free full-day kindergarten. We just have to make sure we’re doing it in a way that it fits into a very efficient budget.”

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