Who Is In Charge

House Ed puts CDE on hot seat

Members of the House Education Committee spent a free-wheeling 90 minutes Monday afternoon raising questions about – and criticizing parts of – Department of Education plans for future state tests and for implementing the educator evaluation law.

Rep. Robert Ramirez, R-Westminster
Rep. Robert Ramirez, R-Westminster
A top CDE official, summoned by the department lobbyist, had to hustle across East Colfax Avenue to the Capitol and take the witness chair to answer committee questions in the middle of the meeting.

The discussion is by no means over and could resume as early as Wednesday.

The unusual session was sparked, at least indirectly, by the SMART Government Act, a new law that allows all legislative committees to make recommendations to the Joint Budget Committee about the budgets of relevant state departments. (So the two education committees can make recommendations about the departments of education and higher education, and other committees make them for other agencies.)

The agenda for Monday afternoon’s House Ed meeting was devoted solely to that SMART Act assignment, prompting a free-form discussion and complaint session of the kind that usually doesn’t happen during a normal committee meeting, when members have bills to consider and parliamentary procedure to follow.

Chair Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, opened by telling his colleagues they were “under no obligation” to make formal recommendations. “We can just punt this back to the JBC and tell them to take care of it.”

Panel members took him at his word – no formal motions were offered – but the chatter made clear what some members think about two key issues – the $25.9 million cost of designing a new state testing system and $7.7 million in proposed spending for implementing the new educator effectiveness and evaluation system.

Part of the discomfort is sparked by the fact that the executive branch is sending mixed signals on those two issues. The State Board of Education and CDE have asked for the $25.9 million, but Gov. John Hickenlooper doesn’t want to spend the money. The governor, in turn, asked for the $7.7 million. But that wasn’t part of CDE’s formal 2012-13 request, although the department supports Hickenlooper.

“Those interested persons should get together,” said Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton and a longtime critic of the state testing system. “I think there needs to be more discussion” within the executive branch.

Other committee members agreed with her, but Massey noted gently that the costs and timing of multi-state tests, the alternative to buying a Colorado-only set of tests, are unknown.

The discussion detoured into a round of test bashing before Rep. Robert Ramirez, R-Westminster, took aim at the $7.7 million request for implementation of the education evaluation system.

(To add to the confusion, there are various amounts of money in play here. CDE wants about $425,000 in 2012-13 to continue paying current staffers who are working on the program. There’s Hickenlooper’s $7.7 million ask. And the state recently won a $17.9 million federal Race to the Top grant that will be split between CDE and school districts to help implement the evaluation system.)

“The money is really beyond what’s necessary,” said Ramirez, citing his experience as a corporate trainer to stress the project could be done for a lot less money. “I just really think they’re going about it the wrong way.”

“There’s got to be more discussion about the cost of implementing,” chimed in Solano.

“Just because we got the [R2T] money it doesn’t mean we have to spend it all,” Ramirez said.

Jill Hawley, Colorado Department of Education
Jill Hawley, Colorado Department of Education
After about half an hour of this, Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, interjected to say, “I just feel like we need to hear from CDE to defend themselves.”

CDE lobbyist Anne Barkis, cell phone in hand, left the room, and 10 minutes late Jill Hawley, department policy chief, showed up with her arms full of binders and settled in at the witness table.

“At this point we’ll let Miss Hawley be grilled,” said a smiling Massey.

Hawley, composed and smiling herself, launched into a detailed explanation of how the R2T money will be used for creating key elements of the evaluation system that can be used by districts. The $7.7 million will be needed for outreach to and training in school districts, she said.

Ramirez listened intently but didn’t seem convinced. He said the funding was “a lot of top-heavy money in terms of directors, executive directors and office space. … This can be done a lot less expensively,” throwing out an estimate of $700,000.

“It’s complicated,” Hawley offered.

Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Summit County and a former superintendent there, said, “The implementation is a huge cultural shift” for schools, “So I’m not surprised it’s going to take time and money.”

The back-and-forth continued with a discussion about whether the legislature was uninformed or misinformed about costs when it passed SB 10-191, but Hawley finally was able to escape after about 45 minutes of grilling.

“Thank you for jumping into the fire,” said Hamner.

Things may warm up again on Wednesday morning, when the House and Senate education committees have a previously scheduled session with CDE leaders to talk about implementation of various recent reform initiatives.

That session will be followed later in the morning when the two committees are scheduled to meet with JBC members to talk about the SMART Act.

Members of Senate Education had their own problems with the SMART Act and testing costs at a meeting late last week (see item).

Although the budget requests from the Hickenlooper administration and CDE have been public since last Nov. 1, and the department has provide extensive briefing papers about its plans, Monday’s meeting made clear that the department has a more to do to bring lawmakers up to speed.

For the record

Speaking of the educator effectiveness law, the House Monday gave 64-1 final approval to House Bill 12-1001, which ratifies the regulations issued by the state board to implement SB 10-191. The bill has generated zero controversy in the legislature. The only no vote was Rep. Ed Casso, D-Adams County.

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.