Success Act clears Senate by wide margin

Updated May 1, 9:30 a.m. – The Senate voted 33-2 Thursday morning to pass the Student Success Act, the session’s major piece of education funding legislation.

The measure returns to the House for consideration of Senate amendments.

While there are significant differences between the two versions of the bills, there aren’t expected to be major roadblocks to reaching a compromise version.

The only no votes Thursday were Republican Sens. Vicki Marble of Fort Collins and Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud.

Having compromised on the contentious issue of school financial transparency, the solidifying support behind the bill became clear Wednesday evening when the Senate voted preliminary approval.

The transparency compromise gives Gov. John Hickenlooper and some education interest groups what they wanted – $3 million in funding for a statewide website citizens can use to research spending at both the district and school levels.

It also somewhat reduces the bureaucratic burden on school districts to produce the information for the database, compared to previous versions of the plan. District lobbyists had fought hard against the original idea, arguing it was unnecessary and burdensome.

Senators from both parties repeatedly congratulated each other for having reached the compromise on HB 14-1292. Failure to do that delayed action on the bill Monday night.

Prime sponsor Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, even started singing “Kumbaya” before the members gave the bill preliminary approval on a voice vote. There were no audible no votes.

Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, had battled Johnston on the transparency issue but praised “the concensus we built.” She noted that the final transparency amendment sets requirements that “are not easy but are less cumbersome for our districts.”

Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, praised Johnston, saying, “I give the senator credit for listening and being open … to what the districts wanted.”

School district interests have pushed hard on several aspects of the bill all session long. Senate Majority Leader Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, acknowledged that, saying, “We did listen, maybe in ways we didn’t before.”

More substantive sections of the bill reduce the state’s school funding shortfall by $110 million, add $20 million for early literacy programs and provide additional funding for charter school facilities.

A Senate committee earlier removed a section of the bill that would convert the state to the average daily membership method of enrollment counting. School districts also had opposed that provision. Whether ADM will be a point of conflict with the House remains to be seen.

Other elements of the bill have come and gone as it worked its way through the legislature, subject to intense school district lobbying at every step.

The major issue was how much to reduce the $1 billion shortfall in school funding, known as the negative factor. Sponsors originally proposed no reduction, but an early version did suggest $80 million. At one point the Senate version of the bill proposed $120 million before settling back to the $110 million approved by the House.

The sponsors’ plans to earmark for kindergarten and charter school facilities all $40 million in expected marijuana tax revenues were scaled back. In the current version, only $10 million will go to charters instead of flowing to the main capital construction assistance fund. (An attempt to remove the charter earmark was rebuffed Wednesday on the Senate floor.) That section of the bill may end up being theoretical as it looks like there won’t be enough marijuana revenue this year to generate the $40 million.

And a $40 million fund to help districts implement recent education laws is long gone from the bill.

The bill is one of three measures that will drive school funding in 2014-15.

House Bill 14-1298, the 2014-15 School Finance Act, received final Senate approval earlier in the evening on a 23-12 vote. It provides an additional $17 million for at-risk preschool and kindergarten students and a $30 million boost for English language learner programs, among other provisions.

Earlier in the day, Hickenlooper signed House Bill 14-1336, the main 2014-15 state budget bill. It provides the base K-12 funding that the other two bills add to.

All told, the three bills would raise statewide average per-pupil funding to $7,019 in 2014-15, up from $6,652 this year. That’s still below the historic high of $7,078 in 2009-10.