Vail Daily column: Grading Capitol session
Last week, the 2015 legislative session drew to a close. An unprecedented 119 bills related to education policy were introduced. However, and thankfully by some accounts, the vast majority of these never made it into law — mostly dying in committees as part of the process.
Our educators are very accustomed to being ranked and judged based on criteria imposed by some outside force, usually state government (doing the bidding of the federal government) or some “think tank” with a not-so-hidden agenda.
It is sometimes said “turnabout is fair play,” so in that spirit I’d like to offer my own grading of the 2015 Colorado Legislature on its accomplishments related to education policy. For brevity’s sake, we’ll only be evaluating the major education bills that actually passed as the Legislature’s body of work this year.
The criteria are simple, straightforward and made up completely by me! So let’s have some fun and see how they did!
Criteria 1: Evidence-based decision making. The Legislature could score well here by making public policy decisions after carefully considering peer-reviewed, academic journal quality evidence. By contrast, lower grades come with making policy based on politically or ideologically driven agendas. Regrettably, none of the major bills passed by the Legislature this year meet the mark on this front. Rather than considering evidence of what sorts of public policies and approaches might actually make systemic improvements in Colorado’s schools, politics ruled this year. Overall grade for evidence-based decision making: F.
Criteria 2: Commitment to public education. The Constitution specifically reserves some policies (like education) for the states as the founding fathers felt strongly that the best decisions in these areas would be made closer to communities. The Legislature can earn points here by making decisions that support, build up and enhance public education with a mind toward systems thinking. By contrast, grades fall for policy choices that intentionally disrupt, damage or discredit education — or by passing some disconnected “silver bullet” policy as opposed to a systemic approach. The 2015 Legislature fell short here as well. While we didn’t see some of the more disruptive bills pass, little thinking was done about what policies could be put together in a systemic way that would actually improve our schools. Overall grade for commitment to public education: D.
Criteria 3: Commitment to adequate funding. The Legislature was in a tough spot on this front, facing the paradox of rising dollars available for education due to a healthy economy; but not being able to spend them due to looming TABOR tax rebates. The Legislature gets partial credit here. They did give schools new funding to keep up with state inflation, plus left open the possibility of an addition later in the year (called a supplemental) if property taxes come in higher than forecast. However, they failed to make a meaningful dent in the ongoing billions Colorado’s schools have been underfunded through the recession. They had the chance to make a “game changer” by reclassifying something called the Hospital Provider Fee into an “enterprise” fund instead of feeding that money into general revenue. This would have made a major dent in the ongoing underfunding issues Colorado’s schools will feel for the next decade, or longer. Overall grade for commitment to adequate funding: C-minus.
Criteria 4: Commitment to instruction. The Legislature can gain points here by advancing policies that directly support high quality instruction. By contrast, they can score poorly by advancing policies that have a weak or peripheral relationship to instruction. This session, the Legislature spent an extraordinary amount of time and energy arguing about summative accountability testing — those nerve-wracking end-of-year exams kids take on an annual basis. In spite of claims from a number of nonprofits and testing hawks, any educator worth his or her salt can tell you that these sorts of exams have very limited utility when it comes to actually changing daily instruction. While these tests are useful for “ranking and spanking” schools and teachers, they usually don’t provide enough detailed, timely and contextual information to be of much use. It also should be noted that if it hadn’t been for a large scale anti-testing movement among parents, students and teachers, then the Legislature probably wouldn’t have done anything on this front. Overall grade for commitment to instruction: F.
In sum, the 2015 Legislature was a disappointment for Colorado’s schools. While we need to give credit to our elected representatives for making some limited progress on school funding and for enacting a bill that marginally reduces testing, nothing headed to the governor’s desk out of this session is going to systemically improve outcomes for Colorado’s kids.
While this piece is fairly critical of the Colorado Legislature, I do want to carve a couple of special “shout outs” for our Eagle County elected officials, Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush and Sen. Kerry Donovan. Both of them worked hard in all these areas and they listened to their Eagle County constituents for guidance on how to support our schools. Regrettably, they are but two votes in the system — but we can take some solace in the quality of our elected leaders. Thank you, Rep. Mitsch Bush and Sen. Donovan!
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.