Even before the Colorado General Assembly legislative session began, state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger was advocating for students and their needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Zenzinger, a Democrat who …
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Even before the Colorado General Assembly legislative session began, state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger was advocating for students and their needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Zenzinger, a Democrat who represents Arvada and Westminster and whose background is in education, was vocal about suspending standardized testing at the beginning of the second semester. Now, months into the new semester and weeks into the legislative session, Zenzinger has kept her focus on standardized testing and other changes she sees as necessary to support Colorado’s schools.
Already, the Senate has passed one of Zenzinger’s bills, a victory she celebrates. It also means she has more time to work on the other items that still require passage. Zenzinger spoke with Colorado Community Media about all her homework as chair of the Senate education committee.
This story has been edited for length and clarity.
Colorado Community Media: So, already you have had a bill pass the Senate. What is it for?
State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger: The upcoming mid-year adjustment. Every year, when we put together the School Finance Act, it’s kind of based on our best guess. It’s based on projections of what we think will happen. Then, in the middle of the year, we take a look and say, `How are we doing? Were we over or were we under?’ Then we make those adjustments. I was hearing back in November from school districts that they were really concerned we were going to claw back funding from the districts. So, this bill said, `Hey, we’re going to hold districts harmless this year because of COVID. So, whatever the original appropriation is, we’re just going to stick with that and we’re not going to claw back funding.’”
CCM: Historically, a lot of your work in the legislature has been around education. What’s different about this session?
Zenzinger: It’s definitely shifted to be able to address the pandemic because its impact was severe. We were having a lot of conversations in the education community pre-pandemic. And when the pandemic struck, some of those conversations were exaggerated and forced to the front.
CCM: Such as?
Zenzinger: Standardized testing. We were already having that conversation about its importance, about accountability and about teacher evaluation. But because of the pandemic, it’s just come forward in a new way that makes us really question whether or not now is the most appropriate time to move forward with standardized testing, given the way our schools are having to operate right now.
CCM: What’s the latest on that situation?
Zenzinger: We did receive some federal guidance recently and they emphasized they are not going to be issuing blanket waivers this year like they did last year. So, if we want to receive a federal waiver to not do CMAS this year, we’re going to have to ask for it. And if we do that, we should make sure that we are putting forward the best possible waiver application ... We are working on an amendment that will hopefully create a pathway forward, given this federal guidance.
CCM: What are your goals for the School Finance Act and school funding for the 2021-22 school year?
Zenzinger: Next year’s budget really needs to focus on how we restore the cuts that we made to education because they were dramatic. We increased the budget stabilization factor to over a billion dollars. But that’s not enough. We can’t just restore the cuts and expect everything to return to normal because, overall, our education system was already underfunded. So, we also need to be thinking about longer-term, systemic funding solutions.
CCM: How would you describe your approach to education-related work in the legislature?
Zenzinger: In general, I really prioritize finding solutions and sponsoring legislation with my Republican colleagues. So, I’m trying to bring that same sort of approach to the education world. To say, `you know what, we don’t have to have right and wrong. Why can’t we just try to embrace the conflict and see where we can find common ground and work to find a solution?’ Instead of, `My bill passes, and we win. Or my bill was rejected, and I lost.’ When it comes to our kids, I think that’s a bad approach.
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