Aurora Sens. Todd, Carroll get mixed reactions on student loan debt, rural teacher recruitment bills

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DENVER | A pair of Aurora legislators introduced education bills centered on curbing student loan debt and luring teachers to rural school districts during separate senate committee meetings Wednesday, Feb. 17, but only one lawmaker saw her measure survive to see another day.

Senate Bill 104, sponsored by Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, and the first of the two measures discussed Wednesday, Feb. 17, outlines several incentives intended to attract teachers to rural school districts. Among the bill’s handful of stipulations: Create communal education centers for teacher planning programs at nearby college campuses, provide stipends for teachers interested in teaching in rural areas, create teacher training programs for current high school students in rural Colorado, and buoy costs for rural teachers who are pursuing their national board certifications.

After hearing testimony from several rural educators, Senate Education Committee Chairman Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, laid the measure over to next week, citing the need to hear more discussion and further evaluate the bill’s merits. Hill tentatively identified the committee’s meeting on Feb. 24 as the next time the bill will be heard.

Rep. Jon Becker, R-Fort Morgan, and Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, are co-sponsoring SB104 in the House, and a quintet of Democratic lawmakers join Todd as co-sponsors in the Senate.

Brian Christensen, superintendent of the Akron School District in northeast Colorado, testified in favor of SB104 Wednesday and highlighted the difficulty he has had recruiting quality teachers to work in his remote area of the state.

“It was bleak last year,” he said. “To try and find people is extremely difficult. I have major concerns about the future … I feel like we’ve been very fortunate up to this point. I feel like any sort of incentives that might be offered would be greatly appreciated.”

Robert Mitchell, a policy officer with the Colorado Department of Higher Education, also testified in favor of the bill and attempted to quantify the lingering dilemma for some of the state’s more isolated schools. He said that the number of teachers his department is preparing for the workforce this year is down 23 percent from five years ago, and that last year his department only produced 102 math teachers, 29 world language teachers and three technical education teachers across the entire state.

“We are definitely in crisis mode,” Mitchell said at the committee meeting. “We don’t have enough teachers. We’re going to produce 2,500 teachers this year … we need to hire between 3,500 and 4,000. Obviously, (the) supply and demand don’t mix.”

Despite the need, a beefy price tag puts the vitality of SB104 into question.

SB104 would result in a $1,046,792 bump in the state budget during the 2016-17 fiscal year, and an additional increase of $317,203 the following year, according to a fiscal note attached to the measure. The bulk of the funding during the bill’s first year of existence would be tied to establishing four rural education centers throughout the state that could serve as communal planning hubs for area teachers. The fiscal note also calls for $112,000 in incentives for student teachers considering working at a rural school, and $120,000 in stipends for teachers seeking to gain national board certification or become qualified to teach concurrent enrollment courses.

Only a few hours after Todd saw SB104 live on for the foreseeable future, her regional colleague in the Capitol, Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, saw a separate education measure she was sponsoring get the axe in the Senate State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee, also known as the “kill committee.”

Senate Bill 43 would have bolstered protections for students taking out private loans by requiring lenders to disclose interest rates, penalty fees, payment options, cancellation procedures, how to qualify for federal loans and the eventual total amount of the loan, including interest. The bill also would have barred lenders from providing gifts to both public and private colleges and prohibited lenders from charging students who choose to prepay their loans.

“I’m disappointed,” Carroll said of the bill’s demise. “This was a commonsense bill meant to do one thing; empower middle-class families and make sure they know exactly what kind of a loan they are taking out for their children’s college education. For many, getting a college education is the golden ticket to a fair shot at success – but no one should have to go into crippling debt that can negatively impact their lives for years in order to get it.”

Several current and former students from the state’s university system testified in favor of the bill. Many of their comments were centered on the lack of information provided to them regarding private loans they took out before entering college.

“This commonsense bill addresses an issue that shouldn’t be a partisan divide,” Carroll said. “It’s intended to level the playing field, and ensure students have all the information they need to make the best financial choices so they can have a fair shot at a college education. It is disappointing my Senate Republicans made this a partisan issue.”

The measure died on a party line vote of 3-2.