Statehouse roundup

GOP education funding bill makes early exit

A bill that would have funneled end-of-year state surpluses into special accounts for K-12 and higher education was killed Wednesday by majority Democrats on the House Finance Committee.

But the 6-5 vote didn’t come until after those Democrats went to substantial lengths to compliment the GOP sponsor and stress their support for improved school funding.

House Bill 15-1058 would have put 70 percent of what’s called the annual general fund surplus in the State Education Fund and 30 percent into a higher education account. The surplus – the amount can vary widely year to year – is what’s left over after the state pays its bills, the legislature makes mid-year budget adjustments, and the state controller balances the books every year.

The K-12 transfers would have continued until the negative factor – the state’s $890 million school funding shortfall – had been eliminated.

Comparing the negative factor to an unpaid credit card balance, sponsor Rep. Jon Becker, R-Fort Morgan, said, “Until we get that credit card paid off … this is the responsible way to use the surplus. … We have a very large debt to K-12 education.”

He and other Republicans called it a first step toward broader and more permanent improvements in school funding. “We can’t do everything at once,” noted Rep. Polly Lawrence, R-Douglas County.

Questioned by a fellow Republican, Becker acknowledged it was hard to estimate how much money the bill would raise. “This could be as much as $45 million for this year and as little as $20 million.”

Democratic committee members voiced plenty of objections: lawmakers can do this already if they want, the bill would limit the flexibility of future legislatures, and a bigger, more permanent school finance fix is needed, not an incremental step.

“Our priority as a legislature needs to be coming up with a permanent fix to the negative factor,” said Rep. KC Becker, D-Boulder. (The two Beckers aren’t related.)

What she and the other Democrats didn’t mention was that a permanent school funding fix – the $1 billion tax increase known as Amendment 66 – was offered to voters in 2013 and soundly defeated.

Witnesses supporting the bill included three rural district superintendents from northeastern Colorado and representatives of the Colorado Association of School Boards and the Colorado Education Association. (The CEA gave contributions to most if not all of the committee Democrats last year but to none of the Republicans.)

Before the vote was taken, committee members spent half an hour on the peculiar legislative politeness ritual known as “explaining my vote.” That involved Democrats complimenting Becker for introducing the bill while explaining why they were going to vote no. Committee Republicans complimented Becker and explained why they were voting yes.

If the bill had been passed by the finance committee, it would have gone next to the House Education Committee. It perhaps was assigned by House Democratic leadership first to finance to avoid the political embarrassment of Democrats on the education committee voting no.

The serious discussion of school finance in 2015-16 probably won’t unfold until late March, after state revenue forecasts are updated.

Fields considering minority teacher legislation

Rep. Rhonda Fields said Wednesday she’s considering legislation designed to encourage more minority students to become teachers.

Fields talked with Chalkbeat Colorado following a Capitol briefing on a new report, “Keeping Up with the Kids: Increasing Minority Teacher Representation in Colorado.”

The Aurora Democrat was a prime sponsor of the 2014 law that commissioned the study, which was presented to a joint meeting of the House and Senate education committees.

Fields said she doesn’t have a specific proposal yet in mind but is interested in doing something that would encourage “bridge” programs in community colleges that would help direct minority students toward teacher prep programs. She said she’s also looking into way to interest minority students in teaching as early as their middle school years.

The study found that only 10 percent of state teachers are minorities, compared to 43 percent of students, and that Colorado lags behind the nation in the percentage of minority teachers. (Read our story and see the full report here.)

The study recommended that the legislature consider creating a “multi-million dollar” program of state grants to minority teacher recruitment and retention programs. Committee members had lots of questions about the report, but no legislator asked about or touched on the idea of spending that kind of money.

(In a First Person commentary posted on Chalkbeat Wednesday, UCD Professor Margarita Bianco writes about the importance of having more students of color become teachers.)

Fishing for BEST funding

Advocates of the Building Excellent Schools Today program have been hunting around for more money to fund the effort, given that BEST has hit the ceiling on the $40 million it is allowed to spend every year to repay the lease-purchase agreements that have been used to build or renovate dozens of schools around the state.

The program gets half of the annual revenues earned on state school lands, and the issue came up Wednesday when the House and Senate education committees were briefed by Bill Ryan, director of the State Land Board.

Sen. Mike Johnston tried to draw Ryan out on the issue of how to raise more funds for BEST, but Ryan’s answer was cautious. “Our job is to earn the revenue,” he said, but decisions on how to spend it are up the legislature.

He also noted that revenues from school lands are volatile because they “are so linked to commodity prices and production.” Much of the land board revenue comes from oil and gas leases and royalties.

Citing the recent dramatic drop in oil prices, Ryan said, “We do see a steep drop off coming in our revenues.”

Johnston, a Denver Democrat, said the coming revenue decline worries him and then suggested looking into how to increase interest income from land board’s permanent fund.

Ryan said state law currently requires the permanent fund be invested in low risk – and therefore low-interest – securities. Johnston suggests easing those limits, and Ryan responded, “That would be a good alternative to pursue.”

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.

Colorado Votes 2017

What’s different about this year’s Denver school board election? Betsy DeVos, for one

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Election judge Josie Flanagan takes ballots from a voter at the drive-through ballot drop-off outside the Denver Elections Division.

In many ways, the storylines of this year’s Denver school board election feel familiar. Those who embrace the district’s policies, and those who remain resistant. Those who welcome charter schools against those who see them as forces of privatization. Candidates willing to consider closing low-performing schools versus those dead-set against it.

But as candidates who oppose the reforms that have brought national recognition to Denver Public Schools in the last decade once again battle to gain a foothold on a board that unanimously backs the district’s direction, some factors are different this time around, said several longtime district observers.

Among the most glaring, they said, is how shifts in the national political climate — and the divisiveness surrounding U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — are permeating local races.

“In the aftermath of Trump, the Democratic party, which is dominant in Denver, has moved pretty hard to the left,” said Eric Sondermann, a political analyst who is supporting the incumbent candidates. “…And among many of those activists, opposition to reformers and to charters has become more and more the holy grail.”

Four of the seven board seats are up for election Nov. 7. All of the seats are contested and each race includes at least one candidate who disagrees with the district’s direction. If those candidates sweep the election, they’ll have the political power to change key policies.

At rallies and in interviews and campaign literature, groups pushing for DPS to reverse direction are seeking to tie the district to DeVos, whose brand of education reform, which includes private school vouchers, has been aggressively disavowed by the district and its school board.

But critics point to certain decisions the board has made in the last two years. They include the further expansion of high-performing charter networks and the adoption of a school closure policy that uses strict criteria to determine when to replace low-performing schools and leaves little room for impassioned pleas to keep them open.

After more than a decade of such strategies in Colorado’s largest school district, the evidence of whether they’re working or not is piling up. Yet in what is perhaps a sign that the local debate is growing more polarized, the two sides interpret it differently.

“I think the district is suffering from a lack of proof that their reforms are working,” said a former board member, Jeannie Kaplan, who supports candidates who want to see a change.

Mary Seawell, a former board president who favors Denver’s reforms, said the opposite.

“What makes this election different than the past three is that we have so much more independent data showing the improvements happening districtwide,” said Seawell, citing a recent laudatory report by an education nonprofit that praised Denver for effectively managing schools with different governance structures and showing high rates of academic growth.

“We have proof and evidence,” she said, “that a lot of this is really working.”

It’s true that Denver students made more academic progress on state tests last year than ever before and that the percentage reading and doing math at grade-level moved to within a few points of the statewide average, a big feat for a district that historically lagged far behind. But reform opponents point out that only 39 percent of third-graders scored at grade-level in English.

The district’s four-year graduation rate increased from 52 percent in 2010 to 67 percent in 2016, mirroring a national trend. However, of the 10 largest districts in Colorado, only neighboring Aurora graduates a lower percentage of its students in four years.

And while 85 percent of incoming kindergarteners got into their first-choice schools this year, critics argue that not providing transportation to all students who want to attend a school outside their neighborhood presents a hollow choice for families who can’t drive their kids across town.

That the two sides can’t agree on the facts is hampering debate, said Van Schoales, whose organization, A Plus Colorado, favors many district policies but doesn’t endorse candidates.

“On one hand, we hear the district is being privatized by profiteers,” a characterization that isn’t true, he said. “On the other side, we hear the district is great and made more improvement than any other district in the country.

“Yeah, it’s improved, but it’s far from where it needs to be,” Schoales added. “In previous elections, there was more of a rich debate around, how do you get from (here to there)?”

Other factors are in play. School board elections are historically low-turnout. And observers on both sides wonder aloud whether the reformers can rally the support needed to continue the winning streak that has resulted in a 7-0 board in favor of the district’s direction or whether their opponents can marshal the necessary votes to tip the board’s balance of power.

“The question is: Is that opposition gaining strength?” Sondermann said, “Or is it just the same minority point of view that it’s been for the last half-dozen, dozen years?”