Here’s how the education debate could shift if Democrats retake Colorado’s Senate

Partisan control of Colorado’s Senate is in play this November, and with it the direction of major education policy debates on charter school funding, testing and how teachers are licensed.

Governor John Hickenlooper speaks to the mass of people on the capitol steps who gathered after the Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marraige in 2015. (Kevin J. Beaty)governor john hickenlooper; same sex; marraige; lgbtq; rally; capitol hill; kevinjbeaty;
Governor John Hickenlooper speaks to the mass of people on the capitol steps who gathered after the Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marraige in 2015. (Kevin J. Beaty) governor john hickenlooper; same sex; marraige; lgbtq; rally; capitol hill; kevinjbeaty;
Governor John Hickenlooper speaks to the mass of people on the capitol steps who gathered after the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marraige in 2015. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

By Nicholas GarciaChalkbeat 

Partisan control of Colorado’s Senate is in play this November, and with it the direction of major education policy debates on charter school funding, testing and how teachers are licensed.

For the last two years, Republicans have held a one-vote advantage in the Senate, while Democrats have enjoyed a three-seat majority in the House of Representatives.

But if Democrats have a successful night on Nov. 8, they could reclaim control of that chamber and claim one-party rule for the final two years of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration. (Political observers are all but certain the House will remain under Democratic control.)

The potential shift in power comes as Colorado’s schools are calling for more money and less regulation. But there is also a contingent of school leaders and advocacy organizations who are asking lawmakers to keep the status quo, at least for one more year as many of Colorado’s most ambitious reform efforts take hold.

The last time Democrats held both chambers and the governor’s mansion — in 2013 and 2014 — little was accomplished on education issues. Most energy was spent on an ill-fated attempt to rework the way the state funds its schools, and getting more money to schools.

So will anything be different this time? We asked a variety of lawmakers, lobbyists and education activists. Here’s what they said is likely to happen if Democrats take over:

Democrats will almost certainly free up more money for schools in the short-term, as advocates push for a resolution to Colorado’s school funding quagmire.

Despite aggressive lobbying earlier this year by the governor’s office, Republicans refused to approve a technical change to a pool of money the state collects that was in part responsible for triggering a mandatory refund to taxpayers.

Currently, the state collects a fee from hospitals that goes toward Medicaid costs. Those dollars also count toward the state’s constitutionally mandated revenue ceiling outlined in the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. Once the state reaches its ceiling, like it did last year, the state must issue refunds to taxpayers.

Democrats want to reclassify the fee so that doesn’t continue to happen as other revenue comes close to the state’s limit but doesn’t reach the ceiling.

“The opportunity is that we can pass some Band-Aid fixes to our restrictions to help with education funding,” said Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat and chairwoman of the House Education Committee.

If Democrats are successful, an estimated $90 million could flow to schools. However, lawmakers could be forced to cut back funding if economic forecasts don’t improve by next spring.

And that fix might still not be enough to appease school districts and advocates preparing to ask lawmakers to rethink how the state funds its schools.

“Obviously the hospital provider fee can relieve some short-term pressure, but they have to look at a long-term solution,” said Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit organization that focuses on school funding. “We hope that elected officials come looking to solve problems.”

Charter school supporters are worried a Democratic-controlled state Senate means funding equalization is DOA. They’re probably right.

Last session, lawmakers failed to reach a compromise that would have required local school districts to share local tax dollars equally with their charter schools.

While advocates are vowing to bring the measure back, some conservatives who supported the measure are skeptical the legislation will have a fighting chance in 2017.

“That is not a reality without at least a Republican majority in the Senate,” said Tyler Sandberg, senior policy adviser for Ready Colorado, a conservative nonprofit that advocates for school reform policies.

The Colorado League of Charter Schools isn’t as pessimistic.

“Regardless of which way the election goes, we really see this as a bipartisan issue,” said Dan Schaller, the group’s political director. “The dynamics of the election are not going to change that fundamental viewpoint to continue that push.”

State Sen. Nancy Todd, who is likely to take over the Senate Education Committee and is a self-identified charter school supporter but opposed the bill last year, said her goal is to “narrow the gap” between charter school supporters and detractors.

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” the Aurora Democrat said about the clash between the two camps.

But that doesn’t mean she’s going to support the legislation this year. And Pettersen, chairwoman of the House Education Committee, thinks the issue of funding is best decided at the local level.

Despite Gov. John Hickenlooper’s past support of state standardized tests for ninth-graders, there’s enough interest by Democrats to take another look at the state’s testing system.

In 2015, when Colorado lawmakers were scrambling to roll back the amount of standardized testing required by the state, Hickenlooper made it clear he would not support eliminating testing in the ninth grade.

Lawmakers abided. But nearly two years later, both Republicans and Democrats are ready for a second pass at the state’s testing system.

“There’s still room for discussion,” Todd said.

While Todd and others might want to take a scalpel to the state’s tests, others are calling for a total overhaul.

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Republican from Colorado Springs and the Senate Education Committee’s current chairman, said he believes the time has come for the legislature to direct the state education department to drop the politically contentious PARCC exams and develop a new system designed in Colorado.

“We love our Colorado beer, we love our Colorado mountains and we want a Colorado way to test,” he said.

While neither Pettersen nor Todd are committed to the PARCC exams, Hill’s proposal would likely be a bridge too far for Democrats in 2017.

Teacher licensure reform, on the back burner since 2013, could take center stage as districts struggle to find qualified teachers.

Reforming how teachers are certified has been on Hickenlooper’s to-do list for years. But the issue hasn’t gotten much traction given other policy and fiscal priorities.

That could change next year, said Leslie Colwell, the Colorado Children’s Campaign vice president for education initiatives. Colwell previously served as an aide to state Sen. Michael Johnston, a Denver Democrat who worked with Hickenlooper to broach the subject of licensure reform in 2013.

Both men suggested at the time that a license should be easier to obtain for individuals who go through alternative preparation programs — and that an educator’s annual evaluation should be a factor in the renewal process. The law, which hasn’t been updated since 1991, should also be aligned to the state’s other reform efforts, they said.

That summer, Johnston led a group of other lawmakers, university presidents, advocacy groups and teachers in rethinking what educators needed to prove to get a license to teach. The goal was to develop legislation that could win approval. But nothing materialized.

With school districts struggling to find and keep teachers — especially rural districts — this could be the year lawmakers take another look at the issue, Colwell and others said.

“We’re reaching a crisis level in many of our school districts,” Colwell said, arguing that Colorado’s current licensure program has “arbitrary barriers” and can be too expensive.

Regardless of which party is in control, lawmakers interested in rethinking the licensure process could find allies in the rural caucus.

“We have a negative balance of educators,” said Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican.

While some lawmakers might be tempted to roll back some of the state’s most ambitious education reforms, Democratic leaders from both chambers aren’t that interested.

When Colorado lawmakers heard Congress was reining in the authority of the federal education department and handing control of schools back to the states, many rejoiced. They saw it as an opportunity to roll back many of the state’s reform efforts — testing, teacher evaluations and quality ratings — that they see as burdensome, especially for rural schools.

While some of that enthusiasm has tempered down, Todd has a message for those still eager to reimagine the whole education system: don’t hold your breath.

Todd herself is anxious to provide relief to schools and ease the burden of teachers. But she wants 2017 to be a year of reflection.

“We need to be brought up to speed on how these laws have played out,” she said, referring to the bevy of education laws Colorado passed between 2008 and 2012. “That’s something we don’t do well enough.”

While Pettersen agrees 2017 might not be the best year for sweeping changes, she still has hope major legislation can be accomplished to improve our schools.

“We’ll have a better idea,” she said reflecting on this year’s election, “after we can all take a deep breath.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported Leslie Colwell’s title. This article has also been updated with Tyler Sandberg’s correct title. 

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.