“It was a fun opportunity to see both sides come together, not just Republicans and Democrats, but the Senate and House.”
State Senate Owen Hill (R-Colorado Springs) made this remark at Colorado Succeeds 2017 annual Legislative Recap referencing his work during the 2017 Legislative Session with State Representative Brittany Pettersen (D-Lakewood).
During the 2017 session of the Colorado General Assembly, Hill and Pettersen, chairs of the Senate and House education committees, respectively, forged a strong working relationship despite belonging to opposing political parties. That relationship helped ensure the passage of several landmark policies, including equitable funding for public charter schools and the creation of Ccomputer Science education standards.
With the commencement of the 2018 Legislative Session last week, we sat down with Sen. Hill and Rep. Pettersen to hear their thoughts on which education issues will dominate the 2018 session, and the likelihood of continued bipartisan agreement on key issues.
Colorado Succeeds: What do you see as the most pressing education issues during the upcoming session?
Sen. Owen Hill: I believe there is a growing recognition that our education system hasn’t appropriately recognized just how unique, diverse, and individual all our children are. For the longest time, we have had this idea that we need to fit kids into a system rather than create a structure that allows all of our kids to thrive. Now there’s this significant philosophical shift that’s saying, how do we get ourselves, our leaders in education, our schools, our districts, and state law to accommodate all the varieties of children we serve?
It’s not a Republican shift, it’s not a Democratic shift, it’s a shift to say that the child and the parent and the teacher are the core we need to focus on in this next generation of education.
Rep. Brittany Pettersen: Some people are pessimistic about our ability to get things done in an election year, but I’m confident we will continue to find bipartisan solutions to some of the most pressing problems facing our schools. Some of the big issues we will be tackling this session is the teacher shortage, gaps in our accountability system, and prioritizing funding for our schools. Transportation funding absolutely needs to be part of our budget priorities, but our education system has to also be a big part of our solution. There are many systemic problems that come from a lack of adequate funding, including the teacher shortage. I am also excited to continue to work on addressing barriers students face to concurrent enrollment and alternative pathways.
Equitable Funding for Public Charter Schools
Colorado Succeeds: Last year, you both championed a bill requiring school districts to share funds from property tax (mill levy) elections equitably with charters. While this helps charter schools authorized (or approved) by districts, charter schools authorized by the state’s Charter School Institute (CSI) did not receive additional funding to make equitable funding a reality. Would you support a fix that would provide state funding to CSI schools to balance this?
Pettersen: I understand why CSI charter schools want to ensure that their schools are also funded at an adequate level. My priority will continue to be making sure we focus on equitable funding, rather than equal funding.
Hill: We are talking about 40 schools, more or less, and about $13 to $14 million to make this right. That needs to be one of our top priorities, to fund all our educational options equally. Each and every one of our students, while they may be unique, you don’t get to treat some of them unfairly, and we’re doing that to many of our students in these CSI schools.
There is no good reason not to do this, unless you want to focus on the past and say our job is to fund a system rather than fund education for individual students.
Accountability and Transparency
Colorado Succeeds: The Colorado Department of Education (CDE) has withheld a significant amount of school performance data from the public due to concerns about student data privacy. This is a challenge for the state’s accountability system. How can the state balance the concerns of privacy advocates with the need to hold schools and districts accountable?
Hill: I don’t see any legislative changes on this issue in the upcoming session. With all the breaches –Equifax, for example – people are pretty sensitive about data. But I’m willing to bring in CDE and hold a hearing on why so much more data is being held back. In fact, I’ll talk to Rep. Pettersen and see if we can schedule a joint House-Senate education committee hearing.
Pettersen: This is a continuous struggle to balance access to important data, while also making sure we are protecting individual information. We passed a bill a couple of years ago to try and thread the needle, but we may need to review the law again. I’ll follow up with CDE for their overview on data privacy and any recommendations they may have.
STEM and Work-Based Learning
Colorado Succeeds: The 2016 and 2017 sessions had numerous wins for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education and work-based learning, including a computer science resource bank and incentives for industry credentials and apprenticeships. What are the best ways for the state to continue to provide opportunities for students to engage in work-based learning while in middle and high school?
Pettersen: I was recently at a national conference and Colorado was highlighted for our work on apprenticeship programs. I want to continue to explore how we elevate and increase more options for students. We need to provide a range of opportunities for students who want to go to college, and others who are ready to enter the workforce.
Hill: I’m interested in providing some form of scholarship or education training tax credit. When I talk to people across the career fields, they tell me we need more focused training. It’s not necessarily the job of our local public schools to provide, for example, technical welding training, but can we provide an incentive for local businesses to invest in those students’ success and see a reduction in their tax bill as a result?
It’s a way to increase the overall funding for education, expand local community involvement in education outcomes. It’s bottom-up instead of top-down. I’m not sure there will be a legislative solution this year, but it’s one of those areas I want to keep pushing.
Colorado Succeeds: Finally, how would you like to see the business community engage with legislators on education issues this upcoming session?
Hill: My request and hope is that every person engaged in Colorado Succeeds once a month should meet with a local representative. Hear their thoughts, passions, ideas. Build a relationship. Relationships, at end of day, are key to representative democracy.
Pettersen: The business community has been critical in passing landmark legislation at the Capitol, and your voice continues to be necessary. The business community can often bridge partisan divides, like the importance of a high-quality early childhood education and adequate funding for our schools. Your advocacy is also important in ensuring we are preparing our Colorado students for the great jobs here.