From the Statehouse

Full bite of K-12 cuts is 6.1%

Despite being billed by Gov. Bill Ritter’s administration as 4.6 percent, the full impact of cuts to basic state support of K-12 education in 2010-11 is 6.12 percent, Colorado school districts learned Tuesday.

CapRitter111009Ritter and budget director Todd Saliman unveiled the budget plans to reporters last Friday and formally submitted it to the legislative Joint Budget Committee during a packed hearing Tuesday afternoon.

In both forums, and in documents presented both days, the K-12 cut is listed as 4.56 percent, or $260 million. That’s calculated against the amount of school aid in the current 2009-10 budget.

The full proposed cut is $374.1 million, or 6.12 percent, according to a Department of Education spreadsheet distributed to all school districts Tuesday afternoon. That cut is calculated against the full amount school districts would otherwise have expected to receive in 2010-11.

The cuts for the state’s 10 largest districts are significant. Here’s a rundown:

  • Adams 12 – $18.2 million
  • Aurora – $15.9 million
  • Boulder Valley – $12.1 million
  • Cherry Creek – $22.4 million
  • Colorado Springs 11 – $12.9 million
  • Denver – $33.8 million
  • Douglas County – $25.2 million
  • Jefferson – $35 million
  • Poudre –  $10.7 million
  • St. Vrain Valley – $10.9 million

Other major districts and their proposed cuts include: Academy ($9 million), Brighton ($6.5 million), Commerce City ($3 million), Eagle ($3 million), Greeley ($8.2 million), Lewis-Palmer ($6 million), Littleton ($6.4 million), Mesa ($9.6 million), Mapleton ($2.4 million), Pueblo City ($7.5 million), Pueblo County ($3.6 million), Thompson ($6.3 million) and Westminster ($4.5 million).

The cuts are in total program funding, which is enrollment multiplied by a per-pupil base amount and then adjusted district-by-district by what are called the “factors” – such things as cost of living, district size and at-risk students. The largest factor is cost of living, which is what the administration proposes to trim to achieve the budget cuts it needs. The budget proposes a new “equity” factor, which is a calculation used to ensure that every district gets the same percentage cut.

Lobbyists, bureaucrats and others packed the JBC hearing room during the governor's budget briefing Nov, 10.
Lobbyists, bureaucrats and others packed the JBC hearing room during the governor's budget briefing Nov, 10.

On top of the $260 million being cut from the factors, the governor is proposing to not spend an additional $94.7 million that otherwise would have been added to school spending in 2010-11, bringing the total cut to $354 million from an original estimate of $5.8 billion in spending for that year. Part of the overall cut is  $110 million that originally was part of the 2009-10 education budget but which lawmakers are expected to pull back in January. When that happens, districts will receive about 2 percent less than they originally expected this school year.

A separate pot of state school aid called categorical funding isn’t affected by the proposed cuts. That money is used to support transportation, special education, gifted and talented and some other programs and totals about $492 million in the current, 2009-10 budget year. The governor’s office also proposes to basically hold funding steady for full-day kindergarten and the Colorado Preschool Program.

However the reductions are calculated, the reduced funding could be felt at the school level in larger class sizes, staff layoffs, flat or reduced salaries and other service reductions.

But, lots can happen before the final amounts of state aid are determined. Changing enrollment patterns could hurt some districts and help others Quarterly state revenue forecasts in December and March could change the budget picture for good or ill. And, while the governor starts the bidding every year with his proposed budget, the final budget is written and approved by the legislature.

And, the proposed cuts at some point may fall under a legal cloud, because same education advocates believe the governor is too narrowly interpreting Amendment 23, the constitutional provision that mandates annual increases in K-12 spending if enrollment and inflation rise – and then tacks a 1 percent bonus on top. In the past the legislature basically has applied each year’s A23 multiplier to all K-12 spending. Ritter in essence is proposing it be applied only to part.

Some advocates will push to blunt education cuts by raising state revenues. Ritter is proposing raising about $130 million in revenue for the 2010-11 budget but ending about a dozen tax credits and exemptions, including the sales tax exemption on candy and soft drinks.

Some interests may lobby for more, but it’s also possible that the legislature won’t approve the full Ritter revenue menu, meaning deeper spending cuts would have to be made. Spending on K-12 schools, which consumes about 44 percent of the state’s general fund, is a large target.

For higher education, Ritter’s budget anticipates a decline in state and federal stimulus support from the current $706 million to $650 million. But, total college and university spending would grow slightly to about $1.98 billion, because the governor is proposing another 9 percent tuition increase for Colorado resident students.

Other features of Ritter’s proposed $7.1 billion general fund budget include a 2.5 percent pay cut for about 25,000 state employees, another suspension of the senior homestead exemption, a $28 million cut in Medicaid, transfer of $26 million in tobacco settlement money into the general fund and a delay in the opening the state’s new maximum security prison.

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Voucher votes

Trump wants states to push vouchers. Tennessee shows why that might be hard, even in red states.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Voucher opponents cheer as Tennessee lawmakers exit the House chambers following Rep. Bill Dunn's decision last February to table voucher legislation.

When President-elect Donald Trump tapped Betsy DeVos as his choice for U.S. secretary of education, advocates of school tuition vouchers saw it as a good omen. The Michigan Republican is a staunch advocate for vouchers that allow taxpayer money to be spent on private schools.

But the perennial battle over vouchers in Tennessee, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump, suggests it won’t be easy for vouchers to sweep the nation, even if Trump’s administration champions federal incentives for such programs. While Tennessee’s Senate has voted in favor of a voucher bill three times since 2011, opponents have blocked it each year in the House of Representatives, albeit by decreasing margins. Opposition has coalesced around a fear of undermining public schools — a concern that transcends party lines and geography.

Tennessee’s voucher proposals have exclusively targeted urban schools, anomalies in a mostly rural state. But as each major vote approached, lawmakers in Nashville fielded calls from constituents back home who worried that the program would quickly expand at the expense of public schools in areas with few alternatives.

During the last legislative session, the perceived lack of public support for vouchers eclipsed Gov. Bill Haslam’s endorsement of them. It also countered an outpouring of spending from pro-voucher advocacy groups that include a state chapter of American Federation for Children, of which DeVos founded and serves as chairwoman of the board.

The most vocal opponent of vouchers has been the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union and an organization that many Republican lawmakers openly oppose. But lawmakers also got pushback from statewide professional groups that represent superintendents and school boards and argue that vouchers would hurt public schools.

Rep. Bill Dunn
Rep. Bill Dunn

During the most recent legislative session, Rep. David Hawk, a Republican from Greeneville, made a last-minute attempt to make vouchers more palatable to sympathetic lawmakers wary of how the issue would play out at home. With the blessing of the bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, Hawk amended the proposal so it only would impact Memphis, home to Tennessee’s largest school district and frequently a laboratory for the state’s education reforms. The move infuriated many Memphis lawmakers and failed to sway enough undecided legislators to push the bill over the top.

Still, the proposal came closer to passing than ever before. It cleared all committees before Dunn tabled it on the House floor. He said he just didn’t have the votes. Later, Dunn told reporters that he only had 48 “yes” votes confirmed out of the necessary 50.

“I believe there are legislators who hear from their school board that they’re against this,” Dunn reflected on Tuesday. “Instead of legislators sitting down and saying what’s best for students, it’s about what’s best for school bureaucracy.”

Research is mixed on whether vouchers help or hurt students. According to a 2015 review by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “vouchers have been neither the rousing success imagined by proponents nor the abject failure predicted by opponents.”

Undaunted, Dunn says he will sponsor voucher legislation again in the upcoming legislative session, which starts in January. But if vouchers pass this time, he said, it will be because of growing support for the program among Tennesseans, not because of Trump or DeVos.

“Education is a state issue,” he said.

changing of the guard

Will Indiana Republicans now move to make the state superintendent job appointed?

Now that a Republican is heading into the state superintendent office in January, Indiana lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats — might start singing a different tune about the powers of that office.

The office has been the subject of dispute since 2012 when Democrat Glenda Ritz defeated Republican Tony Bennett in a surprise upset, becoming the only Democrat elected to statewide office.

Since then, as Ritz clashed repeatedly with Gov. Mike Pence and other GOP lawmakers,  Republicans have openly questioned the role of Indiana’s state superintendent, suggesting the job should have less power and should be appointed by the governor rather than elected.

During Ritz’s superintendency, GOP lawmakers passed a bill giving the Indiana State Board of Education the right to choose its own leader rather than having the superintendent automatically assigned as board chair.

But in the weeks since Republican Jennifer McCormick blocked Ritz’s re-election bid, the GOP resolve to limit the state superintendent’s powers seems to have diminished.

There might also be changes on the other side of the aisle, where Democrats signaled their support for a strong superintendent could waver.

At Tuesday’s legislative Organization Day, House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said he’s advocated for reducing the superintendent’s power “for 30 years” but that he didn’t think he’ll make that a priority for the next legislative session beginning in January.

“I want to have a discussion with the superintendent-elect,” he said. “It’s probably not an issue for this session. Perhaps next.”

For Democrats who were in office when Indiana had Democratic governors, the question of appointing the state superintendent is a sticky one. Back then, Indiana had a Republican state superintendent and many Democrats argued the governor should appoint that position in order to have consistency in education policymaking.

But with Ritz in the role and constantly crossing swords with Pence, Democrats defended her against calls to strip power from her office.

Democratic House leader Scott Pelath of Michigan City said that’s why big changes, like taking away voters’ option to choose the state superintendent, shouldn’t be made lightly.

“On balance I think people like more choices rather than fewer at the ballot box,” he said. “I think we’ve had a system that has more or less functioned over a period of time. We shouldn’t change it without a great deal of hesitation.”

Even so, Pelath said he wasn’t necessarily opposed to making the superintendent job appointed.

“I have an open mind,” he said. “I could be convinced either way.”

With McCormick in and Ritz out, there could be a lot of second guessing on key questions about her role and her power.

Bosma was among a majority of Republicans who successfully backed a bill to change that longstanding rule, instead allowing the 11 board members to pick their own leader. Democrats opposed the change, arguing that it was a blatant attempt to take power away from the superintendent.

After fighting to give the board the option to choose someone besides the state superintendent as chair] — a right that kicks in for the first time next year —  Bosma declined to say whether he thinks the board members should simply select McCormick for the role. “I have not made a determination on that,” he said.

Pelath said he still thinks the state superintendent should chair the board, even if it’s McCormick.

“That’s one you can’t have both ways,” he said. “I support the way that it was before the attacks on Superintendent Ritz and the stripping of her abilities. If we’re going to have a state superintendent this person should be empowered to do something about education.”

Bosma said he wants to let the changes the legislature made to the state board play out.

“I think the system we put into place has worked,” he said. “Is it perfect? Probably not. We’ll let the new superintendent get her legs under herself first and get the Department of Education back on track, because I’m not sure it is right now, and let the dust settle.”