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Lucky 13 for this session?


By Moira Cullen, DFER Colorado State Director

Last week, Colorado’s legislative session began with the usual fanfare and, due to term limits and redistricting, a particularly high number of new legislators being sworn into office.

The last few Colorado legislative sessions have been marked with significant education reform policy changes which were often led by DFER Colorado policy makers and had significant bipartisan support. In 2010, SB 191, Colorado’s landmark educator effectiveness law passed and 2012 marked passage of a literacy bill that is designed to have more elementary students on track to being proficient readers.

This year may very well be another landmark year for changes in Colorado’s public education policy landscape. The 2013 legislative session marks a new era in Colorado with both houses and the Governor’s office in firm control by the Democrats. Many DFER Colorado supported candidates are now in critical leadership positions including newly elected Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino and Rep. Millie Hamner, the Chair of the House Education Committee. Democratic control will have a significant impact on how education policy is crafted in this session.

Bill concepts have already been proposed that, if passed would offer in-state tuition for undocumented Colorado high school graduates, strengthening how services are provided to English language learners, reform teacher licensure, and provide the first rewrite of Colorado’s school finance law in nearly two decades.

Last year, DFER CO was a strong supporter of the ASSET bill which would have reduced the cost of college for undocumented Colorado high school graduates who are currently required to pay the out of state tuition rate. Unfortunately, the bill died at the hands of the House Republicans. This year, however, with Speaker Ferrandino’s leadership and strong Democrat support, the ASSET bill is not only expected to pass but will also likely have a tuition rate that mirrors the same rate as documented in-state students.

Although many bills will be introduced in 2013, the education policy debate is likely to be dominated by DFER CO Advisory Committee member Senator Mike Johnston’s School Finance bill. This bill is likely to modernize Colorado’s school finance system so that funds follow students with greater weights tied to poverty, English Language learners and students with other critical needs.

If passed by the legislature, this new school finance system would be contingent upon a successful ballot initiative that increases funding for K-12 education. This “grand bargain” is designed to provide much needed new funding to Colorado’s schools, which have sustained over $1 billion in cuts over the past 5 years.

If reworking school finance and asking for more funds from Colorado voters was not complicated enough, the Colorado Supreme Court is likely, in the next few months, to decide whether the current system is providing adequate funding to the state’s school system. In order to meet a constitutional mandate, Colorado must provide its citizens with a thorough and uniform public education system. The court’s decision could totally change the environment if it requires the state to raise a significant amount of new education funding as this would likely force the legislature to shift funding from other areas of the budget. This could potentially pitt social services, higher education and other critical state funded programs against K-12.

Colorado education policy this legislative session will be a wild and somewhat unpredictable ride with this year’s unique political context. Let’s hope 2013 is in fact, Lucky 13.

Moira Cullen, DFER Colorado State Director, specializes in advocating for education reform, higher education, non-profit advocacy, and children's policy issues as a lobbying expert in Denver, CO. Read more about Moira here