From the Statehouse

Resolving a $300 million difference

Key senators are negotiating amendments to the proposed overhaul of Colorado’s school funding system ahead of an important floor debate on Monday.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Mike Johnston explains his school finance plan during a Feb. 28 meeting. / File photo

At issue is an increase of more than $300 million in the bill’s cost that was caused by amendments added to Senate Bill 13-213 by the Senate Education Committee on March 21. (See this EdNews story for details on that hearing.)

Those committee changes pushed the bill’s estimated total cost to $1.4 billion instead of the original $1.1 billion, according to a legislative staff estimate issued late Wednesday.

The problem for supporters is that the new system would go into effect only if voters approve a state increase to pay for it, and the proposed ballot measures that have been submitted would raise only $950 million to $1 billion.

Bill prime sponsor Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, said Thursday the amount of money currently required by the bill “is unsustainable.” His partner in SB 13-213, Democratic Sen. Rollie Heath of Boulder, said, “We can’t pass a bill with $1.4 billion in it.”

They’re working with Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, sponsor of the most costly amendment approved in committee.

The three chatted amicably in the Senate chamber late Thursday morning just before meeting with legislative staff to work on potential amendments for debate when the bill has its first floor hearing on Monday.

Todd told EdNews that she ideally would like more money in the bill but agrees with the need to bring down its total cost. “I know the limits that have been set.”

What the bill would do

The bill, the first serious attempt to change the school funding formula in two decades, is the product of nearly two years of work by Johnston and Heath and a coalition named the School Finance Partnership, a coalition of education, civic and business groups.

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, some changes in requirements for district contributions to school costs and more flexibility for districts in seeking local tax increases.

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

Johnston has called the bill “a grand bargain” to both increase funding for districts, which have experienced significant budget cuts in the last four years, and to target funding to areas where sponsors see the greatest need, early childhood and at-risk students.

Because the Colorado constitution requires tax increases be approved by voters, not the legislature, the funding piece of the proposal would have to be passed in a statewide election.

Why and how it was amended

Johnston has been crisscrossing the state for more than a year, meeting with education, civic and business groups to sell his plan. He generally was well received, but questions about his plan quickly bubbled up after the bill was introduced in early March and the district-by-district financial impacts were calculated.

While most districts would receive some funding increases, much of the growth went to districts with the highest concentrations of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch and of English language learners. Those included big districts like Aurora and Denver and smaller districts like Commerce City, Greeley and Sheridan.

Large suburban districts like Adams 12-Five Star, Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, Douglas County, Jefferson County and St. Vrain didn’t do so well on a per-pupil basis under the original version of the bill.

District reaction has been mixed. Officials from Cherry Creek and Douglas County have been critical of the original bill, while St. Vrain, for instance, supported it.

And 24 districts, mostly smaller ones, would have lost funding.

All those worries were on display when Senate Education held three hearings on the bill starting on March 19.

Two crucial amendments were added during the final meeting on March 21.

Johnston proposed an amendment to protect funding for the 24 small districts, adding about $33 million to the bill’s cost.

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder
Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder / File photo

Todd, over Johnston’s opposition, proposed and successfully passed an amendment to create “floor” funding of about $7,400 per student for the large suburban districts that otherwise would receive less money under Johnston’s original formula. Todd’s vote was needed to get the bill to the floor, and she made it clear she needed the amendment passed to vote yes on the bill.

What happens next?

If Johnston, Todd and Heath agree on amendments, they will be presented to and voted on by the full Senate during preliminary consideration on Monday.

Trimming the bill’s cost may require adjustment of the funding weights assigned to at-risk and ELL students, lowering of Todd’s “floor” for districts and other tweaks to the complicated details of the 174-page bill.

“We’re still playing with the floor and still looking at the ELL and at-risk factors,” Todd said Thursday.

Do your homework

Legislative staff on Wednesday released a summary of SB 13-213 as amended by Senate Education. Read it here.

Researchers also released four spreadsheets to show the projected impact on individual districts, based on different scenarios about implementation of SB 13-213. Find links to those documents on this page.

The Department of Education on Thursday also released its own district-by-district spreadsheet; it’s the first link on this page.

Due to the complexity of the bill and the different scenarios used in various spreadsheets, number totals can differ, and it’s easy to get confused. The best figures for what the bill would do as it heads to the Senate floor are probably in this legislative estimate. See column (i) for projected per-pupil amounts by district.

The CDE projects that the bill in its current form would generate average statewide per-pupil funding of $7,841, compared to $6,603 currently.

It’s also important to note that all the figures in these documents will change based on whatever amendments the Senate passes Monday.

power players

Who’s who in Indiana education: Sen. Dennis Kruse

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos and Sarah Glen

Find more entries on education power players as they publish here.

Vitals: Republican representing District 14 and parts of Allen and Dekalb counties. So far, has served 13 years in the Senate (current) and 15 years in the House. Kruse began his career as a teacher in 1970, spending five years in the classroom. Once he left education, he became an auctioneer and got involved in real estate.

What he’s known for: Kruse has served as Senate Education Committee chairman for eight years. While he is a less vocal advocate for choice-based education reform measures than his House counterpart, Kruse is a staunch conservative who has pushed — with varying levels of success — for incorporating more religion in public schools.

Career highlights: In 2011, Kruse was the author of Senate Bill 1, a massive bill that established the state’s formal teacher evaluation system. He has also consistently supported bills seeking to improve school discipline, before- and after-school programs and teacher preparation. This year, Kruse has authored bills dealing with school start dates, contracts for district superintendents, school employee background checks and testing.

On religion in schools: Kruse and fellow Sen. Jeff Raatz introduced a resolution this year that, according to the National Center for Science Education, has the “teaching of evolution” as “the specific target of the bill.” Previously, Kruse has put forward other legislation that would encourage the teaching of creationism and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer at the start of the school day, but none of the bills passed. In 2015, Kruse was also a co-author of the controversial religious freedom bill.

On toeing the party line: Despite his conservative politics, Kruse doesn’t always line up with the will of his party. Republican leaders this year are calling for making the state superintendent an appointed, rather than elected, position, but Kruse won’t back the switch. Instead, Kruse has said he believes in elections and that people should get to make choices about their representation.

For that reason, some have speculated that’s why the senate’s version of the bill bypassed his education committee and instead was heard through the elections committee.

Who supports him: Kruse has received campaign contributions from Hoosiers for Quality Education, an advocacy group that supports school choice, charter schools and vouchers; K12, one of the largest online school providers in the country; and Education Networks of America, a private education technology company.

Legislative highlights via Chalkbeat:

Bills in past years: 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017

Also check out our list of bills to watch this year.

seesaw

Tennessee required more recess, but teachers now say it’s too much

PHOTO: Jon Zlock, LEAD Public Schools
Nashville students play during recess at a charter school operated by LEAD Public Schools.

For years, Jamie Petty’s sixth-grade students didn’t have recess — a problem, he thought, since research shows that recess keeps children healthy and focused.

Then Tennessee’s legislature passed a requirement last year that students through the sixth grade get a minimum of two 20-minute periods of non-structured physical activity at least four days a week.

Now play time is overtaking valuable class time, says Petty, a world history teacher at Normal Park Magnet Middle School in Chattanooga. He said one daily period of recess should suffice.

“Physical activity is so important for the kids, and we definitely want that,” he said. “But at the same time, we have to protect instructional time, too.”

Lawmakers have heard similar concerns from educators across Tennessee since the school year started.

“We passed a bill, and it was a fiasco,” said Rep. Bill Dunn.

The Knoxville Republican wants to rein in recess in Tennessee schools. On Wednesday, his bill to do so was approved by a House education subcommittee. Instead of daily mandates of three 15-minute periods for kindergarten and two 20-minute periods for grades 2-6, the bill would institute weekly requirements of 130 minutes of physical activity for elementary schools and 90 minutes for middle and high schools.

Lawmakers hope the change will give schools more flexibility to fit recess into their schedules.

Dunn’s bill also would allow recess to include “structured play.” Last year’s legislation said students must have “non-structured” play, meaning teachers can’t organize sports or games.

Teachers argue that both kinds of play have value.

Kennisha Cann, a literacy coach with Hamilton County Schools, occasionally leads students in games to get the wiggles out. “Kids need to learn how to follow directions, take turns, how to socialize with other children,” she said.

Either way, many educators are happy that the legislature is recognizing the importance of recess.

“Standards are so much harder now,” said Pat Goldsmith, a school psychologist at Chattanooga’s Red Bank Elementary Schools. “Students really need that break.”