Here We Go

House education committee greenlights increasing funding for kindergarten, banning corporal punishment

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Kim Ursetta works with a student in her classroom at Denver's Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy.

The Colorado House Education Committee on Monday gave bipartisan blessing to two bills that would increase funding for kindergarten in the state’s public schools and ban corporal punishment in schools and child care centers.

The bill to fund the state’s kindergarten programs in public schools, sponsored by state Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican, is expected to be short-lived given the state’s fiscal constraints. If Wilson’s bill were to become law, it would cost the state more than $42 million. The state currently is funding schools at a $830 million deficit.

The state currently gives schools about $5,000 for every kindergarten student. However, schools receive more than $8,000 for every student in grades one through 12. Wilson’s bill would work toward closing that gap.

“We say we can’t afford it. Well, guess what? Our districts can’t afford it either,” Wilson said.

Most of the state’s school districts offer full-day kindergarten. However, some rely on charging tuition while others divert federal funds to make up the difference.

The bill passed 12-4 with Rep. Lang Sias, an Arvada Republican, joining all the Democrats on the Democratic-controlled committee. But committee members were well aware of the bill’s likely fate.

A similar bill sponsored by Lakewood Democrats Sen. Andy Kerr and Rep. Brittany Pettersen  has already been sent to the Senate’s state affairs committee, where it’s expected to die. The difference between the two bills: Kerr’s and Pettersen’s bill would ask voters to approve a tax increase to pay for kindergarten.

The bill to prohibit corporal punishment, sponsored by Denver Democrat Rep. Susan Lontine, would outlaw using physical punishment for children in public schools and private child care centers. That would extend to small licensed day cares run out of private homes.    

Colorado is one of 19 states that does not currently ban physical violence used as punishment in schools or day cares. Lontine’s bill, which passed on an 11-2 vote, would end such practices, which are rare.

“If you did this at home, it’d be child abuse,” Lontine said. “But if you did it in school, it’d be corporal punishment and it’d be allowed.”

According to a 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, nearly 500 incidents of corporal punishment were reported in Colorado. However, that data was called into question when Michael Clough, superintendent of the Sheridan School District, said the 400 cases were mistakenly reported by the data.

“We have not and we do not have corporal punishment,” he said. “It does seem like we need work with data collection.”

Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, attempted to amend the bill that would recognize local school district policies. However, that amendment was defeated on a party-line vote.

Pettersen, the committee’s chairwoman, and other Democrats expressed interest in taking a second look at the amendment when the bill is debated by the entire House of Representatives. They want to ensure that every school district was meeting a state standard.

Monday’s meeting of the House Education Committee marked the first time this session education related bills were discussed. The session is expected to be largely defined by the budget debate and how educators respond to the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.  

Caught in the crosshairs

Colorado Senate Republicans say they don’t want to cut funding to school to pay for roads

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Mrachek Middle School in Aurora work to solve a math problem.

School funding will not suffer at the expense of fixing the state’s troubled roads, Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert said Monday.

Holbert’s comments came after Democratic Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran last week suggested that could happen if lawmakers use money from existing revenue streams to meet the state’s infrastructure needs, this session’s No. 1 legislative priority.

Leaders in both parties have been working toward a way to find billions of dollars for the state’s roads. Republicans have not ruled out asking voters for more money, but they believe a portion should come the state’s budget.

If the Republicans get their way it could have a big impact on the bigger school funding picture. If that tax money is used for roads, the state likely will not have the means to close a longstanding gap in what schools should be getting under the state’s funding formula.

Holbert on Monday said Republicans believe there should be enough new revenue for schools and roads.

The state is required to increase funding to schools every year to keep up with population changes and inflation. Lawmakers have some discretion on money that exceeds that formula, which goes toward helping small districts and those with large at-risk populations.

Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican, in a press conference with reporters Monday, said he didn’t find Duran’s comments surprising. But he stood by the GOP’s position that any compromise in transportation funding must come from existing funding streams.

“If it’s going to be a priority,” he said. “Let’s act like it’s a priority.”

Public schools use about 38 cents for every tax dollar in the portion of the state’s budget lawmakers have control over — by far the largest line item.

Funding to schools has increased during the last several years, but lawmakers have fallen short in closing a $813 million shortfall for education created during the Great Recession.

Some school leaders and observers fear the state might not be able to keep funding at its current level going forward because of a decrease in local property tax revenue. The state may have to find at least another $136 million of new revenue to keep schools funded at the current level.

“I’m losing sleep already,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat who is co-chair of the Joint Budget Committee.

The legislature’s budget committee is expected to start addressing how much schools will receive next year in early March.

splitting the pie

Charter school funding debate takes center stage at Senate Education Committee

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Students at University Prep, a Denver charter school, enter the building in 2013.

Parents, activists and school board members from across Colorado spent hours Thursday arguing for and against a bill that would require school districts to equally share money from local tax increases with charter schools.

Members of Senate Education Committee did not vote on Senate Bill 61, sponsored by state Sens. Owen Hill, a Republican, and Angela Williams, a Democrat.

But the Republican-controlled committee could vote on the legislation as soon as next week.

Supporters of the bill testified that their students deserve equal access to taxes their parents pay each year. Charter schools receive public money but operate independently, with greater autonomy over budgets, curriculum, and hiring and firing.

“Without question, their needs are great,” said Terry Cory Lewis, executive director of the Charter School Institute, which authorizes charters for the state.

Opponents said the state would set a dangerous precedent, essentially breaking a compact between school boards and voters who approved tax increases known as mill levy overrides..

Under the bill, charters would get a share of such tax increases —both those approved by voters in the past and any that win approval on future ballots.

“This bill is an assault on the local control of school boards who know what is best for their students, schools and communities,” said Joyce Brooks, education chair of the Denver NAACP.

Co-sponsor Hill had a family emergency and left the meeting before testimony ended, prompting the delay on the vote. The bill is expected to win Senate approval but its future is uncertain in the Democratic-controlled House.

School districts increasingly have turned to mill levy overrides as the state has failed to close a school funding shortfall. School districts are required to consult charter schools before asking taxpayers for more money, but they aren’t required to fund them and charters in most districts have historically only seen a marginal amount of any new revenue.

According to the Colorado League of Charter Schools, only 11 of the state’s 178 school districts equally share their local tax increases. Such increases must be used for specific programs such as teacher training or tutoring that are spelled out in the ballot requests.

Under the bill, school districts across Colorado would need to reallocate a total of about $95 million to charter schools. Lawmakers also would need to find up to $13 million for charter schools authorized by the state through the Charter School Institute, according to a legislative report.

Such a drastic reallocation would wreak havoc on school district’s budgets, school board members said at Thursday’s hearing.

“This is a one-size-fits-all that favors a few at the expense of many,” said Linda Van Matre, a board member for the Academy 20 School District in Colorado Springs.

But charter school parents told the committee that their children deserved an equal footing.

“I voted for my child in 1999 to get my tax dollars,” said Sonya Camarco, who also sits on her child’s Monument charter school board. “And to this day, they don’t.”