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Colorado Moves Ahead on Ambitious K-12 Package

By Erik W. Robelen — May 20, 2008 4 min read
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Measures approved by Colorado lawmakers with strong backing from Gov. Bill Ritter hold potentially big implications for the state’s K-12 education system, including a move to revamp state standards and tests, and a bill allowing schools to seek more autonomy from certain state rules—and from collective-bargaining pacts.

“These bills represent some of the most important work the legislature did this session,” Gov. Ritter, a Democrat, said at a May 14 ceremony where he signed into law four bills passed in the just-concluded session, including one of his top priorities, the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids. That plan aims to create a seamless preschool-to-college educational system.

Mr. Ritter, who also put his signature on a budget boosting K-12 education funding by about 10 percent, was expected to sign all the education bills by the end of May.

The ambitious action on education in Colorado comes as many states are grappling with budget deficits that have forced K-12 spending cuts and made it difficult to contemplate new programs for schools. Although revenue forecasts have come down recently in Colorado, the state is not in a deficit.

Total state spending on K-12 education is expected to increase to $3.78 billion in the fiscal year that begins July 1, up by $337 million from the previous fiscal year, according to an aide to the state legislature’s joint budget committee. The total state budget for fiscal 2009 will be about $18 billion.

The new budget will make full-day kindergarten available to 7,000 more children this fall, including providing $35 million for capital construction costs to help districts make room for more kindergarten students. It also is expected to eliminate an estimated 3,800-child waiting list for the Colorado Preschool Program, which serves 3- and 4-year-olds considered to be at-risk of developing academic problems.

The budget will provide $5 million for a new program providing guidance counselors to schools. And it will offer a $1 million incentive fund to help districts and charter schools devise alternative teacher-compensation plans.

‘The Centerpiece Bill’

The Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids will set in motion a multi-year process to update state content standards and create new ones for early childhood education, develop new or realigned assessments, and establish definitions of school readiness, as well as readiness for postsecondary education and the workforce.

It also calls for creating standards for early-childhood education, and for making changes to college-entrance requirements. The effort was sparked in part by concerns about the state’s high school dropout rate and low rate of college completion. (“Colo. Governor Pushing New K-12 Standards, Tests,” April 2, 2008.)

“This was the centerpiece bill,” said Frank B. Waterous, a senior policy analyst at the Bell Policy Center, a Denver think tank. “We’re certainly supportive of the direction this is going.”

He said the measure was built on ideas devised by the state’s P-20 Education Coordinating Council, a broad-based advisory board formed by Gov. Ritter.

Benjamin T. DeGrow, an education policy analyst at the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colo., said he supports the idea of making the state’s standards more rigorous, but suggests the new law is vague about what’s expected.

“It’s kind of too early to tell what the fallout is going to be,” he said. “There’s not a whole lot of definition in the law itself.”

Jeanne L. Beyer, a spokeswoman for the 38,000-member Colorado Education Association, which is affiliated with the National Education Association, said the state union is concerned that no money was included to help districts rewrite and realign their curricula to meet new state standards.

“While an overhaul of academic standards is needed, we’re very concerned about the cost implications for school districts,” she said.

Money for Construction

Meanwhile, another new measure is expected to generate about $500 million in coming years for capital construction projects for school districts. It will use existing revenues to finance lease-purchase agreements to repair old schools and build new ones. It is aimed at districts lacking adequate resources to finance their own construction plans, especially in poor, rural areas. The state’s charter schools will be eligible to participate.

Lawmakers also approved a plan allowing one or more public schools to apply to their local school board to become an “innovation school,” which would give them greater freedom to operate.

The bill would allow for “innovations” in school staffing, recruitment, and compensation, as well as in curricula and testing, class scheduling, use of financial resources, and other matters, with waivers from certain state rules and regulations. A school could also seek exemptions from rules in the district’s collective-bargaining agreement, though to move forward the school’s plan would need to be approved by at least 60 percent of its faculty.

“Schools and districts are real enthused about this bill, and many of them will take advantage of it,” predicted Scott A. Groginsky, the director of education initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign, a Denver-based advocacy group, which supported the measure.

Ms. Beyer, from the teachers’ union, said the group was concerned about an earlier version of the measure, but was pleased about changes made to ensure that teachers have a role in approving any waivers from collective-bargaining pacts.

“We were able to get the bill fixed,” she said. “It gave us a little heartburn initially.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 21, 2008 edition of Education Week as Colorado Moves Ahead on Ambitious K-12 Package

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