2014 session review

For education, 2014 session was all about the money

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Colorado

Dollars and cents dominated the education debate during the 2014 legislative session. Relentless lobbying and a continuous series of compromises ended with more operating funds for schools, with money left over for some special programs.

The state’s colleges and universities, increasingly reliant on tuition in recent years as state funding shrank, also got a welcome boost – without all the drama of the K-12 debate.

“This has been a remarkable year in funding our commitment to education,” said Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver. The vice chair of the Joint Budget Committee, Steadman engineered the final compromise on the K-12 funding package.

The group of finance bills “goes a significant way to help rebuild our education system,” said House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver.

The legislature also took first steps on volatile new issues – testing and student data privacy – and made necessary changes to avoid disruption of the state’s accountability and educator evaluation systems as Colorado moves to new statewide achievement tests in the spring of 2015.

In contrast to some recent sessions, there was no big new education initiative approved this year. Nothing really was on the table, given the focus on finances.

Behind the money fight

Finance package highlights
  • K-12 Total Program Funding rises to $5.91 billion in 2014-15 from $5.76 billion
  • Statewide average per pupil spending will increase to about $7,020 compared to $6,839
  • Most of the increase comes from the automatic escalator in the constitution. Lawmakers reduced the negative factor by $110 million
  • $27 million for ELL programs
  • $18 million more for READ Act
  • $17 million for 5,000 additional slots for at-risk preschool and kindergarten students

District superintendents and school boards began working last year – even before Amendment 66 was defeated – on a plan to reduce the “negative factor,” the $1 billion shortfall in K-12 funding. That built up during the recession when state revenues declined and legislators narrowed the definition of how much school funding was subject to the state constitution’s requirements for annual increases.

Some lawmakers expected the fight; others were caught off guard.

“I anticipated it would be a struggle,” said Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, who fought hard to get a larger reduction in the negative factor.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, also said, “I anticipated it would be hard. … We were all more grouchy than we should have been coming into the session. There was a lot of frustration. It all arose out of a real sense of urgency.”

Ferrandino, asked about the fight, said, “I did not anticipate that. It was one of the surprising things of the session. … As we moved through the session we listened and made modifications to the bills.”

The lobbying pressure from superintendents, school board members and teachers was coordinated and intense, and its goal was cutting down the negative factor.

“It’s been challenging,” said Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon. She was a key player on the finance package, along with Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, plus Johnston and Steadman.

“We didn’t get to negotiate with the interests” in the way that was possible on bills in past sessions, Hamner said, because groups were so adamant. “I hope next year won’t be as contentious.”

The two main finance bills, the Student Success Act (HB 1292) and the School Finance Act (HB 1298), were introduced in late February. The arguments, negotiations and amending continued until the last day of the session, when the House approved the final version of the finance act.

District interests, who had pushed for a negative factor trim of up to $275 million, won a $110 million cut. They also succeeded in trimming some earmarked spending from the two bills, primarily a $10 million plan to convert Colorado to the average daily membership method of enrollment counting.

“I think we did very well on ‘no new mandates,’” said Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards. Achieving that, and reducing the negative factor, “took being a broken record.”

But the Hickenlooper administration and bill sponsors managed to retain increased funding for early literacy programs, English language learners and at-risk preschoolers, as well as $3 million for a state school financial transparency website.

“The process has been totally amazing,” Murray said. “The result we have achieved has been a good one. On both sides of the aisle there is something for us to love and something for us to hate.”

Other spending bills

What with extra cash floating around the state treasury, lawmakers and interest groups couldn’t help but seek funding for a variety of specific education programs. Here are other programs that were taken care of in separate bills – after they took haircuts in the amount of funding.

Counselors – The Colorado Counselor Corps, which provides funding for districts to train and hire extra counselor, gets an extra $3 million on top of $5 million in current funding (SB 150).

Gifted and talented – This much-amended measure provides an additional $1.6 million for gifted and talented programs, much lower than was originally proposed. The bill’s original mandates on school districts also were softened (HB 1102).

Advanced Placement – A bill that will provide financial incentives to small rural districts for providing Advanced Placement classes was cut down to about $262,000 in funding (HB 1118).

Testing & Data

Debate about two issues that have bubbled up from the grass roots – the amount of testing and the privacy of student data – enlivened several committee hearings this session. But lawmakers opted to avoid sweeping solutions and instead pass more limited measures.

On testing, a task force will be created to study a wide variety of testing issues and report back to the 2015 legislature (HB 1202). Measures to delay rollout of new state tests (SB 136) and to roll back some elements of the new social studies tests (SB 221) failed.

Another measure imposes various data security and privacy requirements on the Department of Education, but it leaves the issue of regulating district data collection to another day (HB 1294). A much more stringent, GOP-sponsored measure was killed (SB 201).

“I was glad we got a start on student data privacy,” Murray said, saying that the process of addressing the issue should be handled one step at a time. Regulating district data collection “needs to be a larger conversation,” she said.

Other issues

Accountability & Evaluation

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Two of the session’s more important bills were among the least controversial. Because of the “data gap” that will be created by the 2015 switch to the new CMAS tests, the district and school ratings issued next fall will apply for two years, although districts can appeal ratings for the second year (HB 1182). And next year districts will have flexibility in how much they weight student academic growth when evaluating teachers (SB 165). Get more details here.

Other accountability-related bills set procedures for districts to follow when closing schools for poor academic performance (HB 1381) and allow small rural districts that are in the two highest accreditation categories to file performance plans every two years (HB 1204.)

On the lighter side, high schools in each prep football conference that record the highest annual academic growth would receive trophies under a bill that passed late in the session (HB 1385).

Administrative

There was a running low-grade debate for much of the session about the minutes of school board executive sessions, a discussion sparked by alleged misuse of closed meetings by the Douglas and Jefferson county school boards. But the issue also sparked a debate about lawyer-client confidentiality, audio recording and local control. One bill on the subject was killed (HB 1110), but a second version passed and requires boards to keep minutes of executive sessions that include the topics discussed and the length of time spent on each (SB 182).

A hot-button measure that basically would have forbidden districts from placing teachers on unpaid leave was killed by its sponsor after a tense House committee hearing (HB 1268). This was part of the running DPS-union fight over use of the state’s mutual consent law – get background in this story.

And a bill that would have allows board to pay themselves died quickly (HB 1116).

At-risk Students & Low-performing Schools

While the finance package provided extra funding for at-risk preschoolers, English language learners and struggling readers, a handful of other bills proposed to deal with other issues related to at-risk students and struggling schools.

Minority teachers – The Department of Education gets $50,000 to prepare a study on the recruitment, preparation and retention of minority teacher, with the report due Dec. 1 (HB 1175).

Student tracking – CDE also is supposed to create a “course level participation performance report” that breaks out student enrollment in core courses (English, math, science and social science) by student demographic groups, correlated where possible with the proficiency levels of students on statewide assessments. The bill also would require school districts to use that data as the basis for proposed actions in their school and district improvement plans (HB1376).

Turnaround leaders – Lawmakers came up with $2 million for a program to train leaders for low-performing schools (SB 124)

But a measure that would have created pilot programs to create improvement strategies for alternative education campuses died in the session’s closing days as the money ran out (SB 167). And a bipartisan (but mostly Republican) bill to pay highly effective teachers bonuses for working in low-performing schools never got any traction (HB 1262).

Charters

Charter schools received a boost in per-pupil funding for facilities costs in the finance package (up to $11.5 million) and also got a formal seat at the table in district planning for tax override proposals (HB 1314). Several Republican-sponsored bills to increase charter facilities funding were killed, primarily because the money was in the Student Success Act.

Early Childhood

Other than the additional $17 million for at-risk preschool and kindergarten students, 2014 wasn’t a banner year on this issue. A bill to increase funding for childcare center quality improvements (HB 1076), a scholarship plan for ECE teachers (SB 6) and an innovative funding plan for ECE facilities (SB 185) all failed, the first two because of the fierce competition for education dollars.

“All of the oxygen got pulled out of the room” by the finance debate, Johnston said. “Work is left to be done.”

Health & Safety

A grab bag of bills on these issues passed, although the most controversial, on parent education about immunizations (HB 1288), was watered down in the face of opposition. (Get more details in this Chalkbeat Colorado story.)

A plan to provide free lunches to grade 3-5 students who now are eligible for reduced-price meals passed, after the original proposal to cover all students through 12th grade was scaled down (HB 1156). Students in grades K-2 already are covered by the provision.

The issue of allowing teachers to carry guns at school also was resolved by compromise. A bill allowing school boards to let teachers carry (HB 1157) was killed in committee. But a measure allowing charter schools to hire armed security guards – something districts already can do – passed with bipartisan support (HB 1291).

Other successful measures included a grant program to train high school students in CPR (HB 1276), additional funding for the Safe Routes to School program (HB1301) and funding for the Safe2Tell program, an anonymous tip line teens can use to report threats of school violence and suicide, bullying and similar problems (SB 2).

But a measure that would have made cyber bullying a separate crime in state law failed to pass, weighed down by opposition from juvenile justice advocates, free speech supporters and others (HB 1131).

Higher Education

Campus of Western State Colorado University in Gunnison
Campus of Western State Colorado University in Gunnison

The 2014 session also gave state colleges and universities significant funding increases – minus the fuss that surrounded K-12 funding.

Higher education got a $100 million increase, $60 million for institutions (up 11 percent) and $40 million for student financial aid (up about 40 percent). The funding measure (SB 1) also includes a 6 percent cap on tuition increases in the next two academic years.

Students and parents also got the promise of more financial aid in the future with passage of $33 million scholarship and student counseling program to be funded from state and private sources (HB 1384). But the program will take a year to set up, so there’s no money for students immediately.

Lawmakers also approved a long list of campus construction projects – but many of those will be funded only if the 2013-14 state surplus is larger than currently forecast (HB 1342).

The higher education system also got some marching orders about how it will spend its state money in the future (HB 1319). The bill requires that 52.5 of state support be devoted to per-pupil stipends (favoring growing institutions) and sets requirements, including performance measures such as student retention and completion rates, for how the rest of state funding is to be divvied up. The exact shape of the new system isn’t set, given that the Department of Higher Education and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education are assigned to come up with the details of how it will work.

The legislature, without much controversy, approved important changes for two segments of the state system. Community colleges now will be able to offer bachelor’s degrees in applied sciences fields (SB 4). And the online Colorado State University Global Campus for the first time will be able to enroll some freshman- and sophomore-level students (SB 114). Both bills were pitched as an affordable way to expand college options for more students.

Lawmakers killed a bill on the touchy – and expensive – question of improving salaries for community college adjunct instructors (HB 1154), and a measure that would have given resident tuition eligibility to Native American students belonging to tribes with historic ties to Colorado also died (HB 1124).

Online schools

Like some other things this year, the touchy issue of regulating multi-district online schools was turned into a study (HB 1382). Early in the session bipartisan sponsors convened a task force to help develop a bill. That included a big change in the way the state oversees online schools. But complaints about that idea – and about the membership of the small initial study group – forced compromises that turned the bill into a study by a new, bigger task force.

School Construction
Before the session opened, questions were swirling around the Building Excellent Schools Today school construction program, the subject of a somewhat critical audit last year. The program emerged from the session with only a few tweaks, and supporters managed to mostly stave off attempts to earmark for other purposes new BEST revenues from marijuana taxes.

The tweaks include legislative budget oversight of BEST cash grants (SB 112), setting aside of some funds for schools damaged by natural disasters (HB 1287) and changes in the factors used to determine local district matching requirements (HB 1190).

Other bills that didn’t make it

Of the 82 education-related bills tracked by Chalkbeat Colorado this session, nearly 30 percent were killed, often by their sponsors after they figured out they didn’t have the votes they needed.

Among the fallen were a plan to create an August sales tax holiday for school supplies (HB 1094), the annual GOP bill to allow tax credits for private school tuition (SB 33) and a couple of Republican bills to change the retirement age and benefit calculations for the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, which covers all Colorado teachers (SB 68 and HB 1201).

All of this year’s education-related bills, the important and the technical, those that passed and those that failed, are listed in the Education Bill Tracker. Use it to read the final texts of those that passed and to see where and when the losers met their fates.

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”