Spliting the pie

Should Colorado charter schools get a share of local tax increases? Some Colorado lawmakers think so.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at the AXL Academy charter school in Aurora work on math problems in 2015.

Teachers at the Ricardo Flores Magón Academy charter school in Westminster have been forced to take four days of unpaid leave to help balance this year’s budget.

The office manager is rationing paper because of a budget that is on “a shredded shoestring,” as school leader Kaye Taavialma puts it. If the vacuum breaks, Taavialma doesn’t know how she’ll replace it.

Such financial challenges are not unusual at many charter schools in Colorado, and yet another attempt to share more local tax revenue with charters is scheduled to get its first legislative test Thursday. (UPDATE: The education committee will take testimony on the bill, but will likely not vote until next week.)

Senate Bill 61 would require the state’s school districts to share a portion of locally approved tax increases with charter schools, which receive state funding but operate independently of the traditional school district system. The combined total school districts would be required to send to the state’s charter schools according to a legislative report: $94.4 million.

The potential impact on districts — and traditional district-run schools also feeling a budget pinch — makes this one of the most hotly contested education bills on this session’s agenda.

The bill, sponsored by state Sens. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, and Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat, also requires lawmakers to find as much as $13 million to send to charter schools authorized by the state.

Supporters of the bill frame the issue around equity. They say that for too long, the state’s school districts have failed in providing fair funding to charter schools, which educate more than 108,000 Colorado students — many of them Latino and from low-income homes.

“Sadly, many school boards are saying we’re not going to fund our student fairly and equally,” Hill said in a recent interview. “It’s our job to rectify it.”

But critics of the legislation say the issue is a local one, and that such a mandate would thwart the will of the voters who approved the tax increases, known as mill levy overrides.

“The biggest issue is that boards of education make a contract with voters when they pass a mill levy,” said Matt Cook, director of public policy and advocacy for the Colorado Association of School Boards. “I think local school boards pass those mill levies often consulting with charters. This bill is an attempt for a one-size fits-all and there are 178 stories out there in Colorado.”

Mill levy overrides have become an increasingly popular way to supplement school districts’ budgets as the state has not made significant headway in closing a $830 million school funding shortfall.

School districts may ask voters to increase their property taxes to fund specific programs such as after-school tutoring or teacher training. Under current state law, school districts are not required to share the funding with charter schools.

The proposed legislation only mandates that districts share revenue if charters have comparable programs to what voters approved. For example, if voters approved a tax increase to provide free full-day kindergarten, a charter school can only get a portion of that money if it offers full-day kindergarten.

According to an estimate by the Colorado League of Charter Schools, 11 of the state’s 178 districts equitably share their overrides with charters.

This isn’t the first time the issue has been debated.

Last year, the Republican-controlled Senate passed with bipartisan support a similar bill introduced by Hill. But a committee in the House, controlled by Democrats, spiked the bill.

The legislature is split along the same party lines this year. But Hill said he has hopes that a new crop of lawmakers and leadership in the House could provide a lifeline for the bill.

One freshman lawmaker who could be influential in the bill’s debate is Rep. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat. Bridges was endorsed this fall by Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit that advocates for charter schools.

If the bill is assigned to the House Education Committee, which Bridges sits on, he could provide the necessary vote to advance the bill.

Bridges said he has not yet read the legislation.

“I’ll take a close look at the bill when it comes to the House,” he said in a text message. “Whatever happens with the bill, charters and districts should work together to make sure every kid gets a great education.”

Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat, has also not made her position on the legislation publicly known. In an interview before the session, she said that she was focused on the “big picture” of school funding.

A new wrinkle in the debate this year will be shrinking revenue from property taxes.

By one estimate, property taxes that pay for local schools — both district-run and charter — could shrink by as much as $136 million. That means the state must make up the difference, or schools across the state will be faced with making drastic cuts.

Cook, of the school board association, said the group’s position on the bill does not mean its members are anti-charter, but that all schools need more money and the forecast for the next school year is creating uncertainty.

“Charter schools very well may need more money. Neighborhood schools need more money,” he said. “The system of funding just doesn’t work right now.”

Hill acknowledges the state’s funding system is flawed. He’s part of a group of lawmakers working on reforming the way schools are paid for. But he said he believes lawmakers are a few years away from reaching a compromise, and charter schools should not have to wait.

“It’s time for us to put a stake in the ground and say, ‘Whatever public school you go to we’re going to treat you fairly and equally in that region,’” he said.

money matters

Why so negative? Colorado lawmakers seek to rebrand controversial tool that limits spending on schools

A student works at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Colorado lawmakers are tired of hearing about the “negative factor.”

So they changed its name — at least in statute.

Going forward, the tool that budget writers will use to spend down the state’s financial obligation to public schools to balance the state budget officially will go by its original name: the “budget stabilization factor.”

The change was made when lawmakers passed the state’s annual school funding bill earlier this month.

The negative factor “has been used as a pejorative,” said state Sen. Kevin Priola, the Henderson Republican who put forth the idea of the name change. “The budget is never perfect. But these are the economic realities we have to deal with.”

Some education funding advocates are rolling their eyes. The term, they say, has become so well known and accepted that any attempt to change it will be difficult.

“You can change the name, but the debt’s the same,” said Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for more school funding.

The negative factor — oh, sorry, we mean the budget stabilization factor — is just one part of a much larger and complex formula used to determine school funding.

The budget tool was first created in 2009 when state lawmakers were forced to slash the budget after the Great Recession.

School advocates knew they couldn’t escape the cuts the rest of the state was facing. So a team of lawmakers, lobbyists, superintendents and financial officers helped developed the tool.

Here’s how it works: After lawmakers determine how much funding schools should receive based on a formula developed in 1994, they compare that amount to available tax revenue. The difference is that year’s “stabilization factor.”

At the time the tool was created, the group wanted the cuts to be systematic — applied equally across all schools — and transparent. As part of the compromise, the state was required to track how much money it was withholding from schools.

In 2014, funding advocates sued the state, claiming the negative factor was unconstitutional. But the state Supreme Court disagreed.

Since then, Republican lawmakers have become more critical about the provision that requires them to track how much money the state isn’t giving schools. They argue that other state services such as roads, hospitals and parks all share a burden when it comes to balancing the budget.

Lawmakers have withheld about $5.8 billion from schools since the budget balancing tool was created. However, funding has slowly crept up each year, just not as fast as school leaders would hope.

School Politics

Colorado schools were a hot topic at the state Capitol this year. Here’s what lawmakers did.

A teacher reads to her students at the Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado lawmakers this week are celebrating major education-related policy wins, including finding more money for public schools.

This year’s legislative session, which ended Wednesday, was marked by big compromises on issues that have befuddled policy makers for years: charter school funding, ninth-grade standardized testing and measuring the reading skills of the state’s youngest bilingual students.

With so many thorny debates behind them, lawmakers and Capitol observers are now looking toward other major policy questions they’ve put off for years, including reforming how the state pays for its public schools and making changes to Colorado’s school accountability laws and teacher licensure policies.

“The hope is now that the K-12 community can come together to focus on the big issues,” said Jen Walmer, Colorado state director of Democrats for Education Reform.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s look back at the last 120 days:

Lawmakers found more money for schools than anyone could have imagined.

Before the legislative session began, school districts were preparing for the worst. Despite the state’s booming economy, constraints on how much the state could spend meant schools could have gone without much of a funding increase.

State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican from Sterling, on the first day of the legislative session.

The forecast became even more dire midway through the session when lawmakers learned the local tax base that generates about a third of all state spending on schools was going to shrink drastically. The worst predictions had the state’s education funding shortfall growing to more than $1 billion.

State officials found a technical workaround, and lawmakers were able to send more money to schools. On average, schools will see about $242 more per student next year.

However, leaders in both parties are aware that the state’s problematic constitutional constraints, tax policies and school funding formula still exist. That’s why a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers led a successful effort to create a committee to study and propose changes to the way the state funds it schools.

“We have more work to do. We need to continue with what we’ve done this session: have tough conversations,” said Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat.

“How do we make sure that students, regardless of race, income, regardless of whether they have a disability, that they have the opportunity to succeed?” she said. “There is no doubt that we have structural decisions we have to make when it comes to our budget.”

Republican leaders said they’re also anxious to see the committee get to work. But they’re less likely to support an influx of cash to the state’s schools.

“If we’re going to look at real overhauls to the system and funding, we need to look at all the options — not just throwing more money at the system — a system that by many’s accounting is not working well or efficiently,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican.

He and other Republicans are encouraging the committee to look at how other states have focused their funding formulas on students rather than on a school’s size or geographic location, and used funding to expand school choice.

Lawmakers already have one option on the table: A proposal to set a statewide property tax rate, which was born out of the legislature’s budget office and floated early in the session. While there was a lot of talk behind the scenes, it failed to gain traction. Expect to hear a lot more about the idea.

The charter school funding compromise, which some called “historic,” was just one of many longstanding issues that were resolved this year.

The 2017 legislative session will likely be remembered as the most productive in a decade because of several big compromises.

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, sits alone on the House of Representatives floor as members of her own party filibustered her compromise on charter school funding. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Lawmakers grinned Thursday as they ticked off a long list of accomplishments to reporters, including one that could send more local money to charter schools. In return, charter schools will be required to post on their official websites more tax documents and will no longer receive two specific financial waivers.

The last-minute charter school funding bill — sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers that included state Reps. Brittany Pettersen and Lang Sias and state Sens. Owen Hill and Angela Williams — was the compromise no one saw coming.

“Anything is possible,” Pettersen said after the session.

Lawmakers had wrestled with the question of requiring the state’s school districts to share their locally approved tax increases with charter schools for two years. Despite vocal objections from several school superintendents, the legislature overwhelmingly supported the bill.

Early in the session, lawmakers eager to reduce the number of standardized tests reached another compromise with the governor’s office. High school freshmen will no longer be required to take the controversial PARCC English and math tests. Instead, they’ll take a test that is aligned to the college entrance exam, the SAT.

We kicked the PARCC test out of high schools,” said Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. “It’s gone!”

Other deals that were reached include the creation of a diploma seal of biliteracy for students who demonstrate proficiency in two languages and new regulations on how to monitor the reading skills of young English language learners.

Colorado schools will also see a financial boost for the next three years after lawmakers passed an omnibus bill that resolved a debate over a hospital fee that helps pay for the state’s health insurance program.

As part of the biggest compromise of the year, the state will raise taxes on recreational marijuana. Those taxes will send $30 million to rural schools next year and $40 million over two years to the state education fund, a sort of savings account for schools.

Rural schools flexed their muscles and blocked a bill to reform the state’s student suspension rules, but they didn’t get everything they wanted.

Not every piece of bipartisan legislation reached the governor’s desk.

Students at Merino Elementary School work during class.

A bill that aimed to reduce the number of preschool and elementary school students who are suspended was killed by a GOP-controlled committee at the request of rural schools, despite having overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans.

Rural school leaders said the bill attempted to create a statewide solution for a Front Range problem. A Chalkbeat analysis of suspension data, which rural superintendents refuted, showed otherwise.

Supporters of the legislation vowed to work with opponents this summer and fall and try again next year.

While rural schools were successful in blocking that mandate, they were dealt a setback when a bill that would have allowed them to remedy a teacher shortage by hiring unlicensed teachers was killed by its sponsors.

State Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican, said he couldn’t garner enough support for his effort. At least not this year.

“Like Arnold Schwarzenegger said, ‘I’ll be back,’” Wilson said.

Even though that bill failed, lawmakers did take steps to curb the state’s teacher shortage.

Stanley Teacher Prep resident Lily Wool works with kindergartner Samori McIntosh at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. Wood’s residency program is merging the Boettcher Teacher Residency program. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Prior to the session, education leaders at the Capitol had few if any plans to take on the state’s teacher shortage. But retired teacher and freshman state Rep. Barbara McLachlan pushed to address the issue.

The Durango Democrat partnered with a host of other lawmakers from both parties to sponsor legislation to study the shortage and provide solutions. She also sponsored a bill that would allow rural schools to hire retired teachers without penalizing their pension. Both bills were sent to the governor.

Two other bills, including one to create multiple teacher preparation pilot programs, failed to advance. But with the issue on the legislature’s radar, expect it to come back.

“That’s the most pressing issue, next to funding,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat.

Despite newfound freedom from Washington, lawmakers didn’t make any bold changes to the state’s school accountability system.

Several lawmakers early in the session seemed eager to take advantage of new flexibility from the federal government.

While the state education department was busy putting together a mandated statewide plan to adopt the new Every Student Succeeds Act, lawmakers were debating how they could update the state’s school accountability laws.

But only two bills making minor tweaks advanced.

A HOPE Online student works during the day at an Aurora learning center. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

One requires elementary schools that receive low quality ratings to address the needs of students in preschool through third grade.

The second bill requires the state to measure how well high school students are meeting updated graduation requirements. As part of the new requirements, which go into effect in the year 2021, high schools must adopt a list of options students can use to prove they’re prepared for college or a career.

Those options include the SAT exam, which all Colorado juniors are required to take; passing a concurrent enrollment college-level course; passing a Advanced Placement test; or completing a college thesis-like capstone project demonstrating knowledge of a subject.

“This bill is a really clever way to allow school districts to say, ‘This is what we care about, and this how we’re going to do it,’” said Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform group.

Some of the most anticipated school-accountability bills of the session never materialized.

One would have provided more clarity on what happens to schools that consistently receive low quality ratings from the state.

“This was a big undertaking, and the bill’s sponsors needed more time,” Ragland said.

It’s another issue Capitol-watchers can expect to see return next year.

As Ragland put it, “The lack of clarity at the end of the state’s accountability clock is bad for everyone.”