DENVER — Colorado Republicans have sent a letter to Governor Jared Polis calling for a special session to address the challenges schools face during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Calls for a special session
The letter, which was signed by nearly all Republican representatives and senators in the state legislature, called for the session to be limited to discussing schools and developing policies to help students succeed.
"We are in an unusual time of crisis. We need to think outside of the box. We need to look at additional and perhaps significantly different ways of providing education," said Sen. Paul Lundeen.
Sen. Lundeen would like to see the session begin as soon as possible and said he believes lawmakers have the moral imperative to help keep students safe and continue their education.
Specifically, the letter calls for the creation of a support package for families called Safe Learning Choices that would entitle families who opt for remote learning to be entitled to all or a portion of their child's per-pupil revenue to access educational resources.
"We are changing the way that we're delivering services. If the education is online education and if it's being taught via Zoom and it has a lower cost to deliver, then funding it at the same level doesn't make sense," Sen. Lundeen said.
Sen. Lundeen says this money could help less affluent families who want to keep their children home for their health and safety to afford educational materials such as computers or high-speed internet.
"We want to make sure that all the students of Colorado, and not just the affluent students, have an opportunity to be safe and get a year's academic progress," he said.
Democrats in the House and Senate say they had no idea the Republicans were going to call for a special session and found out about the letter from social media. Senate President Leroy Garcia says Republicans did not contact him to ask about a special session before sending the letter to the Governor.
"I think some of my colleagues have learned of the styles of President Trump and feel the best way to communicate is via Twitter," Sen. Garcia said.
A special session needs either a two-thirds majority or the Governor's approval in order for lawmakers to convene.
Sen. Garcia saw the letter and believes it's an effort to hollow out school districts. He says there are ways to help schools with interim committees and a stakeholder process rather than a special session with the entire legislature.
"It lacks specifics it has no collaboration with various school board officials and district members and others," Sen. Garcia said. "It's just a political ploy to create conversation, but it's not a solution-driven process."
Meanwhile, House Speaker KC Becker says lawmakers should learn more about the challenges school districts are currently facing.
"We don't even know what we're trying to fix, what the best way to fix it is and how do the different players feel about those certain fixes, so I don't support a special session," Rep. Becker said.
She would like to see school districts, teachers, parents, and education experts to be consulted first before ever considering reconvening.
Beyond that, Rep. Becker is skeptical of the Republican proposal take money from schools and give it to families.
"You're landing on one idea, one that is very controversial, which is take money out of public education and give it to individual people. That will just completely bankrupt our public education system," Rep. Becker said. "This is cover for a long-standing idea about vouchers and about defunding public education. It's absolutely the wrong response at this time."
Some Republicans don't want a special session either
While the majority of Republicans signed the letter to the Governor, at least four did not, including Rep. Dave Williams.
He's afraid the legislature will reconvene to talk about helping schools but that the house and senate majority will try to go beyond that.
"I didn't sign the letter because ultimately, I believe the Democrats would hijack The intent from my colleagues and turn it into a special session for their pet projects," Rep. Williams said. "While I agree with my Republican colleagues that we need to address education the educational issues for this upcoming year in light of the pandemic, I don't really trust Democrats to work in good faith."
Rep. Williams pointed to the end of the last session as an example of mistrust between the majority and minority.
When the legislature reconvened after an unprecedented hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic, the unofficial motto for the end of the session was fast, friendly, and free.
After passing several COVID-19 response bills, Republicans like Rep. Williams argue Democrats abandoned that motto to force several controversial bills through the legislature, including one to end some tax cuts for businesses.
"I'm at a point where I don't want Democrats to have any more opportunities to pass any laws because anything that would pass would probably wouldn't be helpful," Rep. Williams said.
He would prefer to wait for the election in November to see if Republicans can gain back the House or Senate before reconvening.
The Governor's response
During a COVID-19 press conference Tuesday, Gov. Polis said the Republicans' proposal would lessen the number of choices parents have by forcing the closure of some schools.
The Governor said the first he heard of the call for the special session was the letter and that no one reached out to him to discuss it beforehand.
"Any serious effort would involve negotiations and a thoughtful approach to figuring out a way to improve our schools, and I don't think a proposal that would reduce options and force the closure of some schools and online programs would in any way help in this situation," Governor Polis said.
For now, without the democratic leadership or the Governor's support, a special session is not on the table, and it will be up to individual school districts to figure out how to reopen safely in the fall.