2012 Legislative Wrap-up

Legislators get passing grades on the subject of education

The Colorado Statesman

Gov. John Hickenlooper signed legislative bills having to do with education that aim to increase intervention and teacher effectiveness, while motivating parental involvement and modernizing the state’s K-12 and higher education systems.

Perhaps the most ambitious of the education bills was House Bill 1238, an early literacy bill sponsored by Reps. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, and Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, and Sens. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, and Nancy Spence, R-Centennial.

The Colorado Basic Literacy Act focuses on early identification of children with significant reading deficiencies and calls for the creation of a statewide intervention plan called Reading to Ensure Academic Development, or READ plan.

The bill took a long journey, having originally started with the intention of requiring retention of struggling third graders. But after widespread opposition, lawmakers dropped that proposal for one that requires a meeting with parents, teachers and administrators to determine whether a student should be held back.

“This is legislation that really does put kids first,” Hickenlooper said of the bill. “Reading proficiency is the single most powerful foundation that we have for all future success.”

The governor had been a major player during the debate, even making an appearance on March 12 at the House Education Committee where he testified in support of the legislation, kicking off more than seven hours of debate. Hickenlooper drew upon his own experiences as a dyslexic student who was forced to repeat the seventh grade.

Hickenlooper’s point man on education, Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, also spoke of the bill’s importance. “The READ Act is a significant step in the early literacy movement and an excellent example of what a broad coalition of caring people can accomplish when they come together to focus on the future of Colorado’s children and the economic vitality and prosperity of this state,” said Garcia, who is the former president of Colorado State University-Pueblo.

The bill began its trip well over a year before it was signed, with input from many stakeholders, including the business community, parents and educators.

In its final form, the bill requires:

• School districts to report the number of K-3 students with reading deficiencies;

• The Board of Education to define what constitutes a deficiency;

• School districts to assess K-3 students’ reading abilities;

• Schools to create individual READ plans for students with deficiencies;

• Parents to have the final say for K-2 students; and

• Superintendents to review retention cases of third graders with deficiencies.

Concerns over imposing unfunded mandates on already struggling school districts were raised over the course of debate, but lawmakers worked to ensure funding streams. The program will divert dollars from the school lands permanent fund to provide $16 million in per-pupil funding, and $5 million will be provided for state administration costs and for grants to school districts. The law also eliminates the existing Read-to-Achieve grant program and uses its remaining funding for new grants.

“The signing of this bill into law represents an important step we are taking in the right direction to ensure that Colorado’s third graders have the literacy skills they need to excel in school and life,” said Hamner. “All of our children, regardless of what school or classroom they are assigned, deserve the literacy skills they need to succeed.”

“Teaching our kids how to read is one of the fundamental expectations parents place on our educators,” added Massey. “This bill helps ensure those expectations are met.”

Education advocates across the state and nation also applauded the bill signing. The Colorado Children’s Campaign called the bill “critical,” arguing it provides a “holistic and comprehensive pathway for teachers” and “engages parents.”

“The READ Act dramatically increases the chances the students who are struggling to read will be identified and that interventions will be successful,” said Chris Watney, president and chief executive of the Colorado Children’s Campaign. “Proven strategies exist to ensure Colorado students can read, and that greatly increases their odds of success in school and in life.”

“Colorado must do better for all our children,” said former Colorado Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, also national policy director for the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. “This legislation will tackle the problem in a comprehensive way, diagnosing the problems early on and providing the time and attention children need to master reading.”

Even the Colorado Education Association, the union that represents teachers in Colorado, ultimately supported HB 1238 after first opposing the bill over fiscal concerns and objections with the mandatory retention proposal.

“Teachers had concerns that the best intentions of this literacy bill would negatively impact the students who need us most,” said Beverly Ingle, president of CEA. “We are very pleased our legislators listened to the voice of teachers and crafted a bill that better meets the individual needs of students.”

Teachers were also pleased to see the governor sign a bill that extends a stipend program for teachers who work at low-performing schools next year. House Bill 1261, sponsored by Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton, and Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, extends the $4,800 stipend for teachers with national board certifications and who work at high-needs schools. The bill was signed on June 4.

And while not quite as controversial as the early literacy bill, lawmakers also sent to the governor another bill aimed at early intervention, but in the area of health.

Senate Bill 68, sponsored by Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, and Massey and Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, prohibits schools from providing or selling foods that contain trans fats, including in school stores and vending machines. The bill was signed on June 4 and takes effect on Sept. 1, 2013.

School discipline addressed

Advocates for school discipline reform had a nervous ending to the legislative session this year as a measure addressing school suspension and expulsion nearly died as a result of political gamesmanship. House Republican leadership was prepared to let Senate Bill 46 die on the calendar along with 29 other bills in a last-ditch attempt to kill same-sex civil unions legislation. But the Senate was able to save several of the bills by adding them as amendments to House bills.

Senate Bill 46 was attached to House Bill 1345, the 2012-13 fiscal year school funding bill, which passed both chambers and headed to the governor for his signature on May 19.

The measure, sponsored by Sens. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, and Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, and Reps. B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland, and Claire Levy, D-Boulder, gives increased discretion to school administrators and school boards when determining grounds for suspension or expulsion and referring a student to local law enforcement. Administrators are only required to expel a student in cases in which a student brings a firearm to school, as remains the case with federal law.

“We are thrilled that this crucial policy was finally able to make it through the legislative process because students need to be in school learning, not tied up in the law enforcement system for minor misbehavior,” said Ricardo Martinez, co-executive director of Padres y Jovenes Unidos, which worked closely with lawmakers to pass the legislation. “Hundreds of students, school employees and law enforcement officials have worked very hard to replace zero tolerance with common sense school discipline policies.”

In addition to giving administrators more discretion over disciplinary actions, SB 46 also streamlines reporting of disciplinary cases and requires enhanced training for school resource officers. The goal is to reduce referrals to law enforcement.

“When we keep kids in school, we help prevent them from getting involved in the criminal justice system,” said Levy. “This legislation was truly a community-wide collaboration that brought everyone together to reform and improve zero-tolerance policies that have been deemed inadequate.”

Students who advocated for the legislation raised similar thoughts. “Up to 10,000 kids a year will stay in school and out of the juvenile justice system for minor misbehavior due to our efforts,” said Brandon Garcia, a recent North High School graduate who worked on the legislation. “That’s a win for students and for schools.”

Dropout recovery and prevention

Lawmakers also addressed troubled students who exit the school system on their own accord, sending to the governor dropout recovery legislation to bolster enrollment in high school-college concurrent enrollment programs.

House Bill 1146, sponsored by Nikkel and Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, creates the Dropout Recovery Concurrent Enrollment Program, which allows community colleges and local schools to collaborate and form recovery programs for students who have dropped out or who are at risk of dropping out of school. Students can complete their high school diploma at their local community college while simultaneously earning credits for an associate’s degree or certificate.

“I believe in second chances,” said Nikkel. “This program provides hope and new opportunities to struggling students and at-risk youth across Colorado.”

“This measure respects the authority of local education providers to create their own curriculum while fostering the development of educated, skilled workers for the future,” added Dr. Nancy McCallin, president of the Colorado Community College System. “It’s a responsible bill that will result in near and long term benefits to Colorado’s economy, education and criminal justice system.”

The measure was signed on May 17.

In an effort to encourage such concurrent enrollment for high school dropouts, House Bill 1043 requires wider distribution by public and charter schools of information about high school-college dual enrollment opportunities. Rep. Kathleen Conti, R-Littleton, and Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs sponsored the bill. It was signed on May 24.

And to help teachers identify when intervention is necessary to stop dropout before it begins, lawmakers sent to the governor a measure that requires basic skills testing in high school.

The measure started as Senate Bill 47, sponsored by King and Massey, but it was also attached to HB 1345. The law requires all high school students to take basic skills assessments and for schools and teachers to use those assessments for creating intervention plans. The bill also appropriates state funds for the assessment tests.

Also, House Bill 1013, sponsored by Reps. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, and Chris Holbert, R-Parker, and Hudak and King, addresses dropout prevention at the middle school level, directing districts to consider adopting procedures to use data to identify and provide intervention services to students in grades six through nine. The bill was signed on March 16.

“Many students show warning signs that they may be at risk for dropping out long before they get to high school,” said Hudak. “By implementing these interventions early, we can provide these students with the help they need to get back on track and stay in school.”

For students who stay in grade school but never quite complete their college and university requirements, Senate Bill 45 aims to make it easier to complete their degrees or certificates. Sens. Hudak and King and Reps. Massey and Fields sponsored the bill.

Under SB 45, individuals with some community college credits and some four-year university credits will be allowed to combine those credits in order to earn an associate’s degree. The bill was signed on April 18.

Similarly, House Bill 1072, sponsored by Reps. Massey and Fields and Sens. King and Bacon, requires the Colorado Commission on Higher Education to develop a system for applying college credit towards a student’s prior learning through work, military or community experiences, or independent studies. In general, the bill aims to apply “life experiences” to criteria needed to earn college credit. It was signed on March 24.

The governor also signed a bill that makes improvements in college completion. House Bill 1155, sponsored by Massey and Bacon, gives the Colorado Commission on Higher Education more power to regulate admissions requirements. The bill also tightens student eligibility for College Opportunity Fund stipends and state financial aid. The governor signed it on June 4.

For students who are graduating from college, lawmakers sent to the governor House Bill 1061, sponsored by Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Cherry Hills Village, and Newell. The Skills for Jobs Act requires the Department of Higher Education to produce an annual report that shows the workforce needs that are not being met by state degree and certificate programs. The law will identify institutions that can address those workforce needs through new programs and expanding existing ones. The goal is to connect college students with the education they need to fill the workforce needs of Colorado.

Charter school issues tackled

The legislature also tackled charter and private school issues again this year, sending to the governor at least four bills to bring greater accountability and structure to programs, while easing burdens for charter school administrators.

Senate Bill 61, sponsored by King and Massey, adds to the requirements for charter school applications a description of the school’s proposed management contract. The bill also extends a charter school’s initial term to five years and requires annual reviews to determine academic and financial performance. Authorizers of charter school applications are also required to adopt procedures for closing a charter school if a contract is revoked or not renewed. Finally, the measure extends application filing and decision deadlines to give charter schools more time to respond.

The bill was signed on April 13.

“We had some school districts that said [charter schools] had to turn in an application by a certain date, but there wasn’t any timeframe for them to respond,” said King, who is the administrator of Colorado Springs Early Colleges, a state-authorized charter school focusing on preparing students to complete high school while also taking college courses. King is currently expanding to Fort Collins with an eye towards Douglas County.

Senate Bill 121, also sponsored by King and Massey, makes changes to procedures for applying for financial assistance through the BEST grant program. The bill creates a state loan program in which charter schools could receive up to 50 percent of their matching funds through loans. The bill also allows the state Charter School Institute to authorize charter schools within school districts that are accredited with turnaround plans.

The bill was signed on May 11.

King says the hope with easing deadlines and advancing financial assistance is that charter schools will feel encouraged to open new schools and to expand.

“Especially in districts like [Denver Public Schools] and districts where we have too much social promotion; too many kids failing classes,” said King. “I hope we bring in… some high quality, high caliber charter schools that challenges kids to academic achievement.”

Senate Bill 67, sponsored by Hudak and Holbert, requires charter schools to incorporate as a non-profit beginning July 1, 2013. The bill prohibits districts and the Charter School Institute from approving applications for for-profit charter schools.

The bill was signed on April 23.

The legislature also sent to the governor a measure that makes several changes to the authorization of private colleges and universities and seminaries and bible colleges. Senate Bill 164, sponsored by Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, and Massey, requires the Colorado Commission on Higher Education and the Department of Higher Education to set procedures for authorizing, renewing and revoking such private institutions.

Higher education administration

Several administrative changes to the state’s higher education institutions also took place this year through legislative action, including name changes and increased standards.

House Bill 1324, sponsored by Reps. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, and Massey and Sens. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, and Johnston, changes the admission standards for Colorado Mesa University from “moderately selective” to “selective.” By doing so, the university may require students take additional remedial coursework if they do not meet standards. The hope is to increase retention rates and academic success. The bill also increases the university’s board from 11 to 13 members.

The bill was signed on May 21.

“With the signing of this bill, Colorado Mesa University has firmly established its position as a reputable institution of higher learning,” said Massey.

“Students from the 14 counties on the Western Slope that Colorado Mesa University primarily provides an education to should be proud of their academic achievements and for contributing to the institution’s prestige,” added Scott.

Several colleges also underwent name changes to make the schools universities, including Metropolitan State College of Denver, which became Metropolitan State University of Denver; Adams State College, which became Adams State University; and Western State College, which became Western State Colorado University.

-Peter@coloradostatesman.com