Who Is In Charge

A day of much talk, little action

A chaotic day for education bills at the Colorado legislature ended with just one noteworthy bill passed and much work left over for later.

Preschool students
Preschool students demonstrated their counting and language abilities during a legislative hearing Feb. 23, 2012, on a bill that would reduce state testing and use the money for preschool.

The highest-profile casualty of the day of delay was House Bill 12-1091, Rep. Judy Solano’s proposal to eliminate state writing tests and one set of high school tests.

Senate Bill 12-148, the proposal to rename Metro State College as Metropolitan State University of Denver, did pass the Senate Education Committee on a 6-0 vote, but not until after the committee spent two hours on it.

And of four bills related to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, which provides pensions for Colorado teachers, one was killed at its sponsor’s request and three were delayed for later consideration.

Messy morning for State Affairs

Solano, a term-limited Brighton Democrat, is making her last attempt to cut back on statewide testing with HB 12-1091. She proposes to use the savings from elimination of writing tests and one set of high school tests to increase funding for the Colorado Preschool Program.

The House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee is commonly known as the “kill committee” because House GOP leadership sends bills that it wants killed to the committee. So Solano is facing somewhat long odds, but she’d marshaled a big list of witnesses, including several cute preschool kids.

The trouble was that the committee burned more than two hours hearing testimony on two non-education bills before killing them on party-line votes. That left less than an hour to consider Solano’s bill before the panel had to vacate the room for the 1:30 p.m. meeting of another committee.

Vice chair Rep. Don Corum, R-Montrose, tried to allocate the remaining time equally among supporters and opponents of the bill, but he seemed to have only tenuous control over the meeting. (Chair Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Lakewood, was in and out of the meeting because he was carrying a PERA bill in the House Finance Committee, which had its own problems Thursday acting on bills – see below.)

As the crowd grew a little restive, Corum announced the bill would be laid over to a future meeting so that every witness would have a chance to speak.

An anxious Solano crammed in a few more witnesses, including the odd spectacle of the preschoolers counting to 10 in different languages under the direction of a teacher.

The committee didn’t get to House Bill 12-1118, which would require school district collective bargaining sessions be open to the public.

Full-court press for Metro name change

Steve Jordan and Bill Hanzlik
Metro State President Steve Jordan (left) and Metro trustee Bill Hanzlik.

The Senate Education Committee did pass the main bill on its agenda Thursday, but it took awhile. Senate Bill 12-148, the Metro State name change bill, was approved 6-0. The measure was considered pretty much of a lock this session, given that Metro has worked out “branding” differences with the private University of Denver that derailed a Metro name change in the 2011 legislative session.

But Metro wanted to clinch the sale with a long list of witnesses – trustees, students, alumni, business leaders and others – testifying in support of the bill. Former Denver Nugget Bill Hanzlik, a Metro trustee, even testified twice, one for himself and once for trustee chair Robert Cohen, who couldn’t make the meeting.

The proceedings also were slowed by committee member Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, who kept asking questions about why the bill was needed. Hudak said she was worried that Metro’s target demographic – minorities, low-income and first-generation students – might be put off by the word “university.” Metro leaders, including President Steve Jordan, are adamant that the name change to “university” will increase the value of Metro degrees in the job market.

In the end, Hudak missed the vote because she had to leave the committee room to say goodbye and take photos with the students who were shadowing her on Thursday (see below).

PERA bills die, stall in House Finance

The House Finance Committee had four PERA bills on its agenda Thursday. Some legislative Republicans, fretful about the financial future of the big pension system, are proposing various changes in the system.

Three PERA bills already have been killed in the Democratic-controlled Senate, and the Republican-majority House is considered a somewhat friendlier environment.

It didn’t work out that way, at least on Thursday.

Conservative Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, asked the panel to kill his House Bill 12-1250, which some critics said would cut some retirees out of some health insurance benefits.

Three other bills – to change the membership of the PERA board, change the base for calculation of retirement benefits and expand the system’s defined contribution system – were laid over for later consideration.

Miscellany

• The Senate Health and Human Services Committee voted 7-2 to pass Senate Bill 12-130, which would consolidate several early childhood programs into the state Department of Human Services. While the bill tangentially affects early childhood education programs, it’s of interest because it’s a priority of the Hickenlooper administration, which has made early childhood programs and literacy a priority.

• The Capitol was overrun with students Thursday, giving the marble-and-brass halls the air of a middle school. In addition to the counting preschoolers in House State Affairs, there was a large contingent of students marshaled by the Colorado Association for Gifted and Talented, many of whom shadowed individual legislators.

The Colorado Coalition of Cyberschool Families and the Colorado Cyberschools Association rallied what they claimed were 1,000 students and adults on the Capitol’s west steps to support online education.

And some 150 kids (according to FOX31), watched as the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee gave 7-0 final approval to House Bill 12-1147, which would name the tiger salamander as the official state amphibian. The idea originated with school kids, as have many of the “official state whatever” bills of the past.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.

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.