Friday, March 6, 2009

Lambert Stirs Controversy With Objection To Mexican Government's Book Donation

A routine donation of books to the state by the Mexican government has a Colorado Springs legislator worried that students will be exposed to "foreign propaganda."

Republican Rep. Kent Lambert said in an interview today that he believes the books, which were donated this morning in a recent tradition that has been in place for more than a decade, should be reviewed by the state's Board of Education before being given to school districts.

“One thing in particular is, since this is apparently an official curriculum from the government of Mexico, we have heard in the past that that includes claims to the national sovereignty of the southwest United States," Lambert said. "Why we would teach that in American schools, I don’t know. We need to find out if that’s in the textbooks because I think its false history and political propaganda. I can’t confirm that’s in there because I haven’t seen the textbooks and neither has the state school board.”

A spokesperson for the state Department of Education said the books are not classroom teaching materials and range across a variety of subjects and purposes.

"They’re math, science, geography, history, writing, reading. And then there is additional fiction, mostly for elementary and middle schools,” the agency's Mark Stevens said. "They are all in Spanish. They are for students who are still in the process of learning the English language.”

He also indicated that CDE had not been asked to submit the donation to the Board of Education for review and that the books are not used to teach students any classroom subjects.

“There is no plan for the State Board to review the donation," Stevens said. "Again, these aren’t like curriculum materials. These are support resources. This is just the equivalent of having additional books in the house that will engage these students in reading.”

Colorado law gives the Board of Education no authority over the curricula taught by local school districts.

Lambert, however, argues that the books might affect a school district's compliance with the state's academic content standards and that the books might undermine efforts to teach English to Spanish-speaking students.

“Take it out of the context of Spanish language," Lambert said. "We have immigrants from probably 180 countries in the Denver area. This is a challenge to the public education system. In virtually every other case the direction of the curriculum is English language immersion, which has always proved to be the most effective way to get the students up to a level of proficiency.

"I think it probably is the quickest way to learn for kids. But the real issue is whether you use content that does not correspond to the content that sets a certain standard for learning that you would expect from our textbooks in any public school.”

Lambert said the donation of books amounts to a taxpayer-financed effort to accommodate Mexican citizens' unwillingness to assimilate into American culture and that his objections are not related to the language in which the books are written.

"There needs to be some standards for education. Obviously if these are targeted at Mexican citizens living within the United States, why should American taxpayers pay for it?," Lambert said.

“Let’s say you go to the John Birch Society, or the German-American Bund or something, if the director of the Colorado Department of Education says, sure, bring your textbooks in, because they teach German, and then there’s an international bias in those textbooks, they need to be vetted.”

But Democrats say that this argument, too, is a red herring.

Rep. Karen Middleton, D-Aurora, said that English language learners need to study and read in their native language while they learn a new language.

"The reality of English language acquisition is that in order for students to be successful in English language immersion they need proficiency in their native language," Middleton said. "The idea that they can’t do anything in the subject matter until they know English is short-sighted."

Middleton also suggested that Lambert's criticism is simply a partisan effort to prepare for the next election.

"I think it’s fairly obvious that a lot of these issues are being highlighted to play on the fears of voters and to set up a challenge for 2010," Middleton said. "I guess I’m focusing on policy and resources for kids. I’d hoped we could get beyond that when it comes to kids and education."

"It’s very clear that several members of the Democrat Party, specifically, want to make Colorado and Denver a sanctuary state for illegal immigration," Lambert said. "We have had very little success at blocking this. This is coming, unfortunately, at the same time, in the same week, as an effort by the Democrats to offer instate tuition to illegal immigrants. This is part of a process that, I think, they are on the wrong side of. Colorado citizens, I don’t think, want foreign curricula taught in our schools any more than they want instate tuition offered to people who are here illegally.”

Lambert was referring to SB 170, a bill that would open the door for some children of illegal immigrants to receive in-state tuition at Colorado colleges and universities.

He also said that he has not decided whether to introduce legislation to require a review of the donation by the state Board of Education but that he also has not ruled that out.

"I don’t know if there is a legislative issue there," Lambert said. "But when you have 500 textbooks coming in to be used in American classrooms, I don’t think that’s appropriate."

Middleton said any bill introduced would not be likely to get far in the legislature.

"We have a strong tradition of local control," Middleton said. "If there are school districts who share Rep. Lambert’s point of view, they simply don’t accept the books. School districts get to make these decisions."

The Mexican consulate has donated books for use in the state's schools for 14 consecutive years, Stevens said. He noted that the donation accepted by CDE Friday is not different in purpose or focus from earlier gifts.

"The only thing that has changed is the size of the donation,” Stevens said. He also said, in response to a request from this reporter for a list of the titles of the books donated, that CDE did not have such a list.

Lambert said he had expressed his concerns about the donation to state Board of Education chairman Bob Schaffer and 5th Congressional district representative Peggy Middleton.

Lambert said that his conversations with those Board of Education members left him with the impression that the donation would be scrutinized.

The state Board of Education has a 4-3 Republican majority.

A call to Schaffer seeking comment on the donation and any plan by the Board of Education to review it was not returned.

Controversial Measure Giving Some Immigrant Kids In-State College Tuition Eligibility Advances in Senate

A controversial bill that would allow immigrant kids who have spent three years in Colorado to pay resident tuition rates at the state's colleges and universities cleared a Senate committee Thursday.

SB 170 would not permit students who entered the United States in violation of federal immigration laws to receive Colorado Opportunity Fund grants, as other students who pay in-state tuition rates can, and specifies that those students would not be eligible for state-awarded financial aid.

College Opportunity Fund grants provide $2,000 vouchers that can be used to pay in-state tuition.

Nevertheless, Republicans on the Senate Education Committee attacked the measure as one that rewards illegal behavior and deludes immigrant kids into believing they have a future in the United States.

"Your bill fosters false hope," Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, told sponsoring Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, during the five-hour hearing. "It doesn’t matter if they have a four-year degree or not. They are going to be deported."

Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, said the bill amounts to "creeping amnesty."

But Democrats argued that a college education is valuable no matter where an immigrant child ends up living and that offering educational opportunities will reduce crime, substance abuse and other socially destructive behaviors.

"I think you build great societies by offering hope," Romer said. "When you offer people hopelessness, they do hopeless things."

Senate president Peter Groff, D-Denver, also argued that the bill ensures that the state is not punishing children for the crimes of their parents.

He said the bill involves a "moral issue."

Romer modified his original proposal to require beneficiaries of the bill to file an affidavit stating they would apply for U.S. citizenship before the committee approved SB 170 on a 5-3 party-line vote.

Despite opposition from GOP legislators, Romer's proposal has support from several prominent Republican businessmen. Colorado Rockies co-owner Dick Monfort testified in support of the bill, as did prominent energy industry executive Alex Cranberg.

The measure is also supported by the Colorado Education Association and Colorado Association of School Executives.

Approval of SB 170 came one day before the House Appropriations Committee approved another bill that would grant in-state tuition eligibility to armed forces veterans.

Romer's bill now heads to the Senate floor, where a partisan fight is expected.

Ten other states have enacted similar legislation.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Arveschoug-Bird Limit Repeal May Hit House Roadblock

The controversial bill that would repeal Colorado's annual limit on general fund growth may hit a roadblock in the House.

According to a report in today's Denver Post, House Transportation Committee chair Liane "Buffie" McFadyen, D-Pueblo West, is concerned about completely stripping away a guaranteed source of funds for transportation. The article, by the Post's Tim Hoover, also says that Rep. Joe Rice, D-Littleton, is also unsure whether to support SB 228 in its current form. Rice was the House sponsor of the so-called FASTER bill, which was signed into law by Gov. Bill Ritter Monday.

FASTER would raise motor vehicle registration fees by an average of $41 per person over the next three years, raising more than $200 million per year for transportation improvements and repair statewide.

The Post report also says the Denver Chamber of Commerce has come out against SB 228, which gained preliminary l Senate approval earlier this week after a 10-hour debate that extended into the early hours of the morning.

Under current law, which was enacted in 1991 when the General Assembly was under GOP control, any revenues exceeding a six percent growth in the general fund are routed to transportation and capital construction projects.

The state's annual general fund growth limit, which is named for its sponsoring legislators, had been long thought to be constitutional in nature. But an opinion by former state supreme court justice Jean Dubofsky earlier this year that indicated the Arveschoug-Bird law merely allocates revenues, and does not limit total state spending, opened the door to a debate about changing or repealing the limit.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

General Fund Growth Limit Passes Senate After Debate Extends to Wee Hours

A bill that would repeal the limit on the annual growth of the state's general fund gained preliminary approval in the Senate early this morning after Republicans tried for more than 10 hours to delay its passage.

SB 228, which would repeal the so-called Arveschoug-Bird law of 1991, was approved on after Democratic leaders of the chamber invoked a Senate rule allowing termination of debate.

Current law limits the state's general fund to a six percent annual growth rate. Revenues in excess of that growth rate must be allocated to transportation and capital improvement projects.

However, when the state's revenue drops, the funding it allows for the general fund in that year becomes the new baseline for the next year's allowable growth. Thus the state experiences a "ratchet-down" effect in the general fund when economic conditions worsen.

Republicans dislike the bill because they believe it deprives the state of a designated "pot" for transportation funding and that the Arveschoug-Bird spending limit was constitutionalized when voters enacted the Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR) in 1992.

But Democrats, relying on a recent opinion by retired state supreme court justice Jean Dubofsky, say Arveschoug-Bird merely forces an allocation of existing revenues and does not limit total state spending.

Republican opponents of SB 228 offered dozens of amendments during the debate, most of which were aimed at preserving funding for transportation projects in their districts.

Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, was the GOP's point-man for arguments about the constitutional controversy, while veteran Colorado Springs Republican Keith King urged majority Democrats to send the measure to the voters as a referendum.

None of the Republican amendments were accepted by the chamber's ruling Democrats.

The bill must gain final approval in the Senate before moving on to the House. It is sponsored in the Senate by Democrat John P. Morse of Colorado Springs.

The existing state general fund annual growth limit is named for its legislative sponsors, former Rep. Steve Arveschoug, R-Pueblo, and former Sen. Mike Bird, R-Colorado Springs.

Monday, March 2, 2009

FASTER OK With Ritter

A bill that would raise Coloradoan's motor vehicle registration fees to pay for highway and bridge improvements and repairs was signed into law by Gov. Bill Ritter today.

SB 108, which has been given the acronym "FASTER," would generate more than $250 million per year for the state's transportation system. Some of the money would be used to repair more than 100 structurally deficient bridges.

"With this bill, we'll be able to begin work on the many unsafe bridges and roads all across this state -- work that has been neglected for far too long," Ritter said at the signing ceremony, which was held near a bridge at I-25 and 84th Avenue. "And at a time when the entire country is suffering from a recession, this legislation will let us save jobs, create jobs and help us get our economy moving again."

The measure, which drew nearly unanimous GOP opposition, grew out of Ritter's Blue Ribbon Transportation Finance and Implementation Panel. That advisory commission began meeting in 2007 and eventually won support for its recommendations from many business organizations and local governments.

The bill will allow local governments to toll existing roads in order to generate revenues. It will also impose a small fee on rental car transactions.

According to the measure's sponsors, SB 108 will cause the average driver to pay about $2.60 more per month to register a motor vehicle in the first year of the law's effect and an additional $3.50 per month when the new law is fully implemented in 2012.

Some of the money raised will go into a State Bridge Enterprise fund dedicated to repairing damaged or decaying bridges. That fund will be phased in over three years and will finance a $100 million annual investment in bridge repairs and replacements.

The new law also:

1. establishes a "High-Performance Transportation Enterprise" that aims to encourage innovative financing strategies, including certificates of participation, public-private partnerships, operating concession agreements, user-fee financing and design/build contracting;

2. allocates, upon full implementation, $150 million per year to state and local road-safety projects, with the existing distribution formula of 60 percent to the state, 22 percent to counties and 18 percent to municipalities maintained;

3. gives veto authority over proposed public highway user-fees by requiring 100 percent approval of federal, state and impacted local governments before establishing a highway user-fee or congestion-based tolling;

4. allocates $5 million of the funds each year to the State Transit and Rail Fund proposed in SB 94;

5. allows the Regional Transportation District to seek voter approval of financial measures without legislative approval;

6. creates an "Efficiency and Accountability Committee" within the Colorado Department of Transportation, comprised of private sector contractors and engineers, to identify financial and operational inefficiencies; and

7. requires CDOT's executive director to report annually to the General Assembly on Efficiency and Accountability Committee activities and implementation recommendations.

SB 108 was sponsored by Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne, and Rep. Joe Rice, D-Littleton.

"FASTER is an important part of the solution to a huge problem," Rice said. "FASTER will protect and create thousands of jobs for Coloradans, and it will allow us to address some significant safety concerns, as we repair and rebuild hundreds of crumbling bridges and many miles of our rutted roads."