Legislators grind out new school finance act

But whether it passes or fails will be decided by the voters
The Colorado Statesman

With Democrats in charge of both chambers and the governor’s mansion, Democratic legislators embarked on an ambitious plan during the 2013 session to revamp the state’s school finance system. Along the way, legislators also dealt with guns in schools, sex education, new degree programs in higher education and restoring merit-based aid.

The most controversial education bill of the 2013 session was the new school finance act.

SB 213 was one of the bills in 2013 that produced dozens of hours of committee hearings and floor work at the state capitol. Its first hearing, in the Senate Education Committee, took three days, beginning with a marathon nine hour session of testimony on March 19. The bill needed another six hours with the education committee just to go through amendments.

The bill takes the first step in nearly two decades to change the formula for financing public education. All kindergarten students who meet the eligibility requirements would be funded for all day school; pre-school students would be funded as half-day pupils. Enrollment funding would be calculated on an average daily membership (ADM) rather than based on attendance on one day each year, beginning in 2015-16.

The bill changes the funding for at-risk and English language learners (ELL) students, by allowing those who qualify under both definitions to be funded twice, to allow for a longer school year for those students.

Under SB 213, the Colorado Department of Education must prepare a report every four years that analyzes the increases in academic growth and achievement in districts that have received increased funding, and to include cost studies that identify funding deficits and the amounts needed to correct those deficits.

The bill also envisions a more transparent public finance reporting system, to add reporting of expenditures, includ-ing salary and benefits, at each school. The department of education is then required to create a website that will translate that data into a format that can be understood by the layperson.

The success of SB 213 is contingent on voter approval of a ballot measure in November that seeks to initially raise taxes by about $1 billion.

That didn’t sit well with Republicans in either chamber. Following its first committee hearing, the Senate spent six hours on April 1 debating SB 213, with Republicans on the attack. They argued against the tax increase, saying that the bill would not really make the reforms needed in public education, and that charter schools would get short-shrift. The bill failed to gain even one Republican vote in the Senate, either in committee or on final passage.

“We need a student-centered system that emphasizes improving student outcomes and instilling teacher accountability, instead of perpetuating the present system that merely asks for more money without solving the problem,” said Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker.

After the Senate amended the bill to change how charter schools would be financed, SB 213 lost critical support from major players in the business and education communities, including the Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce, the Colorado Association of School Executives and the League of Charter Schools. That brought the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver and Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Frisco, back to the negotiating table.

Then SB 213 headed to the House, where it spent another seven hours in debate and testimony. On the floor, Hamner sponsored amendments to restore the fragile coalition of critical supporters, although the bill still failed to gain any Republican votes in committee or on the floor.

Governor John Hickenlooper, in signing the bill on May 21, said SB 213 would position Colorado as a national leader in school reform and school effectiveness. Johnston noted that the state has made “detrimental” cuts to education funding, and that SB 213 creates “a framework for maximizing that investment in programs that have the greatest impact on educational outcomes. Colorado is a pioneering state and it deserves an innovative education system.”

Debate on guns also played a part in some of the education-related legislation in the 2013 session. Republicans attempted to put guns into the hands of teachers and other school staff through two bills in the early part of the session. Renfroe and Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, sponsored SB 9, which would grant school boards to adopt policies to allow school employees to carry concealed weapons on school grounds if the person has a valid concealed carry permit. An identical bill, House Bill 13-1170, was sponsored by Rep. Stephen Humphrey, R-Windsor. Neither bill made it out of its first committee hearing.

Republicans were more successful on the general issue of school safety with SB 138. Sponsored by former police officer Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, the bill clarifies the responsibilities of school resource officers and makes them community partners in developing school safety plans. It also tasks the School Safety Resource Center Advisory Board within the Department of Public Safety with finding federal funding to provide SROs in smaller school districts. SB 138 got unanimous support in both chambers; in the House it was sponsored by Reps. Mike McLachlan, D-Durango and Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo. Hickenlooper traveled to Ouray to sign the bill on May 23, the first time a governor had been in that Western Slope community in more than 30 years.

One bill that provoked heated debate was HB 1081, a bill for grants on comprehensive human sexuality education. It pitted the bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, against many Republicans, but no more ardent than Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, a former policy analyst for Focus on the Family. Outside the chambers, the bill drew support from Planned Parenthood and Colorado Youth Matter, with opposition from the Colorado Board of Education, the Focus-affiliated Family Action Network and the Colorado Catholic Conference. The groups feared its passage would interfere with parental authority and local school board control, and teach children “cultural sensitivity,” to include immigrants, communities of color and LGBT issues. Inside the House, Republicans claimed the bill would teach sex education to kindergartners, although Democrats pointed out the bill’s language called for “age-appropriate” messaging on the topic. As with the new school finance bill, HB 1081 passed on purely party-line votes.

Despite some of the acrimony over HB 1081, the debate did have one of the funniest moments from the session: a sing-off between Duran and Stephens using the song: “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” from the musical “Annie Get Your Gun.” The song was reprised by Republicans during Hummers at the end of the session.

One of the bright spots for education this year was a slightly improved budget picture, which meant funding increases for both K-12 and higher education.

That included a bill to restore merit aid for college students, which was eliminated in the state budget due to the state’s economic crisis in 2009 and hasn’t been brought back. HB 1320 was sponsored by House Minority Leader Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs. It not only restored the state’s merit-based aid funding but doubled it from its previous high of $1.5 million, to $3 million.

In the past, merit-based aid was awarded for academic performance as well as financial need. HB 1320 is based on certain academic performance criteria, and is available to any Colorado scholar, regardless of financial need. HB 1320 passed with strong bi-partisan support in both chambers and was signed by the governor on June 5.

Community colleges fared less well with a bill that sought to allow them to offer limited four-year degrees at non-urban sites. SB 165 was sponsored by former teacher Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora. The colleges, with permission from the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, could offer up to seven technical, career and/or workforce development degrees, mostly for the bachelor of applied science degree.

The bill drew strong opposition from the state’s largest four-year institutions, primarily the University of Colorado and Colorado State University, and it pitted Democrats against each other in committee hearings. Community college representatives argued they would offer bachelor’s degrees in communities where those degrees either don’t exist or are not available from four-year institutions, such as the dental hygiene degree that CU stopped offering in 2009.

SB 165 got out of the Senate with strong bipartisan support, but it was a different story in the House Education Committee, where the bill failed on a bipartisan 6-7 vote. Democrats struggled with their decision; Rep. Cherylin Peniston, D-Adams County, whose district includes Front Range Community College, noted she had great respect for both the four-year institutions and the community colleges but that she had no strong guidance on the bill from her caucus and would vote for her constituents (she voted “yes”). The “no” votes included committee Chair Hamner, who said that while the sponsors, including Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, had clearly identified the problem, she was not convinced SB 165 provided a comprehensive solution. Hamner said she would be happy to work with stakeholders to come up with that solution in the future.

Community colleges were more successful in getting legislative approval for basic education and vocational training through HB 1005. The bill provides adults who are entering or re-entering the workforce and who may lack sufficient math education and other information with a 12-month certificate program to gain those and other vocational skills. Although the bill was sponsored exclusively by Democrats, it was one of the few to gain unanimous support when it passed the Senate in late April. The governor signed it on May 28.

Hickenlooper signed another bill on workforce training the same day: HB 1165. The bill creates a “career pathway” for Coloradans who want to work in the high-demand manufacturing sector, to include education from middle school through post-secondary education, including certificates and degree programs.

The bipartisan bill drew strong support from both the education and business communities, including the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle also saw successes in passing bills deal-ing with truancy, allergic reactions that take place during the school day, and granting military dependents in-state tuition, a favorite topic for Republicans.

HB 1194 was sponsored by Rep. Justin Everett, R-Grand Junction and Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins. It allows military dependents who are not Colorado residents to gain in-state tuition rates at the state’s public colleges and universities.

“Every day, the men and women of our Armed Forces and their families make tremendous sacrifices for all of us,” Everett said. “We owe them a debt of gratitude. This bill helps us honor their courage and make their goals more easily realized.”

HB 1194 passed unanimously in the House and saw only one “no” vote in the Senate, from Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch.

Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, has sponsored bills in the past to help K-12 students with medical problems get through the school day with less risk. He was part of a bipartisan coalition on another bill on that issue in 2013. Brophy was a Senate sponsor of HB 1171, which would allow schools to stock epinephrine pens for students who suffer allergic reactions. The bill’s primary sponsors were Rep. Dianne Primavera, D-Broomfield and Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora.

Doctors, nurses, school personnel and students testified in favor of HB 1171. That included Alex, a 10-year old fifth grader. He testified on February 12 that he is allergic to several foods, including peanuts, and told the House Public Health Care and Human Services Committee that one in 13 children in Colorado have food allergies. One-quarter of children who receive epinephrine in an emergency situation didn’t have a previous allergic reaction, he said.

“…allergic reactions are being diagnosed with increased frequency,” Primavera told the committee. Food allergies cause 30 to 50 percent of allergic reactions, she said, adding that under her bill schools could carry epi-pens and other medications to deal with life-threatening emergency allergy situations.

Current state law allows schools to carry epi-pens or other prescribed medications for students with known allergies, but HB 1171 would allow schools to keep those injectors, asthma inhalers, or other oral medications on hand for students who experience emergency food or other allergic reactions, asthma or other forms of anaphylaxis. The bill requires the medications to be administered by a trained school employee. The bill passed with bipartisan support in the House and unanimous support in the Senate, and was signed by the governor on May 28.

Students who are chronically absent from school might find a helping hand instead of jail under a bill sponsored by Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, and Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Arvada. HB 1021 modifies the state’s rules on truancy, and makes jail and court proceedings a last resort for students who are absent more than four days in a month or 10 days in a school year. The bill also would limit the number of days a student is sent to juvenile detention to five.

Fields, a member of the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, said students who are truant don’t finish high school, and they often come from homes with abuse or neglect. In 2010-11 school year, more than 2,000 students were truant, 467 students were sent to detention, and one student in Jefferson County spent 148 days in detention. The bill would provide a uniform standard for dealing with truancy, she said.

Under HB 1021, school districts must initiate a plan with the child and parent to address the truancy issue first. Court proceedings and detention in a juvenile facility, or jail for the parent, are to be considered only if those plans fail. The bill passed largely along party lines and the governor signed it May 28.


See the June 21 print edition for a full listing of all the legislative enactments from the 2013 session.