Young boy waits to load school bus

Senate Republicans Wednesday mounted a furious effort to amend a bill that would strip out what’s viewed as school-choice language from a 2018 law that pays for foster children to be transported to their original schools when they’re uprooted from one home to another.

Update: Thursday, the Senate voted 19-16 along party lines to advance the bill to the House.

Last year’s House Bill 1306 was intended to help foster kids stay in their original schools when they're moved from one foster home to another.

Republican Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, a school choice advocate, proposed an amendment to the 2018 bill that would allow any child to attend any school in any district, with the destination* district paying for transportation, even if the home district didn't agree to the child moving to another district.

That amendment was added in the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee in a May 3, 2018, hearing that took barely 20 minutes.

The amendment was approved without a single “no” vote, nor with any objection to the amendment from the bill’s Senate sponsors, Democratic Sen. Dominick Moreno of Commerce City and Republican Sen. Don Coram of Montrose.

In signing House Bill 1306 on June 1, Gov. John Hickenlooper practically begged someone to sue the state, pointing out that the amendment doesn’t pertain to foster kids, which was the bill’s title and intent.

A Denver District Court judge in December agreed and declared the language unconstitutional because it violated the state’s single-subject law. That law requires every section of a bill to apply to the bill’s title.

Last week, the Senate Education Committee approved Senate Bill 39 on a party-line 3-2 vote. According to sponsor Democratic Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada, the bill would return the statute to the language that existed prior to the 2018 bill.

School choice advocates, such as Tyler Sandberg of Ready Colorado, believes it actually adds an extra step for foster parents who want to access the more than $2 million in funding to pay for that transportation. 

But the portion of statute that SB 39 seeks to restore to its earlier version deals only with transportation of students and has no nexus with the education of foster children. The statute on homeless and foster children is in a different section of state law and is unchanged by the 2019 bill.

Senate Republicans tried without success to amend the bill Wednesday, including an effort to delay its implementation until after the court process is concluded. The lawsuit is currently on appeal to the state Supreme Court.

The debate devolved into a fight over process and how the amendment got onto the bill last year.

Moreno told the Senate that “a member of the chamber last year [said] either this amendment gets on this bill or the bill dies. If you want something to condemn, condemn that behavior,” Moreno said. “It’s beneath the dignity of this body.”

“Bait taken,” responded Hill. “I said it.”

“This is the way we do things. ... If that’s shameful, every single thing we do is shameful,” Hill explained. “What’s even more shameful is someone who wants to say, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes to pass my bill, and I’ll speak about it after the fact when I don’t like the results.’”

Coram, the sponsor of the 2018 bill, said he would stand for the foster kids affected by the bill. “I don’t think we need to correct this today,” adding that he prefers to let the lawsuit play out in the courts.

“At the rate we’re going, the appellate courts will rule before we end this,” said Democratic Sen. Julie Gonzales of Denver, who chaired the debate.

The Senate spent 3-1/2 hours fighting over the bill in the morning and another half-hour on it Wednesday night. But the evening session primarily focused on a recorded vote on a half-dozen amendments, the same ones posed earlier in the day by Senate Republicans.

Correction: the destination district would be responsible for paying for transportation costs, not the home district, as was stated in a previous edition.

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