From the Statehouse

School finance bills cross finish line

The Senate on Wednesday evening accepted House amendments and re-passed two major school finance bills, one to fund K-12 education in 2013-14 and another that proposes to modernize the entire system of paying for education.

Sen. Mike Johnston at podium before final passage of SB 13-213.
Sen. Mike Johnston at podium before final passage of SB 13-213.
Senate Bill 13-260, next year’s $5.5 billion finance bill, passed 23-12. Senate Bill 13-213, dubbed the “future school finance act,” received a 20-15 vote, with all Republicans voting no.

The next and perhaps the crucial test for Senate Bill 13-213 could come in November, when voters may have the chance to decide whether to raise income taxes by about $1 billion to pay for the new system. The bill won’t go into effect if voters don’t approve higher taxes.

There was no discussion on either bill, not even final pitches for SB 13-213 by Democratic sponsors Sen. Mike Johnston of Denver and Sen. Rollie Heath of Boulder.

In contrast to the budget cuts of the last four years, SB 13-260 provides an increase of 2.7 percent in average per-pupil funding. Total program funding, the combination of state and local revenue that pays for basic school operations, would rise to $5.5 billion, an increase of about $210 million. Average per pupil funding would move up from the current $6,479 to $6,652. The bill also provides additional funding for the Colorado Preschool Program and for special education. (Get more details on the bill in this EdNews summary and in this legislative staff note.)

Next year’s school funding is 15.49 percent lower than it would have been without use of what’s called the negative factor, a mechanism that allows lawmakers to set school funding at an amount necessary to balance the overall state budget.

Give the recent healthy increases in state revenues, some education interest groups lobbied for even higher 2013-14 funding in an effort to further reduce the estimated $1 billion shortfall created by use of the negative factor in recent years. There also was some argument about whether the negative factor was being calculated properly. Legislative leaders were resistant to those pleas, arguing that recent revenue increases were largely one-time.

SB 13-213 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. (Get details in this EdNews summary and in this legislative staff analysis.)

The details of the ballot measure needed to trigger SB 13-213 remain unclear. A total of 20 different measures have been proposed by two advocacy groups, one from the business community and one that’s education related. Tax-increase advocates are expected to decide later this month on a single proposal to take to the signature-gathering process, although there remains some disagreement about whether to go to the ballot this year.

Little love for energy-efficient schools bill

Sen. Andy Kerr’s energy-efficient schools bill stayed alive Wednesday, but only after a crucial section of Senate Bill 13-279 was amputated by the House Education Committee.

The bill is the latest version of an idea the Lakewood Democrat has been pushing unsuccessfully for years – requiring new school buildings to meet energy efficiency standards.

As it currently stands, the bill would require new schools built after next Jan. 1 and renovations involving more than 50 percent of an existing building meet “the highest energy efficiency standards practicable.”

The bill has been opposed by school district lobbyists because of the potential extra costs and what district’s see as the bill’s infringement on local control. One particularly disliked provision of the original bill required districts to pay outside experts to verify the energy efficiency of new buildings.

The committee Wednesday unanimously adopted an amendment to remove outside verification from the bill. Amendments to exempt charter schools from the requirements and to make the whole measure voluntary were defeated by the committee’s Democratic majority. The measure then passed on a 7-6 party-line vote.

The committee’s action didn’t silence the critics, and there are likely to be House floor fights over amendments on charter schools, making the program voluntary and over the definition of “practicable.” It’s also possible the issue of outside verification will come up again.

With the 2013 session required to adjourn next Wednesday, SB 13-279 also faces the possibility of “dying on the calendar,” meaning the bill dies if the House and Senate don’t agree on amendments before the final gavel falls.

The hearing, probably the committee’s last meeting of the 2013 session, provided a rare example of the “reluctant sponsor.” Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, is carrying the bill in the House and made it pretty clear that she’s doing so out of respect for Kerr rather than because she’s enthusiastic about the idea.

“I believe Sen. Kerr has very good intentions in this,” she said at one point. “I’m conflicted about all his … no bill is perfect. This one has particular challenges, and I’m glad I don’t have to vote on it.” Gerou is an architect and knows a thing or two about building standards.

Incentives for AP tests trimmed

At the same time Wednesday morning the Senate Education Committee had its own go-round with a bill that raised lots of questions but passed anyway.

House Bill 13-1056 is a bipartisan measure that proposes to expand availability of Advanced Placement classes and tests in small rural school districts by offering per-student bonuses to districts that expand AP offerings and to students who take the tests.

The bill has raised questions about its cost and about the fairness of providing bonuses to only some districts.

The committee approved an amendment reducing the bonus amounts but rejected a change that would have paid students for passing the AP tests, not just for taking them. The measure next heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee, where its cost (now somewhere below $500,000) could make it vulnerable.

Also crossing the finish line

The House Wednesday accepted Senate amendments and re-passed three education bills, including:

House Bill 13-1117 – This bill is a Hickenlooper administration priority and would consolidate various early childhood agencies in the Department of Human Services. Passed 39-25.

House Bill 13-1194 – The measure expands eligibility for resident tuition rates to certain military dependents. Passed 64-0.

House Bill 13-1005 – This proposal allows the community college system to create pilot, relatively short programs that combine adult basic education and vocational training programs. Passed 45-19.

rules and regs

New York adds some flexibility to its free college scholarship rules. Will it be enough for more students to benefit?

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

New York is offering more wiggle room in a controversial “Excelsior” scholarship requirement that students stay in-state after graduating, according to new regulations released Thursday afternoon.

Members of the military, for example, will be excused from the rule, as will those who can prove an “extreme hardship.”

Overall, however, the plan’s rules remain strict. Students are required to enroll full-time and to finish their degrees on time to be eligible for the scholarship — significantly limiting the number who will ultimately qualify.

“It’s a high bar for a low-income student,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “It’s going to be the main reason why students lose the scholarship.”

The scholarship covers free college tuition at any state college or university for students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. But it comes with a major catch: Students who receive Excelsior funding must live and work in New York state for the same number of years after graduation as they receive the scholarship. If they fail to do so, their scholarships will be converted to loans, which the new regulations specify have 10-year terms and are interest-free.

The new regulations allow for some flexibility:

  • The loan can now be prorated. So if a student benefits from Excelsior for four years but moves out of state two years after graduation, the student would only owe two years of payments.
  • Those who lose the scholarship but remain in a state school, or complete a residency in-state, will have that time count toward paying off their award.
  • Members of the military get a reprieve: They will be counted as living and working in-state, regardless of where the person is stationed or deployed.
  • In cases of “extreme hardship,” students can apply for a waiver of the residency and work requirements. The regulations cite “disability” and “labor market conditions” as some examples of a hardship. A state spokeswoman said other situations that “may require that a student work to help meet the financial needs of their family” would qualify as a hardship, such as a death or the loss of a job by a parent.
  • Students who leave the state for graduate school or a residency can defer repaying their award. They would have to return to New York afterwards to avoid having the scholarship convert to a loan.

Some of law’s other requirements were also softened. The law requires students to enroll full-time and take average of 30 credits a year — even though many SUNY and CUNY students do not graduate on time. The new regulations would allow students to apply credits earned in high school toward the 30-credit completion requirement, and stipulates that students who are disabled do not have to enroll full-time to qualify.

Looming threat

Report: Looming financial threats could undermine ‘fresh’ start for new Detroit district

The creation of a new school district last year gave Detroit schools a break from years of crippling debt, allowing the new district to report a healthy budget surplus going into its second year.

It’s the first time since 2007 that the city’s main school district has ended the year with a surplus.

But a report released this morning — just days after Superintendent Nikolai Vitti took over the district — warns of looming financial challenges that “could derail the ‘fresh’ financial start that state policymakers crafted for the school district.”

The report, from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, notes that almost a third of the district’s $64 million surplus is the cost savings from more than 200 vacant teaching positions.

Those vacancies have caused serious problems in schools including classrooms crammed with 40 or 50 kids. The district says it’s been trying to fill those positions. But as it struggles to recruit teachers, it is also saving money by not having to pay them.

Other problems highlighted in the report include the district’s need to use its buildings more efficiently at a time when many schools are more than half empty. “While a business case might be made to close an under-utilized building in one part of the city, such a closure can create challenges and new costs for the districts and the families involved,” the report states. It notes that past school closings have driven students out of the district and forced kids to travel long distances to school.

The report also warns that if academics don’t improve soon, student enrollment — and state dollars tied to enrollment — could continue to fall.

Read the full report here: