A measure that largely keeps state money steady for 2020-21 school year headed to Gov. Polis; other issues include standardized testing and paying school board members
When the Colorado Legislature set its budget for public schools in May 2020, lawmakers had little idea what a profound impact COVID-19 would have on the education system and families with school-age children. This year’s session is tasked with settling up — not just financially but also in the classroom.
That started Friday, when the Colorado House sent a bill that’ll keep school funding steady for the current school year to Gov. Jared Polis for a signature; it passed the Senate on Feb. 26.
It’s one of more than a dozen education-focused bills introduced this session. Here’s more on the school funding one and three others to keep on your radar.
School funding through June 30, 2021
With this bill, lawmakers intend to balance the financial effects of a 3.3% drop in public school enrollment, a significant decrease in the share of local taxes districts get and Proposition EE, a tax on nicotine sales that passed in November designed to supplement the education general fund.
The measure allows districts to keep the amount of money they were originally allocated, as long as their budgets fall within 2% of their original appropriation. Districts in which enrollment grew will get more money.
This midyear adjustment to school funding is customary for the legislature. Last year was rife with unexpected challenges, said bill co-sponsor Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, which makes the bill all the more important.
“When you combine all these factors, what was going to happen if we did nothing is we would have to claw back $120 million from our schools and districts,” the Arvada Democrat said. “That prospect was not acceptable, especially given the fact that expenses were much higher this year due to COVID.”
The bulk of state funding for public schools comes through a per-pupil allocation determined by the size of a district, the cost of living in each respective area and the number of at-risk students, among other factors. In December, the state Department of Education said public schools saw a drop in enrollment for the first time in 30 years, about 30,000 students for the 2020-2021 school year.
Zenzinger said the funding adjustments in bigger districts, as provided by the bill, will save jobs because teachers and other employees make up the lion’s share of school budgets.
Additionally, the bill will send $25 million to public schools in rural areas of the state.
Cutting back on standardized testing
In response to the Biden administration’s request that states still do standardized testing this school year, Colorado legislators introduced a bill that would significantly lessen the testing load for grades 3-8.
The measure, only effective for this school year, would reduce the number of required Colorado Measures of Academic Success, or CMAS, test to one per grade level — math for fourth, sixth and eighth grades and English language arts for third, fifth and seventh grades. It would eliminate science and social studies testing requirements this year and prohibit districts from using the test results as an accountability measure for teachers and principals.
If it passes, Colorado would still need a waiver from federal education officials to be able to forgo the tests.
Standardized testing has proved a divisive issue among Colorado school leaders, education advocates and lawmakers. Those who support exams believe they’re critical to understanding how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted students’ academic proficiency.
But those opposed say schools face stiff logistical challenges, and that doing so would sacrifice precious instructional time while results would come too late to address students’ needs.
The bill does not apply to tests such as the SAT or PSAT, nor does it affect Assessing Comprehension and Communication in English State-to-State (ACCESS) testing or Reading to Ensure Academic Development Act (READ) testing.
Expanding access to cannabis-based medicine
Cannabis has been a legal medicine in Colorado since 2000, but because it’s still federally classified as a Schedule I drug, it’s not treated like other prescriptions in schools.
Bill co-sponsor Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican, said the proposed measure would allow school staff to administer cannabis-based medicine.
Under current Colorado law, students on campus can receive marijuana and hemp medicines only from a parent or caregiver. Holbert argues it puts an undue burden on families that may not have the ability to visit during the school day or in the case of an emergency.
Specifically, the bill requires schools to store non-smokable cannabis-based medicines onsite and enables staff to administer them to kids when necessary. Each medicine would need verification from two doctors, plus detailed instructions for dispensing and dosing. The bill also protects staff members from liability should something happen.
Holbert previously voted against medicinal and recreational marijuana legalization, but changed his mind after seeing a friend’s son successfully treat his epilepsy with cannabidiol, better known as CBD.
“I thought it was a farce that real life-changing, symptom-changing medicine could be made from the cannabis plant,” he said. “If people think it has to do with kids getting high, no it doesn’t. If people out there think cannabis based medicine isn’t legitimate, take my perspective to heart. I was wrong.”
Paying school board members
Denver Democratic Rep. Steven Woodrow views school boards as fundamental to creating strong schools. But because board members are currently prohibited from being compensated under Colorado law, many residents can’t afford to take that formal role in shaping their community.
Woodrow’s bill would allow school boards the option of paying its members, reducing the barriers to entry and, possibly, increasing diversity among local education decision-makers. No one should be limited from taking a seat at the table simply because they can’t afford to do the job for free, he said.
“We know who this generally limits. We’re talking about people of color,” said Woodrow, the bill’s sole sponsor. “Generally speaking, this type of nonpayment means we get a less diverse representation.”
According to the bill, compensation would not be adjusted during a board member’s tenure, meaning they could not receive a raise or pay cut while actively serving.
Docente - Investigadora Educativa.
Doctora en Cs. de la Educación, Magíster en Desarrollo Curricular y Licenciada en Relaciones Industriales.