Who Is In Charge

Big four topped 2010 education agenda

The issues
School finance
Pensions
Tuition
Administrative
Charters
ECE
Health
At risk
Higher education
The losers

Four key issues – educator effectiveness, pension reform, school spending and tuition policy – dominated the education debate during the 2010 session of the Colorado legislature.

Pensions and school finance were decided relatively early in the session; educator effectiveness and higher education financial policy weren’t resolved until the closing hours.

Senate Bill 10-191, the educator evaluation and tenure bill, took center stage in the session’s final month, and it has the potential to be the most far-reaching measure passed this year. But, its impact will be much less immediate than that of legislation in the other three areas. (See this separate article for a detailed explanation of SB 10-191.)

School finance

The first piece of 2010 school finance legislation (Senate Bill 10-065) reduced school funding right out of the gate. Introduced Jan. 14 and signed into law two weeks later, the measure took back $130 million in state aid that school districts had hoped to receive in the current school year.

Later in the session, the 2010-11 school finance act (House Bill 10-1369) and the main state budget bill (House bill 10-1376) set total state and local funding at about $5.4 billion for the budget year that starts July 1. That compares to a little less than $5.6 billion this year and is about the same as 2008-09 funding.

This year marks the first time that the legislature didn’t apply the full Amendment 23 formula to school spending, an historic change. It’s estimated full 2010-11 funding would have been about $5.8 billion.

Pensions

Reform of the state pension system, the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, was a key education issue because the system includes large numbers of education employees and retirees. The measure is designed to return PERA to solvency in 30 years. Senate Bill 10-001 was signed less than six weeks after it was introduced, just in time to wipe out a scheduled 3.5 percent annual benefit increase for retirees that would have kicked in March 1.

Future annual increases basically are limited to 2 percent. A class-action challenge to the law is pending in Denver District Court.

Tuition and financial flexibility

Senate Bill 10-003, the higher education financial flexibility legislation, was introduced Jan. 13 but didn’t become a live issue until April 30, when a significantly revised version had its first committee hearing.

In the meantime, the measure had gained a tuition provision that allows state colleges and universities to raise undergraduate resident tuition up to 9 percent a year for five years, starting in 2011-12. (That’s on top of the 9 percent allowed by the legislature for the upcoming 2010-11 school year.)

College boards can seek permission from the Colorado Commission on Higher Education for larger increases and have to submit detailed financial plans with their requests.

The bill also puts into law a higher ed master planning process started earlier by executive order. That plan is to be ready for consideration by the 2011 legislature. The measure also gives institutions more flexibility in use of financial aid and in their financial and administrative processes.

Beyond the big four issues, education measures passed during the 2010 session were a mixture of cleanup bills, pilot programs and hopes for the future.

About 100 education-related bills and resolutions were introduced. The Senate accounted for almost half of those, even though it has only 35 of the legislature’s 100 members.

Here’s a look at some of those measures:

Bureaucratic but interesting

  • HB 1013 – A cleanup bill mostly of note for the fact that it pushes back some Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids deadlines, chiefly the Dec. 15 deadline for the State Board of Education to adopt a new state testing system. That requirement doesn’t kick in until doing so is “fiscally practicable.”
  • HB 1036 – Creates a three-year period for school districts to post a variety of budget and financial information on their websites. This was interesting for its political undertones. Republicans, starting in 2009, tried to make government fiscal transparency a signature issue. Democrats and schools board make the issue of school district their own with this bill.
  • HB 1183 – This bill allows pilot-program studies of alternative ways to finance schools, perhaps planting the sees for future reform.
  • SB 205 – A just-in-case bill that allows districts to ask voters for bond issues whose proceeds could be used for operational costs. That’s a backup plan in case Amendment 61, the proposed restriction on government debt, passes in November. That amendment would shut down a state treasurer’s loan program that some school districts use like a line of credit.
  • SB 8 – Another hope-for-the-future bill, this authorizes a study of the average daily membership method of calculating school enrollment. Currently enrollment, a key factor in district funding, is calculated based on actual attendance during a brief period every October.

Charter schools

  • HB 1345 – Creates a procedure under which the commissioner of education can supervise charter schools in emergency situations, such as financial crises.
  • HB 1412 – Establishes a commission of experts from various fields that will study and recommend operational standards for charter school and best practices for school board when authorizing charters.
  • SB 111 – Allows charters authorized by the state Charter School Institute to contract for services with boards of cooperative education services and authorizes a study of designating institute schools as local education agencies.
  • SB 161 – Allows any charter school to apply for various kinds of federal and other grants through the institute.

Early childhood

A 2009 summer legislative study group suggested several bills, some of which died because funding couldn’t be identified. Others passed but are dependent on finding non-state funding.

  • HB 1026 – Creates an incentive grant program for quality early childhood programs – but the effort is entirely dependent on “gifts, grants and donations.”
  • HB 1028 – Sets up a system for creating a streamlined application process for families seeking educational, health, nutrition and other programs that serve young, at-risk children.
  • HB 1030 – Creates a scholarship program for people seeking associate degrees in early childhood education. But, it’s also solely dependent on “gifts, grants and donations.”

Healthy kids

  • HB 1131 – Establishes a grant program for agencies that involve kids in outdoor activities. This was a push by Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien. It also relies on “gifts, etc.”
  • SB 81 – Creates a task force intended to promote greater use of healthy, local food products by schools.

Troubled kids

  • SB 54 – Requires minimum education services for juveniles being held in adult jails. The measure was substantially watered down because of cost concerns.
  • HB 1274 – Requires notice to schools when students return after time in treatment facilities. This bill has been in the works for two sessions and only passed after extensive negotiations among a variety of interest groups.

Higher education

A variety of bills passed this year are intended to bolster state financial aid resources, ease student movement between colleges and provide greater opportunities to students in some parts of the state.

  • HB 1208 – Accelerates the process for designating community college classes that are transferrable to four-year schools.
  • HB 1383 – Shifts about $30 million from a CollegeInvest scholarship fund into general state funding for need-based scholarships.
  • HB 1428 – Takes at least $15 million from sale of a CollegeInvest loan portfolio into scholarships.
  • SB 64 – Makes it easier for resident students to establish eligibility for College Opportunity Fund stipends by just checking a box on college applications.
  • SB 79 – Allows expansion of some master’s degree programs at Mesa State College.
  • SB 88 – Permits community college students to declare the equivalent of majors in some fields of study.
  • SB 101 – Allows Colorado Mountain College to offer a limited selection of bachelor’s degrees.
  • SB 108 – Allows private and propriety colleges to have their courses reviewed for inclusion in the state program of common core course.
  • SB 202 – Lets adults open CollegeInvest savings plans to help pay for job-retraining programs. Also allows employers to contribute to employee accounts and take a tax deduction.

Didn’t make the cut

About a third of all education bills were killed. Most died in committee, some at the request of sponsors because of lack of support, lack of funding or overlap with other measures.

Others died in committee because they were Republican bills that had no chance in a Democratic legislature – measures that proposed barring felons from school employment, imposing new safety drills, high school exit exams, fiddling with Amendment 23, tax credits for private school tuition and a religious bill of rights for schools.

Only a handful measures lost on the floor, including HB 1271, which proposed contributions limits in school board campaigns, and SCR 2 and HCR 1002, the identical proposed constitutional amendments to free education-related taxes from TABOR restrictions.

Rep. Judy Solano’s annual CSAP cutback bill, HB 1430, died on the session’s last day when both houses refused to back down from their respective versions.

Here’s a quick rundown of some other bills that didn’t make it or were drastically amended.

  • HB 1015 – Proposed pilot alternative funding program for small districts
  • HB 1147 – Helmet requirement for kids on non-motorized vehicles (amended down to a safety education program)
  • HB 1206 – Voting power for student members of the CSU board
  • HB 1253 – Changes in gifted and talented programs
  • HB 1406 – Green construction requirements for new school buildings
  • HCR 1007 – Proposed constitutional amendment to divert some lottery revenues to education in tight budget years
  • SB 5 – Funding to ensure continuity of services from preschool to kindergarten
  • SB 17 – Creation of a pilot program to study weighted student funding
  • SB 107 – Requiring state approval for high schools to use Indian mascots
  • SB 131 – Financial incentives for school districts to provide full-day kindergarten
  • SB 210 – Pilot program to provide cash or prizes to at-risk kids for reading books
  • SB 215 – Expansion of video lottery terminals to fund college scholarships
  • SCR 4 – Keno-for-colleges, a proposed constitutional amendment to do the same thing as SB 215

A very routine measure to clarify state law on school buses, HB 1232, did pass. But, there was an entertaining floor fight one Friday morning in March when Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Boulder, attempted to expand the bill to include a mandate for shoulder belts on new buses. His idea was buried with 29 no votes.

One measure that shrunk a lot between introduction and passage was HB 1273, Rep. Mike Merrifield’s arts education proposal. The Colorado Springs Democrat, a retired music teacher, is leaving the legislature because of term limits, and the bill was seen as his swan song.

What started out as a requirement measure ended up as an encouragement to schools districts to include the arts in curricula and an instruction to the State Board of Education to include the arts in upcoming graduation guidelines for school districts.

What’s next

Gov. Bill Ritter has a little under a month to sign or veto bills. He’s already signed many education bills passed earlier in the session, and there aren’t any remaining bills seen as obvious veto targets.

(Normal Education News Colorado style for bills is to use their full numbers, as in Senate Bill 10-001. To save eyestrain in the lower portion of this article we’ve used the shortened version – SB 1.)

See the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts.

listening tour

We asked six Colorado school board members what they want from the state’s next governor. Here’s what they said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Late last week, nine candidates for Colorado governor came together to talk education, addressing an annual fall conference of school board members.

Now, we’re giving some of those audience members a chance to speak up.

Before the gubernatorial hopefuls took the stage, Chalkbeat recorded interviews with a half-dozen school board members who represent districts across the state. Our question to them: What are the big education questions you hope the next governor will take on?

Not surprisingly, funding challenges came up time and again.

One school board member asked for a more predictable budget. Another asked for schools to get their fair share of annual increases in new tax dollars. One went so far as to say the next governor would be a chicken if he or she didn’t take on reforming the state’s tax code.

We also heard a desire for leadership on solving teacher shortages, expanding vocational training and rethinking the state’s school accountability system.

Here are the six gubernatorial wishes we heard from Colorado’s school board members:

Reform TABOR to send more money to schools

Wendy Pottorff, Limon Public Schools

Since the Great Recession, Colorado schools have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while the state legislature has tried to close its education funding shortfall, lawmakers haven’t been able to keep up. Getting in the way, Pottorff says, is the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

Change the conversation about public schools


Paul Reich, Telluride School District

Reich says public schools are under attack under the false premise that they’re failing — and that isn’t helping the state recruit bright young teachers. He said the next governor must change the conversation about schools to make teaching a more desirable profession.

Provide a clear budget forecast

Anne Guettler, Garfield School District

Approving a school district’s budget is one of the many responsibilities of a Colorado school board. That’s a tall challenge when the state’s budget is constantly in flux, Guettler says. She hopes the next governor can help provide a clearer economic forecast for schools.

Rethink school accountability to include students and parents

Greg Piotraschke, Brighton 27J

Colorado schools are subject to annual quality reviews by the state’s education department. And it’s time for the state to rethink what defines a high-quality school, Piotraschke said. He suggested the governor could help rethink everything from how the state uses standardized tests to how to incorporate parents and students into the review process.

Give schools more resources to train the state’s high-tech workforce

Nora Brown, Colorado Springs District 11

In light of Colorado growing tech sector, several gubernatorial candidates have come out in support of more technical training for Colorado students. But that costs money, Brown says. The Colorado Springs school board member said promising better job training for high school students without more resources is empty.

Remember there’s a difference between urban and rural schools

Mark Hillman, Burlington School District

Crafting statewide policy is an onerous task in Colorado, given the diversity of the state’s 178 school districts. Hillman said the next governor must remember that any legislation he or she signs will play out 178 different ways, so they must be careful to not put more undue pressure on the state’s smallest school districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Five things we learned when Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates got on the same stage to talk about education

Colorado Republicans running for governor addressed some of the state's school board members at a forum hosted by the state's association of school boards. From left are George Brauchler, Steve Barlock, Greg Lopez, Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Nine Republicans and Democrats hoping to become Colorado’s next governor offered contrasting views Friday of the state’s public schools to an audience of more than 100 local school board members.

Most of the five Republicans told the crowd of locally elected officials — who are charged by the state’s constitution with governing Colorado’s public schools — that their programs were in need of improvement and innovation, and that they were there to help.

The four Democrats hoping to succeed fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, pledged to reform the state’s tax code to send more money to schools.

The candidates spoke at the annual fall delegation conference of the state’s association of school boards.It was the first forum of its kind to address education issues exclusively this election election cycle.

Unlike previous elections, Colorado’s public education system has been a key policy debate early in the campaign. Several candidates, especially Democrats, have worked on education issues before.

Here are our five takeaways from the forum:

The Republican candidates didn’t pull any punches when they said the state’s public schools were in need of improvement — and several said that they were the ones to do it.

From District Attorney George Brauchler to businessman Doug Robinson, every Republican candidate said one part or another of the state’s school system needed to do better.

“Education is life itself,” said former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell. “And there is no greater challenge facing our state than 50 percent of our at-risk kids who graduate can’t complete college-level course work.”

Both Mitchell and Robinson pointed to their experience as entrepreneurs as evidence that they could help set the state’s schools free of what they consider unnecessary red tape. Brauchler called for empowering teachers and parents.

Every Democrat and several Republicans agreed that the state’s schools were in a “funding crisis.” But they offered very different paths forward.

It was an easy question for Democrats. Businessman Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne were in lock-step that the state’s schools are in need of more money.

“If we don’t fundamentally solve this crisis, the rest of the issues don’t matter,” Johnston said.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne talk after a forum for gubernatorial candidates. Both are Democrats. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Johnston and Kennedy forcefully pledged to take on the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which limits how much tax revenue the state can collect and requires voter approval to raise taxes.

Lynne was more tempered. While she acknowledged tax reform was needed, she said wanted a legislative committee working on school finance to complete its work before suggesting any overhauls.

Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker and a small business owner, was the only GOP candidate who said he would take on the state’s complicated tax laws. If elected, he promised to establish a committee to send a reform proposal to voters.

Robinson and Brauchler acknowledged that schools were in a funding crunch. But they stopped short of saying they’d send more money to schools.

Mitchell said “he wasn’t sure” if there was a funding crisis, but added, “The system should be reformed before it’s fully funded.”

PERA, the state’s employee retirement program, could play a prominent issue in the election — especially for Republicans.

Earlier at the conference, school board members received a briefing on a proposed overhaul to the state’s retirement program, which includes school district employees.

While the situation is not as dire as it was a decade ago, the program’s governing board has become so increasingly worried about unfunded liabilities that it’s asking state lawmakers to pass a reform package to provide more financial stability.

Two Republicans, Brauchler and Steve Barlock, who co-chaired President Trump’s campaign in Colorado, said PERA was in crisis. Barlock warned school board members that their budgets were in jeopardy as lawmakers fiddle with the system.

Neither went into any detail about how they hoped to see the retirement program made more fiscally stable. But watch for this issue to gain greater traction on the campaign trail, especially as Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton ramps up his gubernatorial campaign, and as lawmakers begin to wrestle with PERA reforms next year. (Stapleton did not attend the forum.)

Some candidates offered careful responses to a question about school choice. Others, not so much.

Every Democrat and one Republican, Brauchler, said they respected a family’s right to choose the best school for their children. But that choice, they said, should not come at the expense of traditional, district-run schools.

“I’m concerned that we’d build a system where the success of some schools is coming at the expense of other schools,” Kennedy said.

Republicans strongly supported charter schools, and in some cases, vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools. Robinson called on creating new ways to authorize charter schools. Mitchell said he wanted to repeal a provision in the state’s constitution that has been used to rebuff private school vouchers.

There’s no party line over rural schools.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the state needed to step up to help its rural schools, which are typically underfunded compared to schools along the Front Range. They need more teachers, better infrastructure and fewer regulations, the candidates said.

“We need to get rural areas into the modern age,” Robinson said.