Education at the Legislature: The good, the bad and the ugly

CEA Disappointed in late night PERA bill; takes money out of teachers’ pockets

In the beginning of the session, the Colorado Education Association outlined a legislative agenda around respecting and valuing educators that included increased funding, fixing PERA, addressing the educator shortage, building community schools and ensuring accountability and transparency for charter schools. Largely that agenda has succeeded to ultimately provide better outcomes for students--with the exception of PERA.

After thousands of educators marched on the Colorado State Capitol for three days this session, education issues were squarely front and center at the General Assembly. Despite a split house with entrenched Republican opposition against public education, we were able to make progress with education funding and on policy that impacts educators.

The final version of the PERA bill, SB-200, was generally not favorable to educators or public education. “We are very disappointed in our elected officials who did not support educators and retirees, and even chose to take money out of their pockets. SB-200 is a very unfortunate lesson in politics, reminding us that those in power who represent the people can still be completely tone deaf to their constituents, even when 15,000 of them marched on the Capitol little more than a week ago,” said CEA President Kerrie Dallman. “I’m particularly upset that the level of state funding to shore up PERA, which was agreed upon since the House amendments passed, was reduced in the final moments. This is bad policy done in haste.”  The vote in the House, led by co-sponsors Reps. KC Becker and Dan Pabon, was close, with the amended SB-200 passing on a 34-29 vote, May 9.

CEA was successful in leading the fight to ensure that a defined contribution option will not be included in the School and DPS Divisions (though we see the DC expansion into the State and Local Government Divisions as harmful). The cost-of-living factor for current retirees will be set at 1.5% after a two-year freeze after much speculation it would drop lower. The CEA was also successful in preserving the state’s commitment to fund PERA with an additional $225 million annually.

Many of the amendments to SB-200, however, are not favorable. The PERA bill now includes a phased-in increase for employee contributions which begins next year: a .75% increase the first year, a .75% increase during the second year, and a .5% increase in the final year. The employer contribution has been increased .25%.  The age of retirement for new people in the system has now been increased to 64. The $225 million direct payment from the state into PERA was proposed to grow at 3% of payroll but was cut to a flat rate of $225 million. This equates to a $4 billion cut over 30 years from the state towards PERA that will have to be made up by local school districts with a new .25% employer contribution.

“CEA laid out its PERA principles and positions at the very beginning of the session,” said Dallman. “Throughout the process, CEA was a good faith partner and worked all session toward a PERA fix that is fair to educators and has shared sacrifice for all groups. We worked in the spirit of collaboration toward the best solution for retirees and the system. We supported the first amended version passed from the House with bipartisan support, and fought vigorously to keep the $225 million state payment in the bill. That version would have achieved the goal of 30-year, 100 percent funded status without cutting employee pay. However, CEA could not support the version of SB-200 that ultimately passed.”

“Educators have been watching very closely and it is unacceptable that our elected officials chose to increase the retirement age and take money out of their pockets for retirement in what amounts to a pay cut for teachers. Where is the respect?” asked CEA President-elect Amie Baca-Oehlert. “Pueblo educators are striking for this very reason and we are frustrated that the legislature didn’t stand up for educators and retirees. This is why elections matter.”

Highlights from Legislative Session include:

  • A commitment to fully fund schools was inserted into the transportation bill SB1. It means a legislative commitment to allocate funding to eliminate the budget stabilization factor.  This is a significant long term funding achievement.
  • The School Finance Act increased average per-pupil investment by $475, including a $150 million buy down of the budget stabilization factor in the K-12 budget.
  • In his State of the State address, Gov. Hickenlooper laid out $30 million for attracting and retaining rural educators.  It was a good first start, but we have to do more.
  • There were a number of bills that addressed the educator shortage:
    • Expanding and improving educator residency and preparation programs (HB-1002, HB-1189, and HB-1332)
    • Creating programs to support “grow your own programs” and to incentivize educators to work in rural and other “hard to fill” positions (HB-1309, SB-085, and SB147)
    • Programs designed to retain quality educators via grant programs to help improve culture via improved leadership, explore additional/new/interesting strategies for schools and districts to retain quality educators (HB-1367 and HB-1412).

These bills are a start at tackling our growing educator shortage and we will look to build on this momentum next session.

  • CEA stopped several bills that attacked the heart of the education profession.
    • The most egregious was SB-264 that would penalize teachers for striking by Sen. Bob Gardner and Rep. Paul Lundeen. The sponsor withdrew his bill on the shortly after thousands of teachers gathered at the capitol to call for more funding.
    • HB-1030 Would have made it misdemeanor to be a member of the union and criminalized union participation.
    • SB-175 prohibited paid union activities by public employees. This bill would have made it illegal for any form of collaboration between educators and leadership aimed at solving problems at the lowest level possible OR working together to enhance the school climate and learning conditions.
  •  CEA made significant progress towards community schools:
    • Our first attempt to bring community schools into Colorado law came up short in SB-159 but did serve to educate our lawmakers about this successful school model taking root in other states. Language that explicitly lists many of the core pillars of community schools was added to the innovation schools options as part of the accountability update bill, HB-1355. This will help support CEA's efforts to grow community schools and to utilize these strategies for schools that are “on the accountability clock”.

While the General Assembly did make progress for schools and students, it all comes back to a poor PERA compromise, made in haste, that marred this session in the eyes of educators.