Colorado lawmakers have laid out an ambitious education agenda for 2022: more funding for education, the rollout of universal preschool, improvements to college access and classroom instruction, better job training for working adults, more power in the hands of parents.
Some of the biggest bills of the session are still being worked out between lawmakers and the interest groups that get a seat at the table because their opinion can make or break a proposal’s chances for success.
Nonetheless, the first bills filed every session are a way for lawmakers to demonstrate their priorities and show the public how they plan to solve problems big and small.
Here’s a look at the first education bills filed on the first day of this session:
Lawmakers last year passed legislation creating a new Department of Early Childhood to oversee the rollout of universal preschool, a major initiative of Gov. Jared Polis supported by a voter-approved nicotine tax. This year, they’ll be taking up bills to implement the preschool program starting in 2023, but those are still a work in progress. In the meantime, legislators opened the session with two bills that give early childhood educators tax breaks, small incentives for a profession that faces low wages, high overhead costs, and huge staffing shortages.
Early Childhood Educator Income Tax Credit — This bipartisan bill from state Reps. Emily Sirota, a Denver Democrat, and Tonya Van Beber, a Weld County Republican, creates a tax credit for credentialed early childhood educators who meet a certain income and quality rating threshold. Depending on the educator’s level of experience, the bill would provide a tax credit ranging from $500 to $1,000 a year for the next five years.
Child Care Center Property Tax Exemption — Another bipartisan bill, this one from state Reps. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat, and Kevin Van Winkle, a Highlands Ranch Republican, would exempt child care centers from property taxes, provided that was the main use of the property.
With crime on the rise and gun violence reaching almost to the doorsteps of Aurora school buildings, safety was a theme sounded by both parties in their opening day speeches.
Youth Delinquency Prevention And Intervention Grants — This bill from Democratic state Reps. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez of Denver and Lindsey Dougherty of Arvada, and state Sen. Julie Gonzales of Denver, would provide more than $4 million in grants over the next two years to school districts, charter schools, local governments, American Indian tribes, and nonprofit organizations, to create community-based projects to reduce youth crime.
Improving K-12 education
In an effort to budge Colorado’s stubbornly low rates of reading proficiency, lawmakers passed legislation in 2019 that required all early elementary teachers to go through new training in the best ways to teach reading. Now, lawmakers want those teachers’ bosses to have the same training.
Evidence-based Training In Science Of Reading — Starting in the 2023-24 school year, the bill would require school districts and charter schools to ensure elementary school principals and administrators who oversee them complete evidence-based training in the science of reading, a research-based model of teaching kids to read. The sponsors are state Sens. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican, and Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat, and state Rep. Julie McCluskie, a Dillon Democrat.
The requirements would even extend to librarians, as the bill also calls for public libraries to adopt a policy to support parents and children in improving literacy through the science of reading.
Private school tuition
Modifications To Qualified State Tuition Programs — The bill would create the foundational learning experience, or FLEX, savings program. The legislation filed by state Rep. Colin Larson, a Littleton Republican, would allow parents to tap into college savings plans known as 529 accounts for certain K-12 private school expenses. The 529 accounts allow for income-tax-free savings for higher education. The bill would also allow parents to use the accounts for expenses such as fees, books, supplies, and equipment.
Larson has run a version of this bill every year he’s been in the House, and the Democrats have shot it down every time, seeing it as uncomfortably close to vouchers and dipping into tax revenue. Every year he has taken their feedback and made changes, in hopes of placating opponents. The debate may resonate more this year with public school enrollment down and more parents looking for education alternatives.
Continue Workforce Diploma Pilot Program — This bill from Democratic state Reps. Matt Gray of Broomfield and Tom Sullivan of Aurora, and state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada, would continue the workforce diploma pilot program, which was established in 2019. The program offers incentives to education institutions to seek out adults without a high school diploma and help them toward graduation and other career credentials.
Community College Nursing Bachelor Degree Eligibility — This bill from state Sens. Janet Buckner of Aurora and Kerry Donovan of Vail, and state Rep. Kyle Mullica of Adams County, himself an emergency room nurse, aims to address widespread nursing shortages and to open up career opportunities. The bill would expand the ability of community colleges to offer the bachelor’s degree in nursing to students seeking a certificate in nursing.
Concurrent enrollment allows high school students to take college-level courses and earn credit before they graduate. Every year, lawmakers make tweaks to the program in an effort to expand access and make sure colleges recognize the credits.
Fifth Year High School Concurrent Enrollment — The bill would expand acceleration of students through concurrent enrollment through the Ascent program, which allows students to stay in high school for a fifth year at no cost to them while they take college-level classes and earn college credit. The sponsors are Democratic state Reps. Mike Weissman of Aurora and Jen Bacon, a recent Denver school board member, and state Sen. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat.
Prohibiting Transcript And Diploma Withholding — Many colleges hold back transcripts and other documents students need over relatively small amounts of debt or unpaid fees. This bill would prohibit the practice of holding transcripts or diplomas hostage to collect on that money. Bacon is also a sponsor of this bill, along with state Rep. Naquetta Ricks of Aurora and state Sen. Brittany Pettersen of Lakewood.
Higher Education Support For Foster Youth — This bipartisan bill would require public colleges and universities to waive undergraduate tuition and fees for Colorado students who have been in foster care or who live full time with a caregiver. The sponsors are the Democratic Education Committee Chairs Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada and Rep. Barbara McLachlan of Durango and Republicans Sen. Kevin Priola of Brighton and House Minority Leader Hugh McKean of Loveland.
Jason Gonzales covers higher education for Chalkbeat Colorado, in partnership with Open Campus.