Colorado education leaders say they will continue fighting for stronger education funding at the Capitol and perhaps at the ballot box following a Supreme Court ruling upholding the state’s current finance system.

But supporters of more funding face steep hurdles in their quest, based on the state budget situation and past history.

The Colorado Supreme Court on Monday rejected a constitutional challenge to the so-called negative factor, a formula the legislature uses to reduce annual school funding.

The decision in the Dwyer v. State lawsuit pretty much dashes the last hope for a sweeping fix to the tight funding situation that has vexed district leaders since 2010, when the negative factor was first used.

In that same time period, the Supreme Court has rejected two school funding lawsuits and voters defeated a proposed $1 billion tax increase to help support schools.

“K-12 is in for a bumpy ride,” said Tracie Rainey, executive director of the Colorado School Finance Project, a research organization.

Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, had a slightly different take. Quoting the just-departed Yogi Berra, she said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it. That’s where we are,” she added, saying education now faces “a short-term route and a long-term path” on funding.

The heart of the issue

School funding is driven by two things — Amendment 23 and a 1994 school finance law. The constitutional amendment, approved by voters in 2000, requires school funding to increase by enrollment growth and inflation every year.

Negative factor history

  • Fiscal year 15-16: $855.1M
  • FY14-15: $880M
  • FY13-14: $1.004B
  • FY12-13: $1.001B
  • FY11-12: $774M
  • FY10-11: $381M
  • FY09-10: $130M

The finance law divvies money up in two ways: Base funding, through which districts receive an equal amount per student, and factor funding, which gives districts varying amounts based on unique characteristics like size, number of at-risk students and staff cost of living.

Before the negative factor was created, the Amendment 23 formula was applied to both base and factor funding. The legal rationale behind the negative factor allows the formula to be applied only to the base, essentially allowing the legislature to reduce factor funding. Some argue the negative factor also has the effect of cutting the base.

It’s estimated use of the negative factor has cut school funding by about $5 billion since 2009-10. Support for basic school operating costs is about $6.2 billion this school year.

“The negative factor has had a devastating impact on school districts across Colorado,” said Lesley Dahlkemper, a member of the Jefferson County school board.

Does education face a “new normal?”

District leaders have been resisting the negative factor for five years, but some observers have concluded that tight funding is “the new normal” for schools. Opinions still differ in the wake of the court ruling.

“I don’t know how it’s not,” said Reilly Pharo Carter, executive director of Climb Higher Colorado, a group that advocates for high academic standards.

Others hope the situation will be temporary.

Milestones

  • 2000 – Amendment 23 passed
  • 2010 – A23’s 1 percent annual “bonus” expires; negative factor imposed
  • 2013 – Supreme Court rejects Lobato funding lawsuit; voters defeat $1 billion tax increase to help fund schools
  • 2014 – Despite intense lobbying, legislators make only modest trim in negative factor
  • 2015 – High court rejects Dwyer lawsuit

“We can’t allow it to be the new normal,” said Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, a funding advocacy group.

“We should not let anyone, legislators or the general public, think that because it’s the new normal it’s OK,” said Democratic state Sen. Andy Kerr of Lakewood, a Jeffco teacher and member of the Senate Education Committee. “We shouldn’t let anyone forget what the old normal was.”

Legislative prospects are dim

With the state courthouse door closed for now, education leaders are turning toward Urschel’s short-term route: the 2016 legislative session.

Advocates made a hard push to trim the negative factor in 2014 and tried again during the 2015 session. But lawmakers were able to make only small reductions.

“If we are serious about providing a high quality education to the students of Colorado, the legislature and the governor need to make increased school funding a high priority,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

But none of the more than a dozen education leaders interviewed by Chalkbeat Colorado are optimistic.

“I hold absolutely no hope that our funding problems might be solved by the governor or the legislature,” said George Welsh, superintendent of the Canon City schools and a long-time advocate for smaller districts.

“It is not realistic to think that the governor and legislature will be able to ‘buy down the negative factor’ in the next few years,” said Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

The key problem is that refunds required by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, a slowing of state revenue growth, automatic increases in base school funding and required support of transportation will leave lawmakers with little extra cash for the 2016-17 budget.

“There aren’t extra dollars, there is no unused pot of money and the legislature does not have the power to create more dollars by printing them, deficit spending or by raising taxes. Thus, lobbying ‘pressure’ won’t succeed here because it can’t,” said Republican Sen. Chris Holbert of Parker, a member of Senate Education.

“I think we’re going to be lucky to keep the negative factor where it is,” said Kathleen Gebhardt, a lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the Dwyer lawsuit.

Some people are looking to changes in the hospital provider fee for short-term relief. That fee is assessed on hospitals to attract higher federal Medicaid funding, with the money paid back out in Medicaid reimbursements. Even though it’s not a tax and can’t be spent for non-Medicaid purposes, the $800 million a year generated by the fee counts against the state’s TABOR revenue cap and helps trigger tax refunds.

Gov. John Hickenlooper wants lawmakers to reclassify the fee so it doesn’t count as state revenue. Doing so would free up money for state spending.

Many education leaders support the governor.

“It’s a short-term strategy that would give us some breathing room,” said Boulder Valley Superintendent Bruce Messinger, who has been a leading voice on school funding.

Hickenlooper was unsuccessful in selling the idea to the 2015 legislature and likely will face a challenge in 2016, particularly with majority Republicans in the Senate, who don’t want to roll back TABOR refunds.

Going to the ballot

The long-term path for education leaders is developing some sort of education-funding ballot proposal for voters.

“I think it’s very likely we’ll have to go to the ballot,” Weil said.

But no one is predicting yet what a ballot proposal would look like. Options include raising the state revenue ceiling, a dedicated tax increase for K-12 or tinkering with Amendment 23.

Constitutional thicket
A variety of constitutional and legal provisions affect the state budget, including:

  • Balanced budget – The state constitution requires this
  • Taxes – TABOR says tax rates can only be raised by voters
  • Revenue cap – The amount of money the state can spend in a year is limited by TABOR
  • Refunds – If revenue exceeds the cap, the excess must be refunded to taxpayers, or lawmakers can propose a ballot measure allowing the excess to be spent
  • Other spending – State Medicaid spending is driven partly by federal requirements, and state law requires transfers to transportation and construction under some circumstances

Kerr and others note a ballot proposal could be a tough sell.

“There are people who have been talking about it all along, but I don’t see any appetite for going back to the ballot at this point,” he said, alluding to voter rejection of a proposed tax increase for K-12 education in 2013.

Any ballot proposal also would reopen discussions within the education community about changing school finance formulas. Both education reform advocates and poorer districts argue the formulas are outdated and inequitable.

“Equity, accountability and innovation … should be top of mind as we look for answers,” Watney said.

Broader constitutional fixes are being discussed in other quarters.

A group of civic and business leaders named Building a Better Colorado is holding public meetings around the state and studying a possible list of constitutional changes, not just to the state budget.

If that group moves ahead with a proposal, it will have to consider education, Gebhardt believes.

“If you don’t have K-12 support it’s going to be very difficult,” she said, because any campaign will need the “boots on the ground” provided by teacher and parent groups.

One last lifeline

There is one other court case still pending that could affect education funding.

A 2011 federal court lawsuit filed by some legislators, other elected officials and private citizens argues that TABOR violates federal constitutional guarantees that states have “representative” forms of government – including legislatures with the power to tax.

The case hasn’t been tried while procedural issues are being considered by the federal courts.

Learn more about school finance in Chalkbeat’s archives