Will Colorado lawmakers rekindle the bipartisan spirit to take on these education issues?

On the eve of Hickenlooper’s last regular session as governor it’s uncertain whether leaders in the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House can rekindle the bipartisan spirit during an election year and accomplish anything on a number of policy fronts.

Scenes from the seat of government on the last day of the state legislative session.

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Scenes from the seat of government on the last day of the state legislative session. denver; denverite; colorado; government; legislation; legislature; capitol; kevinjbeaty; politics; policy; house; house of representatives
Scenes from the seat of government. (Kevin J. Beaty)

By Nic GarciaChalkbeat

When state lawmakers ended their regular business in May, leaders under the gold dome congratulated themselves for finding a long list of bipartisan compromises — including deals on some of the most prickly education issues.

Education debates over charter school funding, a diploma credential for students who speak two languages and high school testing that had befuddled lawmakers for years were settled with bipartisan support.

But after Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, called legislators back to work to fix a glitch in one of those hard-fought compromises, talk of bipartisanship went straight out the window.

Now, on the eve of Hickenlooper’s last regular session as governor — he’s term-limited — it’s uncertain whether leaders in the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House can rekindle the bipartisan spirit during an election year and accomplish anything on a number of policy fronts.

While education lobbyists and other Capitol observers are wary major victories can be achieved, some of education’s most influential lawmakers are sounding a bipartisan tone.

“I’ve loved working with Brittany,” said state Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, referring to state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat who chairs the House Education Committee. “It’s an honor to work with someone who challenges my thinking. And yet we always come together to make sure kids have the very best possible education.”

Pettersen echoed Hill’s bipartisan sentiment.

“I know things get complicated during an election year,” she said. “But I’m really proud of the work we’ve done and I hope to do it again.”

Here’s a rundown of what should loom large on the education front this legislative session, which opens Wednesday:

Pension reform is going to take up a lot time and headspace, but a resolution is far from certain.

The state’s pension system, known as PERA, is in a precarious situation. While it’s nowhere near the crisis level it was seven years ago, the system’s funding levels have declined. PERA oversees retirement benefits to 566,000 current and former public employees — and many are school district employees.

There are a number of different proposals floating around the legislature. One is from the PERA governing board, another from the governor, one from state treasurer and Republican gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton, and another from legislative staff.

If lawmakers do act this session — and that’s a big “if” — they’re likely to want to put their own mark any reforms.

“I can’t imagine anything gets done this session,” said Hill, who is also the vice chair of the Senate Finance Committee, which would likely play a large role in shaping any reform package.

Hill suggested that more time is needed to study the issue and craft the best reform package possible — not the quickest.

Some Senate Democrats are hopeful a compromise can be reached, but are also inclined to take time on overhauling PERA.

“I do think a compromise can be had, but it’s going to take us all session to get it,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat. “I’m worried if we try to rush something through, it could get too political and it won’t be a good bipartisan solution like we did a few years ago.”

School funding is likely to see a boon — barring any unforeseen surprises.

Unlike last year when school budget writers were bracing for another round of cuts, things are looking pretty rosy on the school funding front. In November, the governor requested an additional $343 per student. That number is likely to go up given that the state has even more revenue than was expected in November and lawmakers love bragging about how much more money they send to schools than the governor requests.

However, state Rep. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat and chair of the legislature’s budget committee, sounded a cautious note.

“Clearly we’re in a much better place,” she said. “But we still have a lot of unknowns.”

Those unknowns include how state lawmakers plan to improve the state’s roads and highways — a huge piece of unfinished business from the 2017 session — and whether Congress will continue to fund the children’s health care program.

“There is going to be a lot of pressure on the state budget to deal with the shortcomings of Congress in regards to that program,” she said.

Don’t expect a massive rewrite of the state’s school funding formula — yet.

One of last year’s bipartisan accomplishments was the formation of a legislative committee to study — and ultimately change — the way Colorado funds its schools. The committee is scheduled to end its first round of meetings Tuesday — with little to show for it.

But that’s by design, several committee members said.

“The common understanding of the challenge is becoming more well-defined,” said state Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican who co-sponsored the bill that created the committee. “I’m pleased we’re making headway. And for the chance to drag our finance model into the 21st Century, I’m willing to be patient.”

One possible bill that could emerge from the committee’s work is a change to how the state counts its students. Right now, schools receive funding based on how many students are present for school on a specific day in October. Lawmakers could come up with a new system that better tracks student attendance and mobility to send a more precise amount of money to schools.

While some lawmakers are content with taking their time to develop a new formula to fund schools, a group of superintendents is preparing to charge ahead with its proposal.

The group, led in part by Walt Cooper, superintendent of the Cheyenne Mountain School District in Colorado Springs, has been working with state Rep. Dave Young, a Democrat from Greeley, to put the proposal into a bill.

Among the changes the superintendents seek: fully fund kindergarten students and increase funding for students who qualify for federally subsidized lunches.

However, Cooper said the superintendents and Young have not decided whether to introduce the bill.

“We’ll know by January if it sees the light of day,” Cooper said.

A major update to the state’s school accountability law is unlikely. But one lawmaker wants to give struggling schools another option.

Last year Lundeen and state Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, were working behind the scenes to update the state’s school accountability system. The state education department and leaders of struggling schools had identified where the 2009 law was ambiguous and needed clarification. But the two lawmakers could not get the bill into fighting shape.

“We continue to talk about this,” Lundeen said. “But I don’t know if we’ll have a bill.”

Meanwhile, Zenzinger, the Arvada Democrat, said she will introduce a bill that will give the State Board of Education an additional option for schools that don’t improve test scores within five years.

Currently, the board can order a school to be closed, converted to a charter school, develop an “innovation plan” that would free the school from some local and state policies, or hand over all or some managerial duties to a private third party. Zenzinger wants to include a “community schools model” to the mix.

The model, which is growing in popularity thanks in part to an endorsement by national teachers unions, transforms schools into hubs for community organizations to provide so-called “wraparound services” — such as English language classes for parents, medical care, and additional resources for families.

The idea behind the model is that learning can improve by first tackling poverty and other challenges facing students and their families.

“It’s going to offer more resources and a different approach,” Zenzinger said.

Here are a few other storylines and bills to watch for:
  • Taking on the teacher shortage is a top priority for House Democrats on the education committee. And they could have up to $10 million if the budget committee approves Hickenlooper’s request. But they don’t have any specific bills yet. Expect Republicans to push back on any policy that doesn’t alter the status quo — especially on teacher licensing.
  • This could be the year lawmakers send more money to the state’s kindergarten classrooms. State Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican and vice chair of the Senate Education Committee, is carrying a bill that would nearly fully fund kindergarten without spending any more tax dollars. That’s because his bill would reduce some funding for upperclassmen in high school.
  • Look for a big push to expand concurrent enrollment, which allows high school students to earn college credit at state universities and colleges, from Lundeen and Garnett. If the bill passes, it would be the third year in a row the bipartisan duo score major education legislation. (See data privacy, the committee studying school funding.) However, there’s also concern coming from the budget committee staff that some schools are abusing the “early colleges” model to score extra funding for students and not delivering on the promise of an associate’s degree within six years.
  • Just when you thought the debate over early childhood literacy was over, it’s back. Hamner, the Dillon Democrat, was one of the original sponsors of the READ Act, a bill that reformed how the state catches reading disabilities in its youngest students. She wants to double down on parts of the policy that are working and scrap what isn’t. Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican and member of the State Board of Education, also has expressed interest in pushing legislation that aims to boost early literacy. Durham and Hamner have been on opposing sides on a similar issue before. Can the two work together? Hamner says she hopes so.
  • One of last session’s biggest surprises was the death of a bipartisan bill that would have prohibited the state’s public schools from suspending its youngest students in most cases. The bill would have put Colorado on the forefront of school discipline reform, but it was killed over objections by some of the state’s rural schools. Look for the bill to come back but perhaps with different sponsors in the Senate.

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