under the dome

Five big issues that got lawmakers talking at Chalkbeat’s annual legislative preview

Sen. Nancy Todd, Rep. Brittany Pettersen, Rep. Jim Wilson and Sen. Tim Neville (Chalkbeat photo by Yesenia Robles).

Two days before the dawn of another legislative session, Chalkbeat Colorado convened a bipartisan panel of five lawmakers Monday to handicap what to expect on the education front, from school finance to preschool discipline.

About 175 people bought tickets to our second annual legislative preview featuring:

  • Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, member of the Senate Education Committee
  • Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, chair of the House Education Committee
  • Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, member of the Joint Budget Committee
  • Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, member of the Senate Education Committee
  • Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, member of the House Education Committee

The following is a recap of the event, which was moderated by deputy bureau chief Nic Garcia, drawing from comments from the speakers and audience comments on social media.

You can listen to the full audio or relive it through Facebook Live (see bottom of story for both).

School funding

It comes as no surprise that school funding tops the list of Capitol priorities this year.

The state perennially ranks near the bottom nationally in school funding. Complicated tax laws, inequities in school districts’ ability to raise local taxes, pressures on lawmakers to fund transportation projects this year and other factors could make solutions elusive.

Rankin, Pettersen and Wilson are among a diverse group of lawmakers that have been batting around ideas. Rankin said the goal is to “bring order to the chaos” of school funding.

One possibility is drafting legislation that would ask for voters to set a uniform state tax rate on property, with the aim of helping level the playing field. Right now, every county and school district taxes personal and business property at varying rates, leading to vast funding disparities.

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Rankin is leading the effort along with Rep. Millie Hamner, a Frisco Democrat. The duo is also talking about setting up a committee and hiring a third party to establish a new long-term vision for Colorado’s education system. The thinking is that before getting public buy-in in investing in public education, it’s essential to first lay out what exactly they’d be paying for.

One audience member — Douglas County school board member Anne Marie Lemieux — questioned Rankin’s comment that legislators should take the lead on the issue.

Pettersen clarified:

Rankin also had a grim projection for the “negative factor,” a controversial mechanism the state uses to rein in constitutionally mandated increases in per-pupil funding tied to inflation.

Rankin projected that the negative factor — in effect, a funding shortfall — will grow from roughly $831 million to more than $1 billion. That’s more than three times the $46 million increase in Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s November budget proposal.

The nation’s new federal education law

How will the arrival of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the nation’s new education law, impact education policy in Colorado?

Wilson, who is serving on a committee organized by the Colorado Department of Education responsible for drafting the state’s federally required education plan, noted that Colorado already has plenty of flexibility through waivers the state has obtained from the previous law, No Child Left Behind.

Still, there was optimism that changes could be afoot.

Pettersen urged caution in making any changes to Colorado’s system for holding schools, districts and educators accountable for student performance.

Neville said he’d like to get rid of the law altogether, drawing this rebuke from veteran Adams County educator Mark Sass:

During the audience Q&A, Jan Brennan of the Education Commission of the States pointed out that the phrase “well-rounded education” appears over 50 times in the new law. What, she wondered, would lawmakers like to see happen along those lines?

Wilson touted the importance of “the basics,” pointing to his encounters with what he described as “appalling” misspellings on school bulletin boards. Todd agreed that the basics are extremely important, but that education also must must consider the whole child, which means investments in music, the arts and physical education.

Charter funding equalization

The legislature is also expected to again consider a bill that would require local school districts to share the fruits of voter-approved tax measures with charter schools.

The divide on the panel is a good indication of why its political prospects are dim.

Pettersen said that given that the school funding shortfall is projected to increase and schools are facing cuts, “it’s going to be a difficult conversation.” And Todd made her position clear:


Neville, in contrast, supports requiring equal funding for charter schools.

Pettersen’s response:

Early childhood discipline

How to address the suspension of expulsion of preschoolers — a practice that disproportionately impacts black boys, especially — continues to be a vexing issue.

Last year, proposed legislation to tackle the question did not get traction. But the issue is expected to return this year after a group of early childhood advocates and state officials worked together to lay out possible solutions.

Among them: collecting more detailed suspension and expulsion data from more early childhood programs, creating policies limiting the use of suspension and expulsion, and giving providers more training in how to handle challenging behavior like chronic biting, hitting and tantrums.

Wilson wasn’t bullish on the issue getting much attention this session.

“We’ve got a lot of things we’re dealing with this year and I don’t see the suspensions and expulsions of early childhood students being a top priority with all the big dragons we’ve got to fight in education,” he said.

Lawmakers agreed that suspension and expulsion should be a last resort. But how to ensure that’s the case? Pettersen and Todd underscored the importance of gathering stronger data, which would allow officials to better grasp why the practice is used.

As former Democratic state Sen. Evie Hudak, who attended the panel, pointed out:

Licensing teachers

Should Colorado’s system of licensing teachers change to make it easier for nontraditional teachers to get a stronger toehold in the state’s classrooms?

The law governing teacher licenses hasn’t changed since the 1990s, and Hickenlooper has said he wants to revamp it. Wilson and other Republicans also hope to relax licensing rules for rural schools, where hiring a licensed teacher can be difficult.

Todd had a couple of thoughts.

The dean of the School of Education at Metropolitan State University of Denver had this response to the second piece of that:

Replay of event on Facebook Live:

Listen to the event here:

The perennial debate

How the heck does Colorado fund its schools? (And six other money questions you might be embarrassed to ask.)

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A high school student at Vista Peak Preparatory works on a computer during an engineering class.

Since public schools were founded, arguments have raged over how to pay for them.

In Colorado, it’s one of the perennial debates that gets the best of lawmakers, lobbyists, school leaders and advocates every year. Further frustrating things, lawmakers can only do so much because constitutional amendments lock in much of the state’s budget.

It’s no chump change: More than $6 billion in Colorado tax money goes toward schools.

As Colorado lawmakers get to work on crafting the state budget, here are some questions and answers about how the school funding system works in the Centennial state.

How the heck does Colorado fund its schools?

Colorado funds its schools from two major sources of revenue.

The first pool of revenue is called the “local share.” This money comes from local property taxes on homes and businesses. The second pool is the “state share.” This revenue comes from income and sales taxes.

PHOTO: Sarah Glen
Over time, the state has had to increase its contribution to the state’s schools.

Historically, schools received about an equal share of their funding from the local and state shares. However, for a variety of reasons, the state has had to dramatically increase its contribution to schools during the last two decades.

Many schools, especially those that serve large populations of at-risk students, also receive federal money.

What about marijuana taxes? Aren’t schools seeing a windfall from recreational sales?

No.

The first $40 million of tax revenue collected from marijuana excise taxes — a wholesale tax — goes to a special fund to help school construction. That doesn’t go very far.

However, given a tightening state budget, Gov. John Hickenlooper has suggested increasing taxes on pot to help fund school operations. Lawmakers haven’t been keen on that idea.

Does every school district get the same amount from the state?

No. Lawmakers use a funding formula to determine how much money each school district gets. The formula, which was written in 1994, takes in a variety of factors including student enrollment, the district’s cost of living and how many at-risk students the district serves.

The large suburban district in Douglas County received $7,050 per student this year. Thirty-four percent came from local taxes, while the state picked up 66 percent of the cost.

The smaller Mapleton school district in Adams County, which serves a large Latino population, got $7,303 per student. But only 24 percent came from local property taxes, while the state kicked in 76 percent of the cost.

The tiny Aguilar school district in southeastern Colorado received $13,600 per student. The locals pitched in 25 percent and the state took care of the rest.

What determines the size of the local share?

School boards have no say in how much local property taxes contribute to their funding. That’s left to a complicated constellation of constitutional amendments and state law.

First there’s the Gallagher Amendment. Adopted in 1982, the amendment requires the state to maintain a 45 percent to 55 percent ratio ratio between the revenue collected from personal property and business property. When home values go up, the state is required to drop the percent on which property can be taxed. In 1980, the rate was 21 percent. In 2013, it was 7.98 percent. That means a smaller proportion of a home’s actual value can be taxed by school districts.

The second constitutional amendment in play is the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR. Approved by voters in 1992, TABOR puts a cap on how much revenue the state and local governments can collect from taxpayers. It also requires governing bodies to seek permission from voters before increasing taxes.

While all but four school districts have received voter approval to keep excess tax revenue, lawmakers have put two key restrictions on school districts.

First, school district property taxes can only increase by inflation and enrollment growth. When that revenue exceeds the limit, school districts must reduce their tax rates. And because of TABOR, once the tax rate is lowered by statute, it can’t be raised without voter approval.

(If you want to sound super-smart at your next PTA or school board meeting, this is known as the “ratchet effect.”)

Lawmakers put an additional check on school districts in 2007 when they put a statewide cap on school districts’ tax rates.

What determines how much the state is supposed to kick in?

While there are two amendments that put restrictions on how the state can generate revenue to fund its schools, there is another Constitutional amendment that spells out how the state is supposed to spend that money.

Amendment 23, approved by voters in 2000, did a few things, but two points are still relevant today.

First, Amendment 23 requires the state to increase funding based on population growth and inflation. Second, it created the State Education Fund, an account lawmakers are relying on more heavily to pay for schools. It is financed by one-third of 1 percent of federal taxable income that is exempt from TABOR limits.

Wait, if lawmakers are required to increase funding each year, why does the state have an education funding shortfall?

During the Great Recession, when lawmakers were forced to slash hundreds of millions from the state budget, they argued that Amendment 23 only covers “base funding,” or the average every school district receives per pupil.

The amendment, they argued, doesn’t govern the additional money districts receive to compensate for size, at-risk students and other factors.

So in 2010, lawmakers created “the negative factor,” a new tool they could use to make across- the-board cuts to school funding after all other factors (size, at-risk students, cost-of-living) are taken into consideration.

As part of a compromise, lawmakers are required to report how much money they’re not giving to schools based on that legislative tool.

A lawsuit challenged the negative factor. But the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of lawmakers.

So while a large portion of funding must increase every year, lawmakers have places to cut education in a pinch. The current shortfall is at $828 million, down from a $1.01 billion in 2013.

Didn’t a bunch of school districts just pass tax increases?

Yes, and according to some, that’s making the situation worse.

As the state’s finances have squeezed, some school districts have turned to local voters to ask for more local revenue. These tax increases, known as mill levy overrides, exist outside of the state’s school funding system. The more voters approve doesn’t lessen the state’s burden.

There are some school districts like Boulder, Denver and Cherry Creek that have generated millions of local revenue but are still getting their equal share from the state. Meanwhile, districts like Greeley, Pueblo and Sheridan have never been able to convince their voters to approve a tax increase. That means they have to get by with whatever the state gives them.

Not ready for prime time

Lawmaker kills bill that would have allowed unlicensed teachers in rural Colorado classrooms

A bill that would have allowed understaffed rural Colorado school districts to hire unlicensed teachers was spiked by its sponsor after he was unable to find enough support.

“I’ve gotten a lot of flack over it, and it’s not ready for prime time,” said Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican. “If your troops are still arguing, I’m not dumb enough to lead the charge.”

Along with providing flexibility on hiring unlicensed teachers, House Bill 1178 would have created a process for rural schools to receive waivers from state law.

The State Board of Education, which is responsible for granting waivers, and the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, criticized the bill.

The union is a stalwart defender of the state’s licensure policies and objects to allowing unlicensed teachers in the classroom.

Wilson took a shot at the objections.

“My question is: Who is going to be concerned between unlicensed educators versus no educators?” he said. “There’s no easy simple solution to going out and finding (licensed teachers). They’re not there. I’ve never seen this kind of crisis — ever.”

State lawmakers are considering two other bills to address the shortage of teachers, which is concentrated in certain geographic areas and subjects.

On Monday, the House Education Committee on a party-line vote approved a bill that calls for the state’s education and higher education departments to create a strategic plan on the issue.

Lawmakers are also considering a bill that would grant rural school districts more flexibility in hiring retired teachers.