From the Statehouse

Budget angst fills Capitol

No matter where you looked Wednesday in Colorado’s Capitol complex, there were people worrying or arguing about the state’s budget woes.

Gov. Bill Ritter
Gov. Bill Ritter announced his latest round of proposed budget cuts on Jan. 27.

Two House committees wrangled over proposals to abolish tax exemptions. Gov. Bill Ritter proposed new nips and tucks in current spending. A new higher education study panel opened its first meeting with a gloomy briefing. And interest groups politely sparred over who should bear the cost of educating jailed teenagers.

It all started at 7:30 a.m. in one House committee and was still going more than 13 hours later in another House panel.

Here are some snapshots of the day.

Don’t raise my taxes

Part of Gov. Bill Ritter’s budget-balancing plans for both 2009-10 and 2010-11 include rescinding about a dozen tax exemptions. Most affect business, but one bill would reimpose a tax on soda and candy.

If all the measures (House Bills 10-1189 through 1200) pass, they’re estimated to produce more than $130 million in revenue next budget year. If some or all fail, deeper state budget cuts will have to be made, with K-12 spending the likely target.

Lobbyists for the Colorado Education Association, Colorado Association of School Boards and Colorado Association of School Executives braved a committee room packed with opponents to testify in favor of the measures. In addition to business executives and lobbyists, opponents included a squad of red-jacketed Coca-Cola employees.

For procedural reasons, the bills started early Wednesday in the House Appropriations Committee, where minority Republicans used parliamentary techniques and general long-windedness to drag the proceedings out, disrupting other House business in the process.

The House Finance Committee picked up the task at 1:30 a.m. and met late into the evening, taking public testimony on the bills.

Among bills delayed on the House floor was Senate Bill 10-065, which cuts $110 million (about 2 percent) from current-year state school aid. It also specifies that the state won’t cover the $20 million cost of higher-than-projected enrollment and numbers of at-risk students. (The bill has to be passed and signed by Friday or school districts will have access to the $110 million.)

Another budget “adjustment”

As House Finance started its ordeal across the street, Ritter gathered reporters in his wood-paneled Capitol office to announce still more proposed adjustments to the 2009-10 budget to fill an additional hole of nearly $50 million.

The latest plan proposed no further K-12 cuts. But it does suggest taking $5.5 million in federal stimulus funds from 2010-11 and adding it to the stimulus money already being used for higher education in this budget year. (Doing so frees up money from the state general fund, which is what needs to be balanced.)

That means colleges and universities this year will receive more in stimulus dollars than in state tax support, and state and federal support will decline by $61 million in 2010-11.

What keeps higher ed afloat is tuition, which is projected to provide two-thirds of college and university budgets next school year. Ritter has proposed a 9 percent increase for next year.

Since the recession started pummeling state revenues, the state has made about $2 billion in cuts and revenue shifts and faces the need to make at least $1 billion more.

(Go here for the details of the governor’s latest balancing plan.)

Somber marching orders for commission

Earlier, at mid-morning, a group gathered for its first meeting in an office building at the foot of Capitol Hill. The 12-member Colorado Higher Education Strategic Plan Steering Committee was appointed by Ritter to develop a new master plan for the state system and make a report by the end of this year. (See this EdNews story for more details about the commission and its members.)

The meeting opened with a gloomy briefing by state budget director Todd Saliman and a sobering presentation about the deterioration of the state system and the threat that poses to Colorado’s economic competitiveness, given by David Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

The new commission will do part of its work in four subcommittees, which will include steering committee and outside members, including representatives of state colleges and universities.

One of those subcommittees will study higher ed finances, and state higher ed director Rico Munn may have surprised some members when he said that subcommittee also will be expected to come up with some short-term financial suggestions for possible consideration by the 2010 legislature.

Don Elliman, Ritter’s chief operating officer, indicated that the subcommittee’s assignment was made partly to forestall a legislative study of higher education. Munn and Elliman are advising the commission.

Fighting over jailed kids

Late in the afternoon, the Senate Judiciary Committee turned its attention to Senate Bill 10-054, which would require school districts to provide educational services to juveniles being held in county jails after having been charged as adults. A legislative fiscal analysis estimates an $113,378 annual cost to the state and that the bill would “increase costs for the school districts.”

The hearing created the uncomfortable spectacle of school lobbyists testifying against the bill, and juvenile justice advocates and district attorney and sheriffs’ lobbyists supporting it.

“Districts are doing everything they can just to keep the schoolhouse doors open” and can’t afford the added cost for educating a few students in jail, said Jane Urschel, lobbyist for the school boards association.

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster and prime sponsor of the bill, called educating jailed kids “a moral and legal obligation.”

Two committee Republicans opposed the bill and Sen. Linda Newell, D-Denver, was clearly lukewarm, but she voted for the bill in the end, and it passed 4-2. It move on to an uncertain fate in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Any bill with any price tag will get tough scrutiny there in this lean budget year.

The last word

The mood of the day may have been unintentionally summed up by Greg Stevinson, a member of the Commission  on Higher Education who is also serving on the new steering committee.

Reflecting on the situation of higher education for the past several years, he said: “We’ve been fighting over scraps. Now there aren’t any scraps left.”

In other news

The Senate Education Committee killed Senate Bill 10-017, a proposal by Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, which would have provided grants to school districts to study weighted-student funding programs. The program would have been funded by “gifts, grants and donations.”

Introduced Wednesday was House Bill 10-1208, which would require creation of at least 14 college credit transfer agreements under which students could transfer their associate’s degree credits in those specified majors to four-year schools. While such students could be required to take additional lower division courses in their majors, the bill specifies that they still should be able to graduate at the same time as similar students who’d started at those four-year schools.

Credit transfer has been a touchy issue in the past, with higher education resisting attempts at legislative mandates. State colleges and universities currently have an extensive but patchwork system of course transfers.

This bill could be a fast track, though, as it has 47 cosponsors in both houses and from both parties. Among them are House Speaker Terrance Carroll, D-Denver, and Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Boulder. (Sen. King, a longtime advocate of easy credit transfers, has not signed on to the bill.)

The sweetener for higher ed may be that the 14 transfer agreements don’t have to be in place until 2016.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.

money matters

Why so negative? Colorado lawmakers seek to rebrand controversial tool that limits spending on schools

A student works at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Colorado lawmakers are tired of hearing about the “negative factor.”

So they changed its name — at least in statute.

Going forward, the tool that budget writers will use to spend down the state’s financial obligation to public schools to balance the state budget officially will go by its original name: the “budget stabilization factor.”

The change was made when lawmakers passed the state’s annual school funding bill earlier this month.

The negative factor “has been used as a pejorative,” said state Sen. Kevin Priola, the Henderson Republican who put forth the idea of the name change. “The budget is never perfect. But these are the economic realities we have to deal with.”

Some education funding advocates are rolling their eyes. The term, they say, has become so well known and accepted that any attempt to change it will be difficult.

“You can change the name, but the debt’s the same,” said Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for more school funding.

The negative factor — oh, sorry, we mean the budget stabilization factor — is just one part of a much larger and complex formula used to determine school funding.

The budget tool was first created in 2009 when state lawmakers were forced to slash the budget after the Great Recession.

School advocates knew they couldn’t escape the cuts the rest of the state was facing. So a team of lawmakers, lobbyists, superintendents and financial officers helped developed the tool.

Here’s how it works: After lawmakers determine how much funding schools should receive based on a formula developed in 1994, they compare that amount to available tax revenue. The difference is that year’s “stabilization factor.”

At the time the tool was created, the group wanted the cuts to be systematic — applied equally across all schools — and transparent. As part of the compromise, the state was required to track how much money it was withholding from schools.

In 2014, funding advocates sued the state, claiming the negative factor was unconstitutional. But the state Supreme Court disagreed.

Since then, Republican lawmakers have become more critical about the provision that requires them to track how much money the state isn’t giving schools. They argue that other state services such as roads, hospitals and parks all share a burden when it comes to balancing the budget.

Lawmakers have withheld about $5.8 billion from schools since the budget balancing tool was created. However, funding has slowly crept up each year, just not as fast as school leaders would hope.

School Politics

Colorado schools were a hot topic at the state Capitol this year. Here’s what lawmakers did.

A teacher reads to her students at the Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado lawmakers this week are celebrating major education-related policy wins, including finding more money for public schools.

This year’s legislative session, which ended Wednesday, was marked by big compromises on issues that have befuddled policy makers for years: charter school funding, ninth-grade standardized testing and measuring the reading skills of the state’s youngest bilingual students.

With so many thorny debates behind them, lawmakers and Capitol observers are now looking toward other major policy questions they’ve put off for years, including reforming how the state pays for its public schools and making changes to Colorado’s school accountability laws and teacher licensure policies.

“The hope is now that the K-12 community can come together to focus on the big issues,” said Jen Walmer, Colorado state director of Democrats for Education Reform.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s look back at the last 120 days:

Lawmakers found more money for schools than anyone could have imagined.

Before the legislative session began, school districts were preparing for the worst. Despite the state’s booming economy, constraints on how much the state could spend meant schools could have gone without much of a funding increase.

State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican from Sterling, on the first day of the legislative session.

The forecast became even more dire midway through the session when lawmakers learned the local tax base that generates about a third of all state spending on schools was going to shrink drastically. The worst predictions had the state’s education funding shortfall growing to more than $1 billion.

State officials found a technical workaround, and lawmakers were able to send more money to schools. On average, schools will see about $242 more per student next year.

However, leaders in both parties are aware that the state’s problematic constitutional constraints, tax policies and school funding formula still exist. That’s why a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers led a successful effort to create a committee to study and propose changes to the way the state funds it schools.

“We have more work to do. We need to continue with what we’ve done this session: have tough conversations,” said Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat.

“How do we make sure that students, regardless of race, income, regardless of whether they have a disability, that they have the opportunity to succeed?” she said. “There is no doubt that we have structural decisions we have to make when it comes to our budget.”

Republican leaders said they’re also anxious to see the committee get to work. But they’re less likely to support an influx of cash to the state’s schools.

“If we’re going to look at real overhauls to the system and funding, we need to look at all the options — not just throwing more money at the system — a system that by many’s accounting is not working well or efficiently,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican.

He and other Republicans are encouraging the committee to look at how other states have focused their funding formulas on students rather than on a school’s size or geographic location, and used funding to expand school choice.

Lawmakers already have one option on the table: A proposal to set a statewide property tax rate, which was born out of the legislature’s budget office and floated early in the session. While there was a lot of talk behind the scenes, it failed to gain traction. Expect to hear a lot more about the idea.

The charter school funding compromise, which some called “historic,” was just one of many longstanding issues that were resolved this year.

The 2017 legislative session will likely be remembered as the most productive in a decade because of several big compromises.

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, sits alone on the House of Representatives floor as members of her own party filibustered her compromise on charter school funding. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Lawmakers grinned Thursday as they ticked off a long list of accomplishments to reporters, including one that could send more local money to charter schools. In return, charter schools will be required to post on their official websites more tax documents and will no longer receive two specific financial waivers.

The last-minute charter school funding bill — sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers that included state Reps. Brittany Pettersen and Lang Sias and state Sens. Owen Hill and Angela Williams — was the compromise no one saw coming.

“Anything is possible,” Pettersen said after the session.

Lawmakers had wrestled with the question of requiring the state’s school districts to share their locally approved tax increases with charter schools for two years. Despite vocal objections from several school superintendents, the legislature overwhelmingly supported the bill.

Early in the session, lawmakers eager to reduce the number of standardized tests reached another compromise with the governor’s office. High school freshmen will no longer be required to take the controversial PARCC English and math tests. Instead, they’ll take a test that is aligned to the college entrance exam, the SAT.

We kicked the PARCC test out of high schools,” said Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. “It’s gone!”

Other deals that were reached include the creation of a diploma seal of biliteracy for students who demonstrate proficiency in two languages and new regulations on how to monitor the reading skills of young English language learners.

Colorado schools will also see a financial boost for the next three years after lawmakers passed an omnibus bill that resolved a debate over a hospital fee that helps pay for the state’s health insurance program.

As part of the biggest compromise of the year, the state will raise taxes on recreational marijuana. Those taxes will send $30 million to rural schools next year and $40 million over two years to the state education fund, a sort of savings account for schools.

Rural schools flexed their muscles and blocked a bill to reform the state’s student suspension rules, but they didn’t get everything they wanted.

Not every piece of bipartisan legislation reached the governor’s desk.

Students at Merino Elementary School work during class.

A bill that aimed to reduce the number of preschool and elementary school students who are suspended was killed by a GOP-controlled committee at the request of rural schools, despite having overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans.

Rural school leaders said the bill attempted to create a statewide solution for a Front Range problem. A Chalkbeat analysis of suspension data, which rural superintendents refuted, showed otherwise.

Supporters of the legislation vowed to work with opponents this summer and fall and try again next year.

While rural schools were successful in blocking that mandate, they were dealt a setback when a bill that would have allowed them to remedy a teacher shortage by hiring unlicensed teachers was killed by its sponsors.

State Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican, said he couldn’t garner enough support for his effort. At least not this year.

“Like Arnold Schwarzenegger said, ‘I’ll be back,’” Wilson said.

Even though that bill failed, lawmakers did take steps to curb the state’s teacher shortage.

Stanley Teacher Prep resident Lily Wool works with kindergartner Samori McIntosh at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. Wood’s residency program is merging the Boettcher Teacher Residency program. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Prior to the session, education leaders at the Capitol had few if any plans to take on the state’s teacher shortage. But retired teacher and freshman state Rep. Barbara McLachlan pushed to address the issue.

The Durango Democrat partnered with a host of other lawmakers from both parties to sponsor legislation to study the shortage and provide solutions. She also sponsored a bill that would allow rural schools to hire retired teachers without penalizing their pension. Both bills were sent to the governor.

Two other bills, including one to create multiple teacher preparation pilot programs, failed to advance. But with the issue on the legislature’s radar, expect it to come back.

“That’s the most pressing issue, next to funding,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat.

Despite newfound freedom from Washington, lawmakers didn’t make any bold changes to the state’s school accountability system.

Several lawmakers early in the session seemed eager to take advantage of new flexibility from the federal government.

While the state education department was busy putting together a mandated statewide plan to adopt the new Every Student Succeeds Act, lawmakers were debating how they could update the state’s school accountability laws.

But only two bills making minor tweaks advanced.

A HOPE Online student works during the day at an Aurora learning center. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

One requires elementary schools that receive low quality ratings to address the needs of students in preschool through third grade.

The second bill requires the state to measure how well high school students are meeting updated graduation requirements. As part of the new requirements, which go into effect in the year 2021, high schools must adopt a list of options students can use to prove they’re prepared for college or a career.

Those options include the SAT exam, which all Colorado juniors are required to take; passing a concurrent enrollment college-level course; passing a Advanced Placement test; or completing a college thesis-like capstone project demonstrating knowledge of a subject.

“This bill is a really clever way to allow school districts to say, ‘This is what we care about, and this how we’re going to do it,’” said Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform group.

Some of the most anticipated school-accountability bills of the session never materialized.

One would have provided more clarity on what happens to schools that consistently receive low quality ratings from the state.

“This was a big undertaking, and the bill’s sponsors needed more time,” Ragland said.

It’s another issue Capitol-watchers can expect to see return next year.

As Ragland put it, “The lack of clarity at the end of the state’s accountability clock is bad for everyone.”