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Colorado legislature at the halfway mark: Where education bills stand

Several men and women stand at the bottom of grey steps and gold bannisters in the dimly lit Colorado Capitol.

Colorado lawmakers have until May 11 to complete their work, including passing a budget.

AAron Ontiveroz / The Denver Post

Colorado lawmakers officially hit the halfway mark of the legislative session on Saturday. Like most years, it looks to be a scramble toward the finish, with major legislation tied up in the budget process. 

“I’m confident we are going to get all the work we need to get done by the 120th day,” Senate President Stephen Fenberg said. “It does mean we are going to have long days, potentially working weekends. But we say that every session.”

In some regards, education is taking a back seat to major debates about public safety, abortion rights, and overhauling the state’s broken behavioral health system, but lawmakers have already taken steps to increase school funding, address the teacher shortage, and expand access to higher education. With the state flush with cash, Colorado lawmakers could address chronic underfunding of schools and set the stage for more school finance reforms.

Democrats created Colorado’s Department of Early Childhood months earlier than expected, and in the second half of the session will take up legislation to implement scores of recommendations to expand access to high-quality preschool and affordable child care. Universal preschool is a top priority for Gov. Jared Polis, who is up for re-election this fall.

The Democrats who control both chambers have voted down a host of bills from the Republicans’ “Commitment to Colorado” agenda. Those bills would have expanded parental rights and given families taxpayer money to spend on educational needs of their choosing. Some of these ideas — including an income tax reduction and more transparency around educational materials — could still end up on the ballot in November. 

Other issues, like reforming teacher evaluations, have divided Democrats. Perhaps the biggest fight on education policy is happening out of public view. Democrats have yet to introduce a bill that would guarantee collective bargaining rights for public sector workers amid opposition from school districts and the governor — even though leadership in both chambers says it’s a priority.

Here’s a look at where education bills stand so far:

Education funding: In a state that has underfunded both K-12 and higher education for years,  this year’s picture is looking rosy.

Lawmakers could make major inroads into fully funding K-12 education. For years they have diverted funds guaranteed to public education. Known as the budget stabilization factor, this amount was $572 million this year and adds up to more than $10 billion over the last decade.

Lawmakers already bumped up education funding for the current fiscal year, reducing the withholding and increasing funding for at-risk students. A bill signed by the governor this month provided a $159 million mid-year boost.

Lawmakers on the Joint Budget Committee, meanwhile, are considering a plan that would eliminate the budget stabilization factor over a two-year period. That would mean Colorado schools would get the funding promised under the state constitution for the first time since the Great Recession. 

They’re also weighing increasing higher education funding — the state’s colleges and universities are seeking double what the governor’s office recommended — and how much tuition increase to allow.

Longer-term changes to school finance are also making progress. The House Education Committee unanimously approved a plan to use a variety of factors, not just applications for subsidized lunches, to count at-risk students, and the Senate Education Committee unanimously approved to a bill to significantly increase special education funding. Both bills appear headed toward passage.

School accountability and teacher evaluations: After a two-year pandemic pause, Colorado plans to transition back to reporting on how well schools are teaching students, but the state won’t intervene in struggling schools until 2023-24. A bill to restart the accountability system unanimously passed the Senate but still needs approval in the House.

Lawmakers also welcomed a proposal to allow schools nearing five years on the state watchlist to use a community school model as their turnaround strategy. However, the bill probably won’t help the Adams 14 school district after more than a decade “on the clock.”

Teacher evaluations have also been on pause during the pandemic. A bill supported by Polis that would reduce the weight given to measures of student academic growth, provide more training for evaluators, and bring back evaluations in 2023-24 received bipartisan support in the Senate Education Committee and is waiting for funding in the appropriations committee. 

Many teachers and school district leaders have called for more significant changes, but they may not happen this year. A bill sponsored by state Sen. Tammy Story, an Evergreen Democrat, that would have eliminated the role of test scores in evaluations was voted down in committee. Another bill that would suspend the use of test scores in evaluations when disasters disrupt learning hasn’t received a vote. The governor has indicated he opposes it. Story said she is in ongoing conversations and hopes to find a way forward.

Teacher shortages: Two bills that go almost hand-in-hand would make it easier for retired teachers to return to the classroom. One would let older educators work as substitutes for more days without endangering their pensions, while another would let them accept full-time positions if rural districts couldn’t fill them other ways. School district leaders called the bills — both awaiting the governor’s signature — one of the most helpful things lawmakers could do other than increase funding. 

Another bill would help aspiring teachers across the finish line by paying stipends for student teachers. It passed the House Education Committee with broad support, but it could cost $20 million and still needs to be funded. It’s awaiting appropriations.

Higher Education: The most significant bills moving through the legislature try to help students get to college and stay there.

Lawmakers want to expand support for foster youth by making public college free to them. Another bill would expand a statewide program that allows students to take college-level classes during a fifth year of high school. Both bills have passed the House Education Committee and need appropriations.

Colleges wouldn’t be able to withhold transcripts that students need for debts such as library fines and tickets under a proposal that has passed the House. That bill is due to be heard in Senate Education Committee Thursday.

Lawmakers have yet to consider a bill that would study how to better support students with disabilities.

Reading instruction: Three years ago, Colorado lawmakers required early elementary teachers to show they understood best practices in teaching reading, part of a broader effort to raise persistently low reading levels. This year, they’re asking principals and other administrators who supervise elementary teachers to take similar training. A bipartisan bill passed the Senate Education Committee unanimously.

School safety: Although Colorado lawmakers want to send funds to schools for security improvements, the majority of proposals would focus heavily on student mental and behavioral health.

On Thursday a House Education committee unanimously voted to continue a grant program for school safety upgrades. The bill also includes funding for behavioral health. But Democratic lawmakers said no to a Republican-led bill that would have sent $5 million to schools to hire school resource officers. 

Instead, Democrats have focused on reducing juvenile involvement in the justice system and creating community- and school-based approaches to youth violence.

Correction: This article has been updated to provide a more accurate description of Senate Bill 69. It would eliminate the role of test scores in evaluations during disasters, not suspend evaluations altogether. The bill has not yet received a committee vote.

Jason Gonzales is a reporter covering higher education and the Colorado legislature. Chalkbeat Colorado partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage. Contact Jason at jgonzales@chalkbeat.org.

Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at emeltzer@chalkbeat.org.

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