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House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, addresses the House chamber as the second regular session of the 72nd Colorado General Assembly convenes at the Colorado State Capitol on Jan. 8, 2020 in Denver. “I want the public to vote because these are common sense, measured approaches that poll extremely well throughout the state,” Neville said in support of the ballot measure. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A school safety assessment for each district. A bonus for high-rated teachers. A scholarship for students who graduate high school early. And a tax credit for teachers who buy school supplies for their students.

The ideas are part of a package of 24 bills put forward by Republican lawmakers on the opening day of the legislative session — a striking show of unity meant to emphasize the party’s dedication to improving education in this election year.

“We are trying to show it has always been a priority for us,” said Rep. Patrick Neville, the House GOP leader from Castle Rock.

The education agenda rollout included a social media hashtag — #trustEDco — and a slogan — “Trust Parents. Trust Teachers. Trust Students.”– designed to help amplify the message.

Much of the GOP legislation is designed to fine-tune the state’s education system and cost little — but Republicans believe that the bills collectively amount to the largest overhaul effort in recent history.

Most of the ideas are not new, but a couple bills stood out as fairly radical to Van Schoales, president of A+ Colorado, a nonprofit organization focused on strengthening public education. The measures he noted would allow schools to transport students to neighboring districts and enable students who graduate high school early to use state dollars toward higher education.

Only a few of the bills have support from Democratic sponsors, making most of them unlikely to win approval. And Republicans developed them with support from ReadyCO, a conservative education advocacy group that doesn’t disclose its donors. “It’s throwing the gauntlet down and saying education is important,” said Tyler Sandberg with ReadyCO.

Democrats are moving forward with their own ideas on education, including new programs to address mental health and reduce student loan debt.

The Colorado Education Association, which represents teachers, shares some of the concerns Republican lawmakers are trying to address. But while Republicans look to raise teacher pay largely through bonuses and tax credits, the teachers union prefers to establish a state fund that would allow for increases to teacher salaries across the state.

“Tackling low educator compensation head-on is the boldest move the legislature can make in 2020 to give our students the schools they deserve,” CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert said in a statement.

Republicans said they welcome Democratic support for their bills. “We are here today to say that these are our ideas,” said Senate Republican leader Chris Holbert of Parker.



Here’s a look at 8 of the education ideas Republicans are prioritizing this session.



For teachers, the agenda includes bonuses and tax credits

To reward teachers who are highly effective, Republican lawmakers have proposed directing $50 million of the state’s $13.5 billion public education budget toward bonuses. They believe it is the biggest step the state can take to directly increase teacher pay set by local districts.

“They deserve it,” said Sen. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument and a bill sponsor. “The reality is all teachers deserve more pay, but the teachers who are doing a great job are the first ones we should be getting more pay to.”

Teacher pay is determined by local school districts, and bonuses offer the state a way to add more dollars to their compensation. Lundeen said 47% of Colorado’s public school teachers are currently rated as highly effective. Senate Democrats defeated legislation to this effect a year ago.

Republicans are also eager to draw more top-notch teachers into Colorado’s struggling schools through financial incentives included in a separate bill sponsored by Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, and Rep. Bri Buentello, D-Pueblo.

The state, Priola said, should “at a minimum hold them harmless financially for doing the right thing and using their excellent skills to teach the kids that … really need help closing the achievement gap.”

Simla Elementary School kindergarten teacher Holly Koehn reads to students at the Big Sandy School Monday, February 25, 2019. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A third Republican proposal aims to help teachers subsidize the costs of classroom supplies — a burden they often shoulder out of pocket. The bill, carried by Sen. Rob Woodward, R-Loveland, and Rep. Mark Baisley, R-Roxborough Park, would give an income tax credit to teachers for costs above $250 but less than $750. A similar bill failed in the 2019 session.

“Every teacher across this state invests in their students, not only with their time and with their energy and with their heart and their soul, but those teachers also spend dollars,” Lundeen said. “They pay for supplies to support the students in their classroom.”

On average, teachers spend $656 a year of their own funds to support students with supplies, Lundeen said, a figure he credited to the teachers union. 

To get kids to college, give them an incentive

In the statewide push to ensure students find a path to college or career training beyond high school, Republicans believe the solution is to increase awareness about concurrent enrollment.

That type of coursework, which allows Colorado high school students to complete college credits, has exploded in popularity across the state: About 35% of all public high school juniors and seniors – 45,787 students – were concurrently enrolled in postsecondary courses during the 2017-18 school year, according to an annual concurrent enrollment report.

Holbert is leading legislation that would require the state education department to pay an outside vendor to promote concurrent enrollment opportunities — and the benefits within those opportunities — to students and parents.

DESenate Minority Leader Chris Holbert address the entire Senate chambers as the second regular session of the 72nd Colorado General Assembly convenes at the Colorado State Capitol on January 8, 2020 in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A separate bill addresses college affordability. It would allow students who graduate high school early to apply part of the state funding their district would have received for their education to college or career training in the College Trust Scholarship Program.

Students would have access to two-thirds of their state portion of K-12 funding to use at a Colorado college, university or career and technical school up until age 21, said Priola, who is sponsoring the bill.

The other share of those dollars would help lessen the negative factor, the $572 million in annual state funding owed to school districts. The extra money would “help the state budget and help us do more with the tax dollars we currently have,” Priola said.

A different approach to addressing school safety

One of the most vulnerable targets for potential attackers is school buses, said state Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose. He drafted legislation to provide up to $6 million in state and private dollars to local districts so they can purchase duress alarms for school buses and provide more federal safety training to drivers.

His colleague, Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, is leading a bill to require each local district to solicit bids for a safety assessment of each school. The state’s education board would evaluate the proposals and award the money. Such assessments are becoming more commonplace, but as lawmakers learned in the interim school safety committee, how districts approach safety is far from uniform.

In addition, five other bills approved by the bipartisan interim committee are slated for introduction this session to address school safety.

Rural school districts would set their own rules

Republicans also are setting out to provide extra support to rural school districts, which often lack the same level of resources as Colorado’s urban and suburban districts.

Crowder proposed legislation to require the Colorado State Board of Education to list rules and laws from which rural districts could be exempted through an automatic waiver process.

The waivers would grant rural districts more flexibility, which Republicans believe is necessary for recruiting and retaining quality teachers and tailoring academic programs to their student populations.

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...