By Prateek Dutta, Colorado Policy Manager, Democrats for Education Reform Colorado
Over the past few legislative sessions, Democrats for Education Reform Colorado prioritized policies that supported students and families who have historically been left behind. This includes leading and supporting legislation that reduced the price of Advanced Placement fees for low-income students, banned the practice of a school district to withhold diplomas due to unpaid fines, eliminated the school-lunch co-pay for all low-income students, and made it easier for the state to intervene in chronically failing schools, among a host of other equity-focused legislation.
In the 2019 session, we continued our focus on equity by drafting and leading the charge on Senate Bill 059, a bill that would automatically enroll prepared students into the next most advanced class offered by the school. A significant body of research shows students who are exposed to rigorous curriculum perform better across multiple measures in school, including higher graduation rates and higher rates of matriculation to college.
However, data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed students were often being tracked into advanced classes based on race and income. Students from low-income backgrounds or traditionally disadvantaged minorities who were equally prepared to take higher level courses did not enroll in advanced classes, whether those were gifted and talented programs, honors level courses, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or dual enrollment.
By auto-enrolling students who are prepared into advanced coursework, we hope to make a dent in the system of tracking across our schools and allow all prepared students to access rigorous coursework.
This was the idea behind SB-059, which passed the House and Senate unanimously (100-0) with nearly 80 co-sponsors. We built this strong, bi-partisan coalition in three different ways:
- DATA: We shared the data on disproportionality in enrollment of advanced coursework with every member of the education committee in the Senate and House, and then with influential legislators on both sides of the aisle.
- SHARING STORIES: We brought students to testify who shared how hard it was to persuade their counselors to enroll them in advanced classes. Additionally, those students shared compelling stories of how they were often overlooked, but their less prepared peers who were wealthier often enrolled in those classes because their parents lobbied on their behalf, something many parents of low-income students didn’t know was a possibility.
- MAKE IT OPTIONAL TO START: Since Colorado is a local control state, it is hard—both politically and legally—to create any policy that will be universally implemented across the state. Therefore, we created this bill as a grant program to incentivize districts and schools to create an auto-enrollment policy and provide funding for schools and districts that choose to implement auto-enrollment.
Often, policies focusing on equity are concentrated on bringing students of color or low-income students on level with their more privileged peers. However, there is an equally urgent concern that is often overlooked:
students of color and low-income students who are well above grade level—and many times are performing better than their privileged peers—are still being tracked into lower level classes.
SB-059 and other auto-enrollment policies such as the ones in Washington and North Carolina are finally bringing innovative solutions to this important problem.