House Minority Leader Patrick Neville talks education agenda

House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, talks about the GOP education agenda for the 2020 session during a Jan. 8 news conference.

House and Senate GOP lawmakers Wednesday revealed an ambitious education agenda for the 2020 legislative session, one that they say will improve on existing programs rather than creating new ones.

That said, several members do have new ideas about how to deal with some of the most pressing issues in education, including teacher pay.

Under the title of #trustEDco, GOP lawmakers have a package of at least 17 bills in the Senate and an additional nine bills in the House on everything from school safety to concurrent enrollment and teacher bonuses.

Some of the measures are repeats of 2019 legislation that failed to win enough Democratic support, which in a Democratic-controlled General Assembly is essential for bills to make it to the governor's desk.

Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker, intends to sponsor a bill that would, with what he calls a small amount of money, educate parents of middle school students that their children will soon be eligible to take college courses once they reach high school.

He talked about a student who already has enough credits for an associate's degree and is only a junior in high school. But he's also talked to parents of middle school students who have no idea the program is available.

"We don't have to find a way to cut tuition," Holbert said. We should "expand already successful programs" such as concurrent enrollment. (In such programs, school districts pay for the tuition for high school students who enroll in college courses.)

Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, plans to run two bills on school safety. One would put distress alarms into school buses; the other would allow local school districts to issue proposals for school safety specialists, who would then conduct school safety assessments. 

Republicans have not been shy in the past in pointing out that teacher pay is a local control issue, a decision left to local school boards. They do, however, want to help teachers financially, and have several ideas about just how to do that. 

Sen. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, has at the ready a $50 million proposal for bonuses for highly-effective teachers. He noted during the news conference that about 47% of teachers in public schools are rated as highly effective.

To get around the local control issue, under his bill, school districts would have to apply for the grants. While the intention is that those grants go for bonuses, it's not a mandate in the bill. Lundeen acknowledged that some school districts could wind up using those dollars for other purposes. Lundeen ran a similar bill in the 2019 session.

As to the bill's cost: state economists have warned that the General Assembly will not have the spending flexibility they've had in the past several years. Lundeen responded that his bill will require lawmakers to reprioritize in order to pay for it. 

And for teachers who spend their own money for school supplies, Sen. Rob Woodward, R-Loveland and Rep. Mark Baisley, R-Roxborough Park, have a bill that would provide those teachers with a tax credit when they spend between $250 and $750 for those supplies.

Another bill from Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, would help with pay for highly-effective teachers who work in low-performing schools. His bill, SB 66, would provide grants that schools under improvement plans could use as incentives to attract highly-effective teachers. It was the only bill on the GOP list with a Democratic co-sponsor, Rep. Bri Buentello, D-Pueblo.

Some bills are likely to run into trouble right off the bat. A bill from Sen. John Cooke, R-Windsor, would require local teachers' unions that accept union dues to disclose to their members when those dollars are used for lobbying or political spending.

Another bill from Rep. Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs, and Sen. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, would require that teachers be notified of their right to join or leave a union and is based on a recent Supreme Court decision. Neither are likely to go far in a Democratic-controlled General Assembly.

Another bill that's likely to make little progress is offered by Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, and seeks to reverse 2019 legislation that was originally intended to allow foster children to remain in their original school when they're moved from one foster home to another.

That 2019 bill reversed an amendment to a 2018 measure that required school districts to pay for transporting any child from their home school district to the school district of their choice, even when the school district didn't agree to the child moving to another district. The 2018 bill was viewed as a school choice measure, and at the time, Gov. John Hickenlooper practically begged for someone to sue the state over it. He got his wish, and a Denver District Court judge ruled the amendment violated the constitution's single-subject rule for legislation. 

A bill offered by Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs; and Rep. Colin Larson, R-Littleton, takes aim at last year's sex education legislation. Under their bill, parents would be allowed to see the curriculum and materials offered in a sex ed course before their child begins that course.

"As the minority, we know we can't force these things through," Holbert told reporters Wednesday. And the money isn't there this year, he acknowledged, so Republicans are looking for ways to make things work better that already exist. "We're also not trying to make statements" with these bills, he said. 

But "these are our ideas." he said. Many of them are new ideas, he said. It's not necessarily duplicating prior years' bills (although there is some of that). These ideas are more like variations on a theme, he said. "It's up to the majority to decide if they'll agree with us."

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