2016 Legislative Session Sprints Toward Finish Line

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it’s already the end of April. That means another legislative session is winding down, its drama and intrigue fading quietly into the warmth and relaxation of summer. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There are 336 bills still pending in the legislature, including 51 that are at least peripherally related to education. All of those have to be dealt with by May 11. Colorado’s lawmakers have a lot left to do under the dome.

Of course, those lawmakers have already done a lot of work, some good and some bad. We’ve talked about a number of high-profile bills over the course of the session, including a couple bad bills on accountability, one of which died rather spectacularly, and a bill intended to bolster floundering civic knowledge. We’ve also discussed a variety of other bills, some of which got pretty interesting.

As the session ramps up for its final weeks, I thought it might be helpful to provide an update on some of the more interesting education-related bills still lingering in halls of the Colorado Capitol. This stuff gets complicated, and tracking it all at once can be a bit like juggling a hundred balls of different shapes and sizes. On fire. With a blindfold on.

We won’t hit everything, but we’ll hit the big stuff. Without further ado, here we go:

Charter bills grind forward. Senate Bill 187 and Senate Bill 188 are arguably the biggest-ticket items left on the education agenda at this stage of the legislative game. SB 187 provides additional flexibility to high-performing charter schools when it comes to school improvement plans, as well as a few other tweaks. The bill mostly proposes ground-level changes designed to make life a little easier for charters doing good work, which has meant that the bill hasn’t gotten as much attention as its big brother, SB 188.

As many of you probably remember from a recent post, SB 188 requires school districts to equitably fund public charter school students under voter-approved mill levy overrides. To paraphrase my policy friend Ross Izard’s recent op-ed on the bill, it’s about dang time.

Both charter bills were heard before the Senate Education Committee last Thursday, and both passed on 6-3 votes. Senator Mike Johnston, a reliable reform supporter and prominent Democrat, joined Republicans in passing the bills. Senator Johnston did an awesome job arguing against some of the sillier points raised during testimony. Senator Mike Merrifield, on the other hand, once again displayed his open disdain for charter schools with a raft of amendments that ranged from political statements to outright assaults on charters and those who support them. Ick.

Both charter bills were supposed to be up for second reading in the Senate today. But bills are often laid over in the busy closing days of the session, and that’s exactly what happened this morning. It is likely that both will pass the Senate after some ugly debate when they finally come up, but they face uncertain political dynamics in the House.

Meanwhile, a considerably less friendly bill backed by the teachers union is seeking to make life harder on charters. HB 1343 would eliminate the schools’ automatic waivers from certain requirements. There are 18 of these waivers right now. Automatic waivers were ushered in a few years ago to decrease repetitive work and paperwork dealing with waivers requested by and approved for essentially every charter school in Colorado. Despite union sermonizing, the bill exists solely to allow charter opponents to soapbox against choice. I don’t expect it to survive.

9th-grade testing lives to fight another day. Senate Bill 005 has been a bit of an odd duck from the start. Designed to eliminate statewide testing in 9th grade, it features sponsorship from both the hard right and the hard left of the political spectrum. It had a truly bizarre (and pretty funny) hearing before Senate Ed, where Chairman Owen Hill tacked on amendments poking the union by modifying tenure and licensing requirements in districts choosing not to administer the assessment. Those amendments were stripped on the floor, but that didn’t save it from death yesterday.

It was never completely clear that SB 005 would die in the Senate, and some Capitol observers had speculated that it might make it to the House, or even to the governor’s desk. But given Governor Hickenlooper’s comments on 9th-grade testing during his State of the State address this year, the bill almost certainly would have been vetoed had it gotten that far. No matter what, SB 005 was toast.

Despite some shrieking from the opt-out quarters (some of which is rather concerning), the appetite for testing tweaks is significantly lower after last year’s reductions. Meanwhile, statewide testing has proceeded as scheduled with nary a peep this spring. We still need to have some serious conversations about which tests we use, and those will continue. But we can consider the conversation on testing frequency officially closed for this year.

But that doesn’t mean the testing conversation is completely over. We’ve seen couple other measures on testing this session, most of which have died. HB 1131, for instance, sought to make some fairly large changes to our state’s assessment system. That bill died in the House Education Committee back in March.

But another, more interesting bill lives on, marooned mournfully on the shores of the House Appropriations Committee. That bill, HB 1234, would require CDE to look into what would be required to replace the much-maligned PARCC assessment, including cost, time, and other considerations. It would also require Colorado to apply for the new alternative assessment pilot program offered under the Every Student Succeeds Act. CDE has already been going down this road for some time, and does not require legislative authority to do so, so this section of the bill is largely irrelevant. But it’s there nonetheless.

The ESSA-authorized pilot allows up to seven states to develop and test new forms of assessment. The resulting systems could look like New Hampshire’s surprisingly successful pilot program, or it could look like Nebraska’s far less impressive local testing experiment.

I’ll be watching this one in the weeks to come. It’s hard to say exactly where it’ll land at this stage, though the delay at House App may not bode well for its chances.

Then there’s some important other stuff.  There are a bunch of miscellaneous education bills still out there that also deal with important issues. We won’t go into detail on these, nor will we cover all of the noteworthy bills still floating around. But I will provide a list to catch you up on the big ones in my book.

  • HB 1423, this session’s big bill on student data privacy, would tighten requirements around third-party handling of student data and require increased transparency when it comes to what data is collected by whom and why. The bill has bipartisan support in both chambers, and passed the House unanimously (!?) a couple weeks ago. That’s a big change from last year’s data privacy conversation, which stalled after the House and Senate couldn’t come to an agreement over amendments. I expect this year’s bill to pass easily.
  • HB 1282 increases transparency in off-year school board elections by requiring contributions to be reported on the more frequent schedule required in even-year elections. As voters in Steamboat can attest, that’s kind of a big deal. HB 1282 passed the House unanimously this month, which I will admit raised my eyebrows a bit. It has already cleared the Senate State, Veteran, and Military Affairs Committee. Final passage is all but assured at this point.
  • HB 1354 will allow school districts to use voter-approved mill levy overrides exclusively to fund capital construction and improvement projects. Under current law, MLOs are used for “soft projects” not related to facilities, while debt-based bond issues are used for capital projects. This bill would allow those projects to be funded without incurring debt—assuming voters approve the associated property tax increases. The bill has passed both chambers, and is headed to the governor’s desk.
  • HB 1078 creates protections and legal complaint avenues for local “whistleblowers” who “reasonably believe” a local government has committed a “violation of a state or federal law, a local ordinance or resolution, or a local education provider policy; A waste or misuse of public funds; Fraud; An abuse of authority; Mismanagement; or A danger to the health or safety of students, employees, or the public.” Proponents of the bill say this is a necessary effort to promote good local government. Opponents argue that the system it creates will be a costly and time-consuming distraction that will be used as (yet another) way of politically jabbing local leaders with whom folks disagree. HB 1078 has already cleared the House—a surprising development on its own—on a narrow, near-party-line vote. It is now waiting for a hearing in the Senate State Affairs Committee. My guess is that it will die there.

So there you have it, a 10,000-foot overview of education-related legislation in the final days of the 2016 session. We’ll circle back in the coming weeks to take stock of where we landed legislatively in 2016, but until then you can sound politically savvy at your upcoming barbecues. Assuming you talk about politics at your barbeques, of course. And really, who doesn’t?