checking in

It’s halfway point at Colorado legislature. Here’s what matters to Colorado classrooms.

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
State Sen. Rachel Zezninger, an Arvada Democrat, on the first day of the legislative session.

Colorado lawmakers are a little past the halfway point for this legislative session and have little to show for the state’s public schools.

Most of the proposed legislation making its way through the Capitol so far involve pilot programs, minor fixes or slight changes on the margins.

Only a handful of the 51 education bills introduced so far have gotten significant attention. Those include bills equalizing funding for charter schools, banning corporal punishment and providing gun training for school employees.

Other bills, such as a bill to limit out-of-school suspensions for the state’s youngest students, that might have been controversial in the past are sailing through with broad bipartisan support.

“We’ve heard loud and clear from our districts: ‘Stop trying to change so much stuff,’” said state Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican and chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “So we’ve really worked to focus on the big issues. When it comes to education, we’re listening to our voters who are asking for a more steady state and predictability.”

Legislators still have big decisions to make in the remaining 57 days — especially on the state’s budget. A number of other bills have yet to be introduced but could be game-changers.

Here are four big themes that are defining this year’s session so far.

After months of gloomy rumors and speculation, the budget is about to be introduced and many in the education lobby are preparing for the worst.

Lawmakers owe schools and other state programs more money than they have. Because the state must have a balanced budget, there will be winner and losers. And in a matter of days, we’ll find out who fits those definitions.

A number of factors are complicating the budget this year, including the possibility of taxpayer refunds and the state collecting less money from local property taxes that are earmarked for schools. Party leaders also have been transfixed on coming up with money to improve the state’s roads.

Leaders in both parties — and the governor — have pledged to keep cuts away from classrooms, but the education lobby isn’t buying it. Some are bracing for a worse-case scenario, which would be a cut of about $200 million to classrooms.

On March 17, the state budget committee will get its final economic forecast, which will project how much money the state will collect. The numbers presented at that meeting will be used to lock in the budget for the 2017-18 school year.

The budget committee is then expected to introduce its budget to the Senate on March 27.

Ninth-grade testing reform and limits on out-of-school suspensions are likely to be this session’s biggest and most immediate changes to schools.

Lawmakers are close to wrapping up two pieces of unfinished business from prior sessions that could have an immediate and lasting impact on classrooms.

A broad bipartisan coalition of lawmakers and the governor have finally reached a compromise on changes to ninth grade testing. If House Bill 1181 reaches Gov. John Hickenlooper’s desk, and it likely will, ninth graders next year will begin taking a standardized test similar to the SAT. It would mean the end of the controversial PARCC tests in Colorado high schools — a winning point for many Republican lawmakers.

One of the most anticipated pieces of legislation that was never introduced in 2016 would have made substantial changes to rules on out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for the state’s youngest students.

That legislation was introduced a few weeks ago and has already cleared its first legislative test with bipartisan support. Rep. Susan Lontine’s House Bill 1210 has a number of Republican backers in the Senate, which is a good sign when you’re working within a split legislature.

If that legislation goes into effect, it could put Colorado at the forefront of student discipline reform.

Big debates still looms for the state’s teacher workforce.

Lawmakers in the coming weeks are expected to grapple with how to address the state’s teacher shortage and reform the state’s landmark teacher evaluation law, which has proven difficult to put into practice.

A bill by Rep. Jim Wilson, a Republican from Salida, would grant rural school districts more autonomy on hiring teachers without a state-issued license. The bill, as it’s written, would allow a rural school district to hire an unlicensed person to fill a vacant position if it tries and fails to fill the position with a licensed teacher.

Wilson has been working behind the scenes with the Colorado Rural Schools Association, which represents a coalition of rural superintendents, and the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, to reach some sort of deal on the matter.

The union holds teacher licensing sacred and regularly criticizes charter schools for their ability to hire unlicensed educators. Winning them over on this change would be a major victory for Wilson.

A second bill that has yet to have a hearing would create a committee to study the state’s teacher shortage.

A third bill that is making its way through the legislature would provide flexibility to rural schools in hiring retired teachers who are enrolled in the state’s pension system.

Another possible bill would create a panel to track progress of the state’s teacher evaluation law and make recommendation on how to improve the system, which has been been criticized as too burdensome on teachers and principals.

Two potentially big bills — one on accountability, the other on school finance — from the House have everyone talking. Here’s what we know.

What has insiders at the Capitol really buzzing is two yet-to-introduced pieces of legislation from Reps. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, and Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat. The two are working on a bill that would address the state’s accountability system and another that would study the finance formula for schools.

The duo, which sponsored the state’s landmark data privacy bill last year, have been working for months on the two bills. Details are still preliminary as they try to round up support from fellow lawmakers and the education community.

The first bill would try to fill in some of the gaps in the state’s accountability system. For the first time in seven years since the accountability law was written, the state is stepping in to help improve Colorado’s lowest performing schools. But the law is silent about what’s supposed to happen after this point. The bill would address that and other gray areas in the law.

The second bill would set up a 10-member interim committee of lawmakers to study and propose changes to the funding formula that determines how much money each school district gets. If approved, the bill would grant the committee up to two years to complete its work.

The last time the state updated the formula was 1994. And since the Great Recession, lawmakers have been wary to take on the formula because of a funding shortfall and potential political backlash from the state’s schools.

“It’s all uphill from here,” Lundeen said.

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.