From the Statehouse

Finance bill gets a big tweak

This story was updated on March 22 to add additional information about the possible impacts of the amendment added Thursday.

The Senate Education Committee voted 5-4 Thursday to advance the bill that proposes a major shift in the way Colorado funds K-12 education.

Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora
Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora

But approval came only after passage of an amendment that increases the bill’s price tag by about 20 percent, an issue certain to be revisited when the bill reaches the Senate floor, which probably won’t happen until April Fool’s Day at the earliest.

Senate Bill 13-213 is in a situation much like a car that has had major work done in one body shop and now is being towed to another garage for more work.

The committee vote came at the end of the third meeting the panel has held this week on the measure, which is sponsored by Democratic committee members Mike Johnston of Denver and Rollie Heath of Boulder. The bill is considered the most important education legislation of the 2013 session, and Johnston calls it a once-in-a-generation opportunity to modernize how Colorado pays for it schools.

Johnston and Heath have been working on the bill for more than a year and have held scores of meetings with education interest groups and others to discuss the goals of the proposal.

Key elements of the bill include increased funding for kindergarten and preschool, significantly more money for districts with the highest concentrations of at-risk students and English language learners, more money for special education, extra payments to districts for the cost of implementing reform mandates and some changes in requirements for district contributions to school costs. The system wouldn’t go into effect unless a statewide ballot measure to raise taxes is passed. (Friday is the deadline for ballot proposals to be filed.)

The central feature of the plan is a significant shift of funding to districts with the highest concentrations of at-risk students and English language learners. That would benefit districts like Denver and Aurora. Large districts with a lower concentration of such students, such as Cherry Creek, Douglas County and Jefferson County, would receive smaller increases in per-pupil funding.

That emerged as a major issue this week, with both Democratic and Republican members of Senate Education expressing worries about the bill’s impact on medium to large suburban districts with smaller concentrations of disadvantaged students.

That debate came to a head Thursday afternoon with an amendment proposed by Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora. Her proposal was opposed by Johnston and Heath, but its passage probably ensured that the bill got out of committee.

Todd, a retired teacher and veteran legislator, said she was concerned by the “disparity” between districts like Aurora and Cherry Creek in the bill. “All districts have to feel like they’re coming away from the table with a win for their children.”

She proposed an amendment that essentially would bring such districts up to the statewide per-pupil average with a “bonus” payment every year, even if the bill’s formula set them at a lower amount. That would raise the estimated $950 million cost of the bill by an additional $220 million a year, according to Johnston. (However, the impact of the amendment hasn’t been fully calculated, and some observers think the cost could be different.)

The amendment would set a per-student “floor” of $7,495 for all districts, according to Tracie Rainey of the Colorado School Finance Project, who has been following work on the bill.

Johnston opposed Todd’s amendment, but its passage might have been the price he had to pay to get the bill out of committee. “It would be very difficult for me to vote yes on the bill as it is now,” Todd said before the vote. Approving her amendment would “keep the conversation alive. … I want to get this bill out of committee.”

“The hard question is where we are you going to finding the $220 million,” Johnston said. Johnston and his allies have said the proposed ballot measure probably can’t exceed $1 billion and have a chance at voter approval.

Republicans voted yes before they voted no

Todd’s amendment passed on a 6-3 vote, with Todd, chair Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, and all four committee Republicans voting for it.

Those Republicans – Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, Vicki Marble of Fort Collins, Scott Renfroe of Greeley and Mark Scheffel of Parker – essentially voted for the bill before they voted against it. By supporting the amendment they voted to make the bill richer than Johnston’s version. But they all were no votes on the final motion to send SB 13-213 to the Senate floor.

They cited concerns about the proposal’s costs and that it doesn’t contain enough “reform.” The bill was sent to the floor on a 5-4 vote, with Democrats supporting and Republicans opposing. That wasn’t necessarily a good sign for Johnston, who in the past has relied on GOP votes to pass such key measures as Senate Bill 10-191, the educator evaluation law.

There had been talk that the bill would be heard on the Senate floor Friday, but Johnston said senators need time to study it and that the bill won’t be debated until April 1 at the earliest. Fresh calculations of the district-by-district impacts of the amended bill aren’t expected until the middle of next week.

He also said, “Sen. Todd is going to have to help me think about how we balance the budget. I’ll sit down with Sen. Todd and figure out a compromise.”

If the bill passes on the Senate floor during the first week of April, it will face a tight timeline to get through the House, because the legislature has a drop-dead adjournment deadline of May 8.

A weird opening act

Before it even got to school finance, Senate Education burned up an hour on Senate Bill 13-201, which proposes to designate shelter dogs and cats as the official “state pets.”

The bill, proposed by a group of Walsenburg middle school students, follows a traditional pattern of students proposing state fossils or whatever. Such bills usually are feel-good measures that allows lawmakers to compliment students on their interest in the legislative process.

But SB 13-201, sponsored by Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, actually had opposition.

Paid lobbyist Dan Anglin, representing the Colorado Association of Dog Clubs and the Colorado Pet Association (which includes pet stores), urging the committee to defeat the bill, saying it “discriminates” against pets available at outlets other than shelters.

The committee voted 6-3 to pass the bill on to the Senate floor.

Breakfast after the bell still alive

Speaking of feel-good bills, the breakfast-after-the-bell proposal had its first Senate hearing Thursday in the health committee.

The bill, pushed by a variety of child health and other advocacy groups, proposes that all students in certain high-poverty schools be served free breakfast after school starts. Many school districts have complained that the bill could force startup costs on financially strapped schools, and the bill was amended in the House in an attempt to ease some of those worries. (See this story for further details.)

Those amendments apparently didn’t calm everyone’s fears, and a string of district nutrition directors urged the committee to make further modifications to the bill. The health panel didn’t amend the bill further. It passed on a narrow 4-3 vote.

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.”