Colorado lawmakers return Wednesday for the start of the 2022 legislative session in hopes of tackling long-standing educational challenges as well as new issues brought on by the pandemic.
Money for kindergarten to grade 12 and higher education will be big topics, as usual, with advocates saying it’s high time the state made up for years of low funding. There is also the potential for big investments in vocational training and changes in the way the state shares money with the districts.
The polarizing state accountability system and how to move forward with school assessments during the pandemic will also be debated, as will a push to extend the rights of public sector workers.
All of this overshadows the ongoing challenges facing schools: shortages of teachers and bus drivers, mental health crises, and the lasting impacts of COVID on student learning. Lawmakers think they have ideas to help, while education advocates are wary of new programs and unfunded mandates.
Here’s a look at the top education issues that lawmakers could address this year.
Colorado lawmakers drastically cut back on standardized testing last year and suspended the accountability system that rates schools based on test scores.
This year, Colorado students can expect to take the full set of standardized tests, but school districts don’t want the accountability system to resume immediately. They say data from last year’s tests does not provide a reliable basis on which to draw conclusions.
School districts and teachers’ unions prefer a transition period before schools get their normal grades again – although it is not clear what that would look like – and they have the backing of leading Democratic lawmakers.
Supporters of this “bridge” to accountability say they are working with reform supporters on an acceptable compromise, but supporters of the accountability system fear the changes will make it harder to get a full picture of how the pandemic affected student learning.
Education advocates are generally optimistic about increasing funding for schools this year. But expect debates over how much money the state should spend for years to come and how much it should spend now.
Schools are teeming with federal aid money, much of which remains unspent, but advocates say the state needs to increase support so schools don’t fall on a fiscal cliff.
Meanwhile, lawmakers are also planning to change how Colorado shares money with school districts. A special committee on school finances could recommend increasing funding for special education students and changing the way it defines at-risk students, a designation that earns extra money for school districts. Conservatives will push for funding changes to be tied to better educational outcomes
There is also a proposal for the state to provide matching funds for local property tax increases in low-taxable districts, an effort to reduce some of the disparities between rich and poor districts, although this is controversial even among committee members.
But don’t expect a major rewrite of the funding formula. This has proven too politically sensitive in the past, and the ad hoc committee postponed some of the more thorny issues until after the session.
A coalition of labor groups is expected to push to expand collective bargaining rights for public employees, including teachers ‘and higher education workers’ unions.
Colorado Education Association president Amie Baca-Oehlert said strengthening the rights of educators was a top priority, and teachers have higher salaries and are happier working in districts with unions.
But the Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents superintendents, has major concerns and wants the bill to exclude educator unions. They see the legislation as violating local control and do not believe the state has the power to dictate whether school districts recognize employee unions.
Colorado is moving forward with plans for a universal preschool, a key part of Governor Jared Polis’ education platform. Lawmakers last year created a new state department of early childhood education to oversee the rollout of a program funded by voter-approved taxes on nicotine products. This year, legislators must act on a series of recommendations on how the program actually works. These include making sure kindergarten reaches the kids who need it most, families have plenty of options, and the application process is easy.
“We want to make sure the new department is ready to administer early years in the fall of 2023,” said State Senator Janet Buckner, the Democrat Aurora leading the effort.
Even before the pandemic, Colorado officials wanted more of the state’s population to graduate from college, given the rise in jobs requiring college education, but college enrollments declined during the pandemic.
Thanks to the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, Colorado has about $ 3.8 billion to recover from the coronavirus pandemic. Now lawmakers need to figure out how to spend that money, including helping residents connect to vocational training. This effort will be guided by the recommendations of the 1330 Commission, created by last year’s legislation on student success in higher education.
The way lawmakers allocate money could help Colorado residents who need jobs the most and open the university up to many more people.
It would also represent a significant investment in post-secondary education, especially since the 1% increase proposed by Polis for funding higher education is not keeping pace with inflation.
Recovery in the event of a pandemic
The wave of omicron hanging over K-12 schools and colleges is defying an easy legislative solution, especially to address teacher absences and the lack of replacements.
More money would help meet student mental health needs and alleviate stressful classroom environments, but won’t find more counselors.
House Education Committee chair Barbara McLachlan, a Democrat from Durango and former teacher, is working on legislation to bring more school workers back from retirement and to expand a program that pairs new principals with experienced mentors . In the long run, improving school leadership will improve teacher retention, she said.
State Representative Colin Larson, a Republican from Littleton, is hopeful that a bill offering grants for innovative transportation plans could alleviate the growing shortage of bus drivers.
With student performance on standardized math tests declining during the pandemic, Larson wants to promote better math education.
Republicans will look for ways to bring money to parents to meet educational needs, an effort Democrats will almost certainly oppose by opening a back door to the good guys.
“Parents know,” said State Senator Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument. “They know what their child’s experience has been and what their needs are.
Senate Education Chairperson Rachel Zenzinger wants schools with chronically poor test scores to have the opportunity to convert to community schools, with comprehensive services that help students and families with needs outside the classroom.
Bret Miles, who heads the Colorado School Principals Association, is pleading with lawmakers not to place more burdens on the school just yet.
“Can’t we do 80 bills to try to fix education this year?” He asked. “The educators are tired. I want lawmakers to hear this every time they turn around. “