Who Is In Charge

Digital ed study gets panel nod

A bill that would commission a study of digital education was approved by the House Education Committee Monday.

Testing illustrationThe panel voted 13-0 to advance House Bill 12-1124 to the floor after hearing from a parade of witnesses that was unusually long for a study bill.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs and chair of House Ed. It would require the state Department of Education to hire a Colorado-based consultant to conduct a comprehensive study of digital education and report back to the State Board of Education, the governor and the legislative education committees by Jan. 31, 2013.

“I hope there’s legislation that comes out of it [the study],” Massey told Education News Colorado. (But Massey, because of term limits, won’t be in the 2013 legislature.)

If the study is approved, it would join a long list of education issues that have been studied by non-lawmakers before the legislature acted.

  • A 2006 audit of online education programs led to creation of a commission that made recommendations to the 2007 legislature, which passed a law on the issue.
  • Management and financial problems with the Cesar Chavez Charter Network led the 2010 legislature to create a committee to study improvements in charter management and authorizing. That panel’s recommendations are only now being considered as bills by the 2012 legislature.
  • The 2010 legislature also formalized the State Council for Educator Effectiveness, which made recommendations for a new teacher evaluation system to the SBE, which in turn issued rules that this year’s legislature is reviewing.

Problems with online education surfaced again last year (see this examination by EdNews and the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network), but Massey’s interest is not in sorting out those problems. Rather, he’s interested in developing data about both online education and in-classroom use of technology to inform future policy decisions.

The study, as summarized by a legislative staff, is supposed to examine:

  • Student eligibility for and access to digital learning
  • The quality of available digital learning content and instruction
  • Funding models for digital learning that create incentives for performance
  • Other states’ experience integrating digital learning into K-12 education
  • The need for information technology infrastructure
  • Current state laws and rules concerning digital learning
  • The extent to which current school accountability measures are appropriate and sufficient
    to measure the performance of online students

Massey said in an interview that he feels a study, rather than legislative action this session, is needed because very little information and data exist now about the issue. “We have to start from ground zero.”

Some witnesses and committee members questioned the use of a consultant, rather than a committee to study the issue.

Massey told EdNews after the meeting that he feels using an outside consultant will be a more efficient way to handle the issue. The bill specifies that the study will be funded by “gifts, grants and donations,” and Massey said at least two non-profit groups have indicated interest in both funding and doing the study. The bill specifies that the consultant “cannot be a provider of digital learning or related technologies, or otherwise have a conflict of interest in conducting the study.”

Massey declined to identify possible bidders for the contract.

Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, has said he wants to introduce legislation to regulate – or change the funding of – multi-district online education programs, but he hasn’t yet detailed his intentions. He’s keeping his plans, if any, close to this vest.

Massey said Monday he doesn’t know what, if anything, Shaffer is planning.

Read the bill and check the legislative staff summary.

Another current enrollment bill

House Education also gave unanimous approval to House Bill 12-1146, which would authorize school districts and community colleges to make agreements under which certain kinds of students at high risk of dropping out could take high school-level classes at community colleges in order to receive their diplomas. They also would receive college credit for the classes. School districts would continue to receive per-pupil funding for such students and would pay their community college tuition.

The bill is needed to protect existing programs at Front Range Community College and Pueblo Community College, whose funding could be threatened by scheduled changes in overall state law on concurrent high school-community college enrollment.

But Geri Anderson, community college system provost, said other colleges are looking into such programs.

For the record

House Bill 1201001 – This is the bill to ratify the regulations for implementation of the new educator evaluation system. It received preliminary Senate approval.

House Bill 12-1072 – This measure, which would direct the higher education system to create ways for adult students to earn college credit for life experience, received preliminary House floor approval.

Senate Bill 12-051 – The bill would suggest that school boards consider the potential compatibility of outside contractors with school goals and atmosphere when hiring them. It got preliminary Senate floor approval.

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.