It’s halfway point at Colorado legislature. Here’s what matters to Colorado classrooms.

Colorado lawmakers are a little past the halfway point for this legislative session and have little to show for the state’s public schools.
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District 19 Senator Rachel Zenzinger applies a pin to her lapel on the first day of the Colorado state legislative session. Jan 11, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) legislature; copolitics; politics; legislative session; capitol; kevinjbeaty; denver; denverite; colorado;

District 19 Senator Rachel Zenzinger applies a pin to her lapel on the first day of the Colorado state

By Nicholas GarciaChalkbeat

Colorado lawmakers are a little past the halfway point for this legislative session and have little to show for the state’s public schools.

Most of the proposed legislation making its way through the Capitol so far involve pilot programs, minor fixes or slight changes on the margins.

Only a handful of the 51 education bills introduced so far have gotten significant attention. Those include bills equalizing funding for charter schools, banning corporal punishment and providing gun training for school employees.

Other bills, such as a bill to limit out-of-school suspensions for the state’s youngest students, that might have been controversial in the past are sailing through with broad bipartisan support.

“We’ve heard loud and clear from our districts: ‘Stop trying to change so much stuff,’” said state Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican and chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “So we’ve really worked to focus on the big issues. When it comes to education, we’re listening to our voters who are asking for a more steady state and predictability.”

Legislators still have big decisions to make in the remaining 57 days — especially on the state’s budget. A number of other bills have yet to be introduced but could be game-changers.

Here are four big themes that are defining this year’s session so far.

After months of gloomy rumors and speculation, the budget is about to be introduced and many in the education lobby are preparing for the worst.

Lawmakers owe schools and other state programs more money than they have. Because the state must have a balanced budget, there will be winner and losers. And in a matter of days, we’ll find out who fits those definitions.

A number of factors are complicating the budget this year, including the possibility of taxpayer refunds and the state collecting less money from local property taxes that are earmarked for schools. Party leaders also have been transfixed on coming up with money to improve the state’s roads.

Leaders in both parties — and the governor — have pledged to keep cuts away from classrooms, but the education lobby isn’t buying it. Some are bracing for a worse-case scenario, which would be a cut of about $200 million to classrooms.

On March 17, the state budget committee will get its final economic forecast, which will project how much money the state will collect. The numbers presented at that meeting will be used to lock in the budget for the 2017-18 school year.

The budget committee is then expected to introduce its budget to the Senate on March 27.

Ninth-grade testing reform and limits on out-of-school suspensions are likely to be this session’s biggest and most immediate changes to schools.

Lawmakers are close to wrapping up two pieces of unfinished business from prior sessions that could have an immediate and lasting impact on classrooms.

A broad bipartisan coalition of lawmakers and the governor have finally reached a compromise on changes to ninth grade testing. If House Bill 1181 reaches Gov. John Hickenlooper’s desk, and it likely will, ninth graders next year will begin taking a standardized test similar to the SAT. It would mean the end of the controversial PARCC tests in Colorado high schools — a winning point for many Republican lawmakers.

One of the most anticipated pieces of legislation that was never introduced in 2016 would have made substantial changes to rules on out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for the state’s youngest students.

That legislation was introduced a few weeks ago and has already cleared its first legislative test with bipartisan support. Rep. Susan Lontine’s House Bill 1210 has a number of Republican backers in the Senate, which is a good sign when you’re working within a split legislature.

If that legislation goes into effect, it could put Colorado at the forefront of student discipline reform.

Big debates still looms for the state’s teacher workforce.

Lawmakers in the coming weeks are expected to grapple with how to address the state’s teacher shortage and reform the state’s landmark teacher evaluation law, which has proven difficult to put into practice.

A bill by Rep. Jim Wilson, a Republican from Salida, would grant rural school districts more autonomy on hiring teachers without a state-issued license. The bill, as it’s written, would allow a rural school district to hire an unlicensed person to fill a vacant position if it tries and fails to fill the position with a licensed teacher.

Wilson has been working behind the scenes with the Colorado Rural Schools Association, which represents a coalition of rural superintendents, and the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, to reach some sort of deal on the matter.

The union holds teacher licensing sacred and regularly criticizes charter schools for their ability to hire unlicensed educators. Winning them over on this change would be a major victory for Wilson.

A second bill that has yet to have a hearing would create a committee to study the state’s teacher shortage.

A third bill that is making its way through the legislature would provide flexibility to rural schools in hiring retired teachers who are enrolled in the state’s pension system.

Another possible bill would create a panel to track progress of the state’s teacher evaluation law and make recommendation on how to improve the system, which has been been criticized as too burdensome on teachers and principals.

Two potentially big bills — one on accountability, the other on school finance — from the House have everyone talking. Here’s what we know.

What has insiders at the Capitol really buzzing is two yet-to-introduced pieces of legislation from Reps. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, and Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat. The two are working on a bill that would address the state’s accountability system and another that would study the finance formula for schools.

The duo, which sponsored the state’s landmark data privacy bill last year, have been working for months on the two bills. Details are still preliminary as they try to round up support from fellow lawmakers and the education community.

The first bill would try to fill in some of the gaps in the state’s accountability system. For the first time in seven years since the accountability law was written, the state is stepping in to help improve Colorado’s lowest performing schools. But the law is silent about what’s supposed to happen after this point. The bill would address that and other gray areas in the law.

The second bill would set up a 10-member interim committee of lawmakers to study and propose changes to the funding formula that determines how much money each school district gets. If approved, the bill would grant the committee up to two years to complete its work.

The last time the state updated the formula was 1994. And since the Great Recession, lawmakers have been wary to take on the formula because of a funding shortfall and potential political backlash from the state’s schools.

“It’s all uphill from here,” Lundeen said.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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