Democrats control Colorado state government. Here’s what that means for education as the legislature opens

Colorado State Capitol dome

The Colorado legislature convenes Friday with Democratic majorities in both chambers and a Democratic governor-elect who made education a key part of his campaign. That doesn’t mean 2019 is going to be one extended round of kumbaya.

Democratic lawmakers don’t necessarily share incoming governor Jared Polis’ education priorities, which include funding full-day kindergarten, nor do they agree among themselves about the legacy of previous education policy initiatives.

Leaders on the House and Senate education committees say governing comes with big responsibilities, and the need for careful compromise won’t go away.

“When you hold the majority to the degree that we do now, it is a massive responsibility,” said state Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat who will chair the Senate Education Committee. “The best bills that are ever passed are made up of urban and rural, Republican and Democratic. When I see those four elements, I say, ‘This is a Colorado bill.’”

Some issues, such as creating more opportunities for high school students to take college classes or gain meaningful work experience, will have broad bipartisan appeal, while others, like reassessing the state’s teacher effectiveness law or allocating scarce education dollars, likely will prove more contentious.

Here are five things to watch this legislative session.

Full-day kindergarten is not a given.

Polis campaigned on funding for full-day kindergarten, which would cost roughly $250 million a year, and it’s been part of the Democratic agenda for years. Former state Sen. Andy Kerr, a Lakewood Democrat, would introduce a bill each session to require it, only for it to die in a Republican-controlled “kill” committee. So now that Democrats control the state Senate, it will sail through, right?

Not so fast.

Right now, the state provides funding for kindergarten students as if they attended school for a little more than half a day. But most school districts already provide a full day of class time either by charging parents tuition or making up the difference from their own budgets. That means that a pretty big expenditure wouldn’t increase the amount of time most Colorado 5-year-olds spend in school.

Early childhood advocates think that money could be better spent expanding preschool slots — also a priority of the incoming governor, though he’s suggested private investors would shoulder some of the cost. And state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat and member of the powerful Joint Budget Committee, said the school officials she talks to are most interested in more state support for special education, an issue she intends to push this session. Colorado doesn’t provide enough money to meet even its own requirements for funding students with disabilities, falling short by more than $77 million for the 2017-18 school year.

Todd said one way to balance these competing demands might be to phase in money for full-day kindergarten over a period of years.

The state’s teacher effectiveness law is on the table.

A Democratic legislature and a Democratic governor worked together to pass Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law in 2010, and it might take Democratic majorities to revise it.

Todd said Senate Bill 191 “will definitely be addressed,” and representative-elect Bri Buentello, a special education teacher from Pueblo, said changing the law will be one of her priorities. But exactly what that looks like isn’t clear yet.

The law, which was hotly contested at the time and remains unpopular with many teachers and principals, requires that every educator be evaluated every year and that student growth, often measured by performance on standardized tests, account for half of the evaluation. Experienced educators can lose non-probationary status and the job protections that come with it if they are rated less than effective two years in a row.

Colleen O’Neil, the state’s associate commissioner for educator talent, said many of the complaints about the bill are based on implementation, and education officials are working with districts to make sure they understand how much flexibility they actually have. That work is unlikely to satisfy critics, though, who see an opportunity to make more substantial changes.

Expect debate over the “every teacher, every year” requirement and over how much of a teacher’s effectiveness should be based on student growth.

This is a topic that could divide Democratic lawmakers. And while even some supporters say parts of the law should be revisited, landing on the right replacement could be tricky, from both a political and a policy standpoint.

Mental health will get more attention.

When we talk to teachers about what their students need, more counselors, social workers, and school psychologists often top the list. Democratic lawmakers say addressing students’ mental health needs will be a top priority.

The trauma that students experience outside the classroom can seriously affect their ability to learn inside the classroom. More significantly, suicide is a leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 24, and many wonder if schools, where students spend hours every day, could be playing a larger role in preventing those deaths.

“We have to make education about the kids, and if the kids are suffering, that’s where we need to go,” said state Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat and the incoming chair of the House Education Committee. “It’s not just testing and reading and writing and math. It’s the person inside.”

In previous legislative sessions, mental health treatment and suicide prevention efforts in schools have been controversial topics among some Republicans, particularly religious conservatives who feared undermining the role and authority of parents. Those voices no longer control procedural levers that allow them to kill bills before they go to a floor vote, but that doesn’t make this an easy problem to solve.

Hiring more mental health professionals will take money — McLachlan said marijuana tax revenue could provide some of it — and it also might require creative solutions in rural areas, where shortages of such professionals are acute.

‘I wish we could legislate kindness to teachers.’

Colorado lawmakers can’t make school districts pay teachers more, and with the failure of Amendment 73, there isn’t a major new revenue source to support any education initiatives. But legislators of both parties said teachers need to be better supported and more appreciated.

Efforts in 2018 to address the state’s shortage of teachers in some regions and subject areas fell short, by many estimations. Zenzinger plans to bring back a bill that would provide loan forgiveness to teachers in shortage areas, and outgoing Gov. John Hickenlooper has asked for money for principal training. Republicans killed both ideas last year.

McLachlan said she would legislate kindness to teachers if she could. “We can’t do that, but we need to encourage more teachers into the profession and retain them once we’re there,” she said.

Initiatives like principal training can be part of that, she said.

“I’ve worked for some good principals and some that were not so good,” said McLachlan, a former teacher. “When you work for a good one, you don’t complain about the money as much.”

Todd said she wants to look at how well teacher training programs prepare their graduates and what incentives the state could provide to districts to better support new teachers. Meanwhile, Republican Paul Lundeen, who will be joining the Senate Education Committee after years in the state House, said he plans to run a bill that would provide significant bonuses to what he called “really excellent teachers.”

Major changes to school finance could take a back burner.

The lawmakers who participated in a special two-year committee on school finance have proposed a bill that would allow them to continue their work. But without a major source of new revenue, changes to the school finance formula would involve painful and politically unpopular compromises, with some districts losing money.

Lundeen, who chaired the interim school finance committee as a state representative, said those challenges need to be confronted. He said he’ll continue to “press the case” that education should be about students and teachers and not systems and institutions.

But changing school finance will be a long game, one that could involve going to voters in 2019 or 2020 to see if they’ll untangle some of the state’s “fiscal thicket” by changing constitutional requirements or by creating incentives for school districts to provide more of their own funding — relieving pressure on the state budget.

Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Erica Meltzer on Jan. 3, 2019. Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.