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The 2016 Legislative Session Cometh

The 2015 legislative session seems like it just ended, but it’s almost time for Little Eddie to once again stalk the shiny hallways of the mythical place known as the Colorado Capitol. Next week marks the beginning of the 120-day sausage-making process that we call the Colorado legislative session. And let me tell you, it’s going to be a fun one. Or maybe that’s the wrong adjective.

The 2016 session kicks off on January 13, which is next Wednesday. If this session is anything like last session, which saw an incredible number of education bills introduced (and an equally incredible number killed), we’re in for a heck of a ride. And this year, that ride may even take us through areas that have little to do with education directly. So, what’s coming down the pike? Here are my best guesses on this year’s legislative edu-themes:

More talk about testing. After the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, we know that annual math and reading testing in grades 3-8 (and grade-span testing in science) won’t be going anywhere. But things are less clear at the high school level.

CDE’s puzzling (and sudden) decision to adopt the SAT instead of the ACT for testing in 11th grade may have opened a can of worms. The lack of a State Board vote on the decision and the generally quiet nature of the process have some folks, including me, wondering whether such a huge decision should have happened without the vote of an elected body. Some have also expressed concerns about SAT’s full alignment with Common Core, and what that potentially means for Colorado. Given that this major shift was caused by tweaking statutory language, I think it’s very possible that we will see some legislative efforts around this issue.

Then there is the added wrinkle that ESSA may have provided a way for the state to use the SAT as its one test in high school. Partially because of that, and partially because I think it may be coming anyway, I fully expect to see a serious conversation on the elimination of testing in 9th grade. Many of you probably recall that this issue was a serious sticking point during last year’s high-stakes game of legislative testing chicken. How it plays out this year remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, although annual testing itself isn’t going away in grades 3-8, state leaders are pondering a move away from the much-maligned PARCC exam—particularly after the release of some pretty ugly results from the first round of testing. That may well require a statutory tweak, which means both the State Board and the legislature may be looking closely at this issue. And, there is always the possibility that we see another legislative effort to defund PARCC entirely.

As I’ve said many times before, I’m more than happy to have a discussion about which test we use. Nearly everyone recognizes that PARCC has become so toxic that it is likely not an acceptable long-term solution, and there are other options out there. I just hope that whatever discussion occurs in this area includes very careful consideration of how we can switch tests (again) without hobbling our accountability systems (again). Expect the union to enter this conversation strongly on whatever side will cause the most disruption to accountability systems in our state.

Accountability on the line. With a strong wind at its back after the landslide 2015 school board elections, CEA is surely feeling emboldened. Sure, its centerpiece victory was won on the back on a bald-faced lie, but the fact remains that the union won. Now, the adoption of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which was generally a step in the right direction, may also mean that the union may also have an opportunity to deal a deathblow to Senate Bill 191 and its teacher accountability requirements.

Why? Because while No Child Left Behind, the law ESSA will replace, did not include a provision requiring educator evaluation systems to include measures of student learning, the waivers from the law that the U.S. Department of Education granted to states did include such requirements. If the law goes away, so do the waivers. In a big picture sense, the elimination of weaponized waivers is a definitively positive thing. But in the short run, it also means that our state’s leaders will need to hold the line on accountability because it’s the right thing to do, not because the feds say they have to.

The teachers unions can now stop hacking away incrementally at SB 191. Instead, they can just go for the jugular. I strongly suspect they’ll do precisely that. Hopefully, they’ll do so without the misguided aid of conservatives this time around.

Money, money, money. The governor’s budget proposal earlier this year has already led to a few exploding heads. Now, we have many heads exploding in an organized fashion as part of a new school funding (and anti-TABOR) push led by Great Education Colorado.

We got an early warning of this push when Littleton Public Schools’ superintendent sent out a fancy mailer calling on parents and community members to contact their state senators and representatives. The message? That TABOR and the laws that intersect with it are terrible, and that schools need more money. Oh, and that the legislature should totally exempt that $700 million Hospital Provider Fee thingy from TABOR. (That mailer, by the way, cost the district almost $10,000—or about the amount of money spent educating a kid for one year in our state. I’ll let you make of that what you will.)

Now, a whole bunch of other superintendents—including Dan McMinimee in Jeffco—have also signed on to that effort. But even with that long list of names, the whole conversation may be a bit of a moot point on at least one front. Why? Because it turns out that when it comes to enterprising the Hospital Provider Fee… well, you kind of can’t legally do that.

I have no doubt that the leaders of this movement will find a way around that particular legal conundrum. With or without the Hospital Provider Fee, the conversation about school funding will continue. And you know what? I think we should spend some time talking about the way school finance works in Colorado. Perhaps, however, that conversation should start not with how much money we give schools, but how we give them that money and how it is allocated.

I’m not necessarily opposed to talking about how we efficiently and fairly fill up the school finance bucket. But let’s start by admitting that we probably need a new bucket.

Student data privacy will be a big deal. Yours truly hasn’t spent a lot of time on this particular—and particularly nuanced—issue. I suspect that will change very soon.

Last year’s push on the privacy front ended in fairly ugly fashion. However, the issue will definitely return this year. Exactly what form the effort will take remains to be seen, but I hope we can find a way to address parental fears and avoid the unintended consequences that can arise from making decisions in such a complicated arena before we have all the information we need.

Transparency is important, and there are certainly a lot of questions that need to be answered when it comes to what kind of student data is collected and where those data go. Even so, we don’t want to be so hasty that we accidentally endanger innovative approaches like blended learning or injure school choice as it relates to online education or course choice. And, of course, we need to be sure that teachers and schools have access to the data they need to help students succeed. Or perhaps more importantly, we need to have a serious conversation about which data they need to begin with. Trust me, friends, this one is going to get hairy very quickly.

There may also be a couple of exciting surprises, but we can’t talk about those just yet. Rest assured that we’ll cover those surprises when the time comes. For now, brace yourselves! It’s going to be quite a ride, and it’s a ride that I’m looking forward to taking together.