Talking Point

Education funding debate a top priority for Colorado lawmakers, but bipartisan solutions elusive as session starts

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
Senate President Kevin Grantham at the Colorado State Capitol, January 11, 2017.

Colorado legislative leaders didn’t mince words on the 2017 session’s opening day: Improving Colorado’s congested and crumbling roads is their top priority.

But funding the state’s schools isn’t far behind.

Colorado’s first Latina Speaker of the House, Rep. Crisanta Duran, spoke at length about finding a way to send more money to the state’s schools — and the consequences if lawmakers fail.

“The state simply doesn’t have the money right now to make sure every boy and girl in Colorado has the tools to succeed and reach their full potential,” the Denver Democrat said, according to prepared remarks. ”Some students are being left behind. We’re missing an opportunity to teach thousands of young Coloradans who need vital 21st-century skills in computer science and digital literacy.”

(Aside from school funding: Duran plans to introduce legislation that would provide more training and resources for teachers who want to teach computer sciences.)

She went on:

I say let’s have a real discussion about ways to actually solve our education issues for the long term. Let’s make a case to Coloradans that something needs to be done, and offer some ideas to do it.

I have heard from many of you some very interesting ideas – some that are new, some from years past – for how we begin to untangle our budget mess, which is the root cause of our education struggles. These ideas are coming from both sides of the aisle.

Let me be clear: if we do nothing, our state’s continued prosperity is at risk. If we cannot fund our schools, if we cannot provide families an affordable college education, then we are not delivering what the people of Colorado need.

One of those “old” ideas is creating a uniform property tax rate such as the one Colorado used to have up until 1988. Currently, different school districts have different rates and are powerless to change them because of a mix of Constitutional amendments and statue.

State Reps. Millie Hamner, a Frisco Democrat, and Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican, believe those varying rates are unequitable and are putting undue pressure on the state to make up the difference. They’re planning to ask the bipartisan Joint Budget Committee to sponsor a bill that would ask voters to set one rate for the entire state.

Speaking of equity, Republican leadership once again will push for the state’s school districts to share more of their local funding with charter schools.

House minority leader Rep. Patrick Neville, a Durango Republican, said:

We need to protect a parent’s role in their child’s life and realize that parents know better than we in this room do. Parents should have the right to make decisions about their children’s education and their health. The ability of parents to pursue the best education for their children should not be an option solely for the rich, but should be an option for all parents. We need to fund every school option equally and give parents the choice of what school best suits their children’s needs. School funding should follow students through their educational path, and we need to focus on trade schools and ensure today’s curriculum aligns with today’s workforce.

Earlier in his speech,Neville rebuffed Duran’s suggestion the state doesn’t have enough money. He noted the state’s budget is about $1 billion larger than last year.

“How can we make deep cuts when we have $1 billion more than last year?” he said.

Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Republican from Canon City, he called equitably funded schools and school choice a “God-given right.”

During his speech, Grantham also introduced school safety as another priority for Senate Republicans:

In regard to the intersection of public safety, education, and our second amendment rights, Majority Leader Holbert (R-Parker) will be introducing Senate Bill 5. Rather than simply arm teachers and other staff, his bill will ask ‘how much training is required?’ Currently, POST certified law enforcement and private security personnel under contract with a school district or charter school may be armed. POST certification is extensive training, while no training is required for private security. How much training might our county sheriff’s provide before district personnel may be armed on a school campus to protect our kids?

While the bill is important to Senate Republicans, the bill’s changes in the House are poor.

One note about transportation and education: Both Neville and Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman, a Denver Democrat, cited education as one reason to improve the state’s roads.

Neville:

No other issue in front of us impacts commerce, education, public safety and revenue more than transportation. Parents drive their kids to school on our roads, businesses depend on employees and customers travelling to their facilities, oil, gas and agricultural companies depend on roads to transport their product, and the state depends on tourism.

Guzman:

The people of Colorado should be able to drive their kids to school and drive to work on safe and reliable roads and bridges.

But Guzman went on to argue that improving roads can’t be done at the expense of the state’s schools.

“We cannot accomplish these feats through proposals that would cut deeply into our already underfunded classrooms, and vital services Coloradans depend upon,” she said.

hold up wait a minute

Colorado Latina lawmakers to Trump: Back off pledge to end protections for young undocumented immigrants

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Colorado's Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran

Colorado’s two highest ranking Latina lawmakers are asking President-elect Donald Trump to back off his promise to revoke temporary protection from deportation to undocumented immigrants who arrived here as children.

Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran and Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman wrote in a letter that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive order allowed undocumented young adults access to a better education and job opportunities — including teaching.

The letter was cosigned by seven other Latino lawmakers.

“We are simply asking that the president-elect put an end to the fear and uncertainty of the 742,000 men, women and children, and the millions of our fellow Americans that know them as our friends, neighbors, family members and coworkers,” Duran, a Denver Democrat, said in a statement. “We are talking about keeping families — children and mothers and fathers — together. This is their home and they are a part of us.”

Duran is Colorado’s first Latina Speaker of the House. She co-sponsored state legislation in 2013 that provided in-state tuition at Colorado colleges for undocumented high school graduates.

Obama’s executive order provided an opportunity to aspiring teachers to enter the classroom, including those in Denver.

Denver Public Schools was the first school district in the nation to hire undocumented teachers.

In a statement released Thursday by the nonprofit education advocacy group Stand for Children, Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg also called on Trump to abandon his campaign promise.

“To deport talented teachers and students in whom we have invested so much, who have so much to give back to our community, and who are so much a part of our community would be a catastrophic loss,” he said.

Here’s the complete letter from lawmakers to Trump, who is to be sworn in on Friday:

money matters

Proposal to ask voters to overhaul property tax rate to fund schools still alive — for now

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students move about a classroom at the Denver Green School.

Despite skepticism from Republican lawmakers who help write the state’s budget, a proposal to ask voters to set a uniform tax on personal property to increase school funding is still alive.

The legislature’s Joint Budget Committee, made up of three Republicans and three Democrats, agreed Tuesday to keep the proposal on its list of possible legislation for this session. For a bill to be sponsored by the committee, it must have unanimous support.

Currently, school districts have little power over how much local tax revenue they can collect. Some districts are fully funded by their local property taxes, while others heavily depend on the state. If voters went along with the request, schools could see by one estimate a $300 million increase in revenue.

Sen. Kent Lambert, a Manitou Springs Republican and chairman of the committee, said he didn’t believe there would be enough votes in either chamber to put the proposal on a future ballot. For lawmakers to refer a question to voters, two-thirds of both chambers must support it.

Lambert said he believed, at the least, the committee and its staff could produce more information to inform the broader school funding debate.

“It’s an important element of it,” he said, referring to rethinking how local tax dollars are used to fund the state’s schools. “But it isn’t the whole solution.”

Supporters of the idea, especially Reps. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican, and Millie Hamner, a Frisco Democrat, believe the state’s current formula to fund schools is unfair.

“We’re funding some kids at $25,000 and some at $7,000,” Rankin said. “That’s just not right.”

Sen. Kevin Lundberg, a Berthoud Republican, said he worries low-income families in wealthier parts of the state could see their property taxes jump under the proposed change.

“I have a deep concern that as we set a system to address one inequity over here, we’ll create another one over there,” he said.

Colorado’s tax and school funding policies are complicated. A mix of constitutional amendments approved by voters and other legislation leaves lawmakers with few options to change how much money schools receive.

The state is often criticized for ranking near the bottom in state funding for students. This year, many observers forecast the state’s education funding shortfall, which sits about about $830 million, will jump to about $1 billion.

Rethinking the way the state funds its schools emerged as a central issue in speeches from leaders of both political parties and Gov. John Hickenlooper in the session’s opening week.