Colorado's teacher workforce was the big education issue on lawmakers' minds this week as three bills on the subject moved ahead.
The number of graduates from state teacher prep programs has been declining for several years, and many districts report shrinking numbers of applicants. The problem has become especially severe for many small rural districts.
As often happens with a tight budget and a split-control legislature, the measures are modest proposals that won't necessarily have big impacts.
It's a common legislative habit to propose studying an issue when bigger solutions aren't possible, and that's the case with House Bill 17-1003.
The bill would require the departments of higher education and education to examine recruitment, preparation and retention of teachers and write a strategic plan to address teacher shortages.
That plan must be submitted to the Colorado Commission on Higher Education and the State Board of Education, plus the legislature's education committees. The deadline? Less than nine months from now, by Dec. 1.
The bill is a bipartisan effort by Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a former teacher from Durango, and Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose. Other Republicans have been skeptical of the idea, but it was approved 37-26 by the House and passed the Senate 20-14 on Wednesday.
But the measure isn't home free. The Senate added amendments requiring the study also examine the relationship between licensed teachers and student performance and also that the strategic plan include options "that do not require additional resources." The Democratic-controlled House may not look favorably on those changes.
McLachlan also is a prime backer of House Bill 17-1176, along with Republican Rep. Jon Becker of Fort Morgan and Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling. This measure would give rural districts more flexibility in hiring retirees who are receiving pensions from the Public Employees' Retirement Association. Retirees can return to school work now, but they can work only a limited amount of time each year before their PERA benefits are suspended. The bill would change that limit.
The bill has gotten caught in the complicated math of PERA's unfunded liability, which the retirement association fears would grow because some teachers would retire early, start drawing benefits and then go back to work. Legislative analysts disagree with that assumption.
The bill passed the Senate Education Committee 4-3 on Wednesday.
A third measure, House Bill 17-1324, takes a different approach. It would create state income tax credits for recent graduates of teacher prep programs who work in rural districts for five years. (Other provisions of the bill seek to give bigger tax breaks to lower-income people who use the CollegeInvest savings program.) McLachlan also is a sponsor of this bill. It passed the House Education Committee 7-6 on Wednesday but has a long way to go, given that lawmakers have to adjourn by May 10.
One other rural teacher bill already is dead. House Bill 17-1178 would have allowed rural districts to hire unlicensed teachers in some situations. It faced significant opposition and was killed in committee last month at the request of the sponsor, Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida.
Capitol updatesHere are updates on some issues highlighted in previous emails.
Testing – High school freshmen will be taking a version of the PSAT instead of PARCC language arts and math tests under House Bill 17-1181, which passed the Senate 33-0 on Monday. It passed the House 65-0 earlier. In contrast to the battles of previous years, this measure moved through the Capitol with only modest discussion.
Discipline – Only one of four bills on this issue remains alive. House Bill 17-1276 prohibits the use of "a chemical, mechanical, or prone restraint upon a public school student," with exceptions to that ban in certain cases. It passed House Education 8-4 on Monday. But bills to ban corporal punishment in schools and limit use of expulsion and suspension for early-grades students have been killed.
Fracking – House Bill 17-1256 was recently killed in a Senate committee. It would have increased the setback distance between schools and oil and gas drilling sites. The sponsor was Rep. Michael Foote of Lafayette, whose district covers much of western Boulder County.
Education studies – In addition to the "education vision" legislative study detailed in last week's email, a separate school finance study is proposed by House Bill 17-1340. It passed House Education 13-0 this week. The vision measure, House Bill 17-1287, was approved 53-11 by the House on Monday but has been assigned to the Senate State Affairs Committee, often used as a "kill committee."