From the Statehouse

School finance bill goes to House

Updated April 2 – The Senate Tuesday morning gave 20-15 final approval to the bill that would rewrite Colorado’s school finance system, a plan that will go into effect only if voters later approve a tax increase to pay for it.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver
This morning’s final debate distilled Monday’s lengthy discussions, with Republicans attacking the proposed tax increase required by the bill and questioning whether the measure contains any educational reform.

“What is behind Senate Bill 213,” said Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker, “is a tax increase.”

“This bill keeps us in the previous century.” Said Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs. Instead, he suggested, “Let’s give everyone of a children a backpack full of money” they can use to choose the schools they want.

“This is not reform, this is a billion dollar tax increase,” argued Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley.

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, struck back forcefully at the reform criticism, saying, “We have passed the toughest reform package in this country,” citing the standards and testing, district and school accountability, educator evaluation and early literacy laws passed in the last five years. Heath, a prime sponsor of SB 13-213, said they bill and its funding are needed to bring those reforms to life.

Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, called the bill a “fairy tale” and indicated the best education reform would be private tuition tax credits. (Two Republican bills on that subject were quickly killed earlier in the legislative session.)

All 20 senate Democrats supported Senate Bill 13-213, and all 15 Republicans voted no. The measure now moves to the House for consideration.

Text of Monday story follows.

Sen. Mike Johnston Monday got the amendments he needed on his 174-page bill to modernize Colorado’s school funding system, but he didn’t get any love from Republicans who don’t like the $1 billion price tag.

The Senate approved Senate Bill 13-213 on a 20-15 preliminary vote, which is expected to be the same party-line total when a final vote is taken later.

As the bill headed into the Senate Education Committee last month, Johnston’s problems were with a fellow Democrat and with some large school districts that were unhappy with the amounts of money they’d receive under Johnston’s original formula.

The bill would increase funding for kindergarten and preschool, provide significantly more money for districts with the highest concentrations of at-risk students and English language learners, devote more money to special education and make extra payments to districts for the cost of implementing reform mandates.

Because the Colorado constitution requires tax increases be approved by voters, the funding piece of the proposal would have to be passed in a statewide election.

Before the Senate Education Committee passed the bill on March 21, Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, added an amendment that set “floor” per-pupil funding of about $7,495 for every district. That was intended to assuage the concerns of several large suburban districts. (See this article about the committee meeting.)

The trouble was that Todd’s amendment ballooned the bill’s estimated cost to about $1.3 billion, something Johnston wasn’t willing to accept.

Negotiations led to a compromise that was presented on the Senate floor Monday. That amendment reduces district floor funding to about $7,022 per pupil but also increases special education funding, a move that would help districts because more state special ed support would reduce the amounts that districts have to backfill from their main budgets. (Current average per-pupil funding is $6,872.)

The amendment also would reduce to $441 the per-student amount that districts would receive from SB 13-213’s Teaching and Leadership Investment fund, which is intended to provide districts with extra funding to implement the costs of state reform requirements passed in recent years. Johnston’s original bill set the figure at $600.

Johnston explained that every district would take a $141 cut, but some districts would receive that money back to fund them at the floor level.

The effect of the amendment is to bring the bill’s cost back to a level that Johnston is comfortable with – and which he and supporters hope voters will support.

Todd told EdNews she thinks most of the concerned districts are “okay” with the bill as amended Monday but said she thinks the issue of floor funding may come up again once the bill moves to the House.

Republicans weren’t happy

Three GOP senators
PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Republican Sens. Owen Hill, Scott Renfroe and Mark Scheffel (L-R) led the attack on SB 13-213.

Johnston, a Denver Democrat, has successfully allied with Republicans on past school reform measures, most notably Senate Bill 10-191, which created a teacher and principal evaluation system based partly on student academic growth.

But Monday’s debate on SB 13-213 showed a hard partisan split similar to that seen this session on such non-education issues as gun control.

The measure received no Republican votes when it passed Senate Education. GOP senators expanded on their opposition Monday during a debate that stretched from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., with Republicans doing most of the talking during the later stages. Sen. Pat Steadman, who chaired the session, noted that it was a “long and languid” debate.

Republicans proposed 21 amendments, and tried six more (including some repeats) at the end of the discussion, as is allowed on preliminary consideration. All were defeated or ruled out of order.

Objections boiled down to three complaints – the bill is too expensive, the school finance system is too complicated and the bill doesn’t really provide education reform.

“This is a bill of special interests who have put together what they want to do to get a billion tax increase,” said Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley. He’s the ranking minority member of the Senate Education Committee and led the GOP floor fight against SB 13-213. “It funds basically the same system with a few tweaks at a much higher amount.”

Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, said, “You don’t see much in the way of reform in this bill. If this is being labeled as education reform, it’s April Fool’s Day.”

In the end, Republican senators argued for school choice and for replacing the bill with tax credits for private school tuition. (Speakers managed to avoid using the word “vouchers” throughout the debate.)

Follow the money

Aurora Public Schools is cutting funding to six schools with special autonomy while it figures out a long-term fix

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

A half-dozen Aurora public schools that operate under arrangements that give them more freedom to innovate are facing a total of $2 million in budget cuts next school year and an uncertain future as district officials reconsider how they are funded.

District officials say they are making the cuts after discovering the six schools combined were mistakenly receiving about $3.5 million extra this year.

To prevent major disruptions to the schools’ programs, district officials say they are pulling the money back over the next two years, starting with the $2 million this fall.

Now the district is planning to convene a task force that will explore whether the schools should be funded any differently from other district schools.

John Youngquist, chief academic officer for Aurora Public Schools, said there’s “no question that all the resources allocated were used appropriately.” But, he said, the district wants to make sure the way the schools get their money is clear and predictable.

The task force the Aurora district plans to convene later this year will study the schools and their budgets and might submit recommendations for a new funding process in spring 2018.

“We don’t want to create an inequity,” said Amy Nichols, president of the Aurora teacher’s union. “That’s not fair to everybody else. But is it right and reasonable to look at them a little bit differently?”

Nichols suggested that perhaps the schools don’t need to get more money to start with, but should be allowed different flexibility with the money they are given.

District officials did not provide clear answers about how the six schools had their budgets allocated in the past and how it differed from other schools.

The district offices that handle budget issues has seen turnover. Aurora’s chief financial officer, Brett Johnson, has been on the job less than two months. Another budget position remains open. It’s clear the problem exists, however, when the allocations are broken down to a per student amount, Johnson said.

According to numbers provided by the district, the schools had about $819 per student more than other schools.

“I don’t know exactly how we got there,” Johnson said. “If you apply the same funding mechanism it’s clearly not at the same level.”

The six schools are unique because of the autonomy their principals have.

Three of them, labeled pilot schools, have a level of freedom created by district and teachers union leaders in 2007. That was year before the state created “innovation status,” a way for schools to get waivers from state rules.

Aurora’s pilot schools had to create a governing board, but could have more say in who they hired, how they scheduled their day or year and what programs they followed.

The three other schools are district-level innovation schools with almost identical autonomy. But to get that autonomy, the schools didn’t have to follow the strict process for pilot schools that was defined in the manual negotiated by the union and the district.

The pilot schools are small schools by design. Contract language for pilot schools said they couldn’t have more than 600 students.

Two of the six schools have an expeditionary learning model, which relies on projects and field work to help students learn through real-life applications. Another uses a program that teaches students leadership skills. Five of the six schools are high-performing schools. Two are among Aurora’s top 10 schools based on state performance ratings.

But Aurora officials say the contracts that outlined the flexibilities for the schools “do not align” with how the schools were funded. The pilot school manual doesn’t outline a funding process for the schools. However, it states they are “expected to be cost neutral” for the district and “should receive the same funding as other comparable schools.”

Aurora officials denied multiple requests to speak to the principals about how their schools were funded and how they would handle the budget cuts.

Youngquist said the changes required under these budget cuts would be minimal, but could not provide any specifics.

Some of the schools face additional budget cuts because of enrollment declines, but those apply to all district schools that are seeing those drops.

When the path for school-level autonomy was created in the district, the groups set a goal of having eight pilot schools by 2017. But the long process established for becoming a pilot school is not always necessary anymore for small flexibilities such as changing a school calendar. For struggling schools, the district is pushing them to get much more flexibility, especially around hiring and firing teachers, through state-level innovation status.

“I believe the district is much more enamoured with innovation schools than they are with our pilot school language,” Nichols said. “They don’t believe that the state board would approve a turnaround process that involves a pilot school.”

Last year the district created a zone — a group of struggling schools getting state-level innovation status. The district also chose the state-level innovation path for Aurora Central High School, the one school that was facing state sanctions for consistent low-performance, although state data has not shown that school flexibilities necessarily lead to higher performance.

But the group the school district convenes later this year may have to consider if the extra funding helped lead Aurora’s pilot schools to higher performance. Then they will have to consider how to fund the schools at the same level as all other schools, without disrupting the good performance. Principals will participate in the process.

“It’s one of the reasons we are being very thoughtful,” Youngquist said.

Budget backlash

New York stands to lose $433 million in education funding under Trump budget, state says

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at the School of Diplomacy in the Bronx

President Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget would “eviscerate” education programs by cutting more than $433 million in New York funds, according to state officials.

The budget would slash teacher preparation, after-school programs, and college aid for low-income students, they said.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia used her meeting last month with U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to push back on potential cuts to education spending. On Tuesday afternoon, she released a joint statement with New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa denouncing the cuts.

“Despite the outcry from education leaders, President Trump’s proposed budget includes a sweeping and irresponsible slashing of the U.S. Department of Education’s budget,” the statement read. “The severe cut will have far-reaching impacts across the nation, with life-shattering consequences for New York’s children.”

Here’s the full breakdown of the state’s preliminary analysis: