House gives strong majorities to school funding bills

Updated 4:25 p.m. April 10 – This year’s two major school finance bills cleared the House late Thursday afternoon with solid support, sending the measures to the Senate largely shorn of controversial provisions.

The Student Success Act, House Bill 14-1292, passed 51-14. House Bill 14-1298, the 2014-15 School Finance Act, was approved 39-26. All the no votes on both bills were Republicans.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver and the Senate prime sponsor, said he generally was pleased with the way the measures left the House. HB 14-1292 is considerably different than the bill originally drafted by Johnston and House sponsors. But he said the outcome shows that lawmakers listened to school district concerns and that the bill is a good compromise.

One issue that may spark some Senate debate is the bill’s provisions for district and school financial transparency. Some lobbyists indicated Thursday they would see further changes on that issue.

Both measures left the House with significant amendments that reflect the intense lobbying pressure focused on the measures as they worked their way through the House over the last six weeks.

Wednesday’s nearly three-hour House preliminary debate focused primarily on how much to reduce the state’s $1.04 billion K-12 funding shortfall (called the negative factor), how much financial information districts should report to the public and how best to spend a proposed $17 million in extra funding for early childhood education.

Noting all the wrangling and lobbying, Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, said, “as a result we have package we can all be proud of. … Considering where we have come from, this is an amazing product.”

“I thank you all for caring so much about K-12 education,” said Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon. The two are the bill’s prime sponsors in the House.

Here are the key amendments approved on the floor to House Bill 14-1292, the Student Success Act, and House Bill 14-1298, the 2014-15 School Finance Act:

Transparency: The House approved an amendment proposed by HB 14-1292 sponsor Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, that softens some of the bill’s original requirements for district and school financial reporting. A key part of the amendment requires schools to report pay and benefits information in total, not separately. The Colorado Education Association opposed the original proposal for separate reporting and got what in wanted in an agreement with the governor’s office late Tuesday. Another amendment to ease the requirements further was defeated.

Construction funding: HB 14-1292 proposed taking $40 million in marijuana tax revenues and diverting them to kindergarten construction, technology grants and charter facilities funding, instead of letting the funds flow into the main Building Excellent Schools Today construction program. A successful amendment eliminated most of those earmarks but retained a 12.5 percent diversion to a fund for charter school facilities.

Early childhood financing: Representatives had a lively running fight over $17 million in HB 14-1298 that’s intended to increase by 5,000 the number of at-risk students who can attend preschool or full-day kindergarten. There were unsuccessful attempts to put that money into the negative factor, and an effort to divert the money to general funding of full-day kindergarten. That also failed.

HB 14-1292 came to the floor with a proposed $110 million reduction in the negative factor. That remains in the measure.

Three other controversial elements were changed earlier in committee, and the full House agreed those changes. The bill’s original proposal to spend $10 million to convert schools to the average daily membership method of counting enrollment was removed. Instead, the Department of Education is instructed to conduct a study of new attendance-counting methods.

Also eliminated was proposed spending of $40 million in per-pupil aid to districts to help cover the costs of implementing education reforms such as new content standards, new tests and educator evaluations.

And a proposal to revamp state programs for English language learners was watered down earlier. A $30.5 million increase in ELL funding was retained but moved into HB 14-1398.

Other details of the bill

Remaining in HB 14-1292 is an additional $20 million on top of the current $16 million provided for implementation of the READ Act, the 2012 law that requires literacy evaluations of all K-3 students and creation of individual literacy plans for students with reading deficiencies.

Also still in the bill is $13 million in additional funds that would be allocated for charter facilities, split between per-student grants to schools and supplementing a reserve fund that backs charter construction debt. The full $13 million would go to per-student grants starting in 2015-16.

The Student Success Act originally seen by some as the “son of 213” in reference the Senate Bill 14-213, the sweeping school finance overhaul that didn’t go into effect because voters didn’t approve the $1 billion tax increase needed to pay for it. An early bill draft didn’t propose any reduction in the negative factor.

But education interest groups mounted a non-stop lobbying campaign to put as much money as possible into negative factor reduction and to eliminate as much of the bill’s earmarked spending as possible. Some groups pushed for reducing the negative factor by as much as $275 million. The ADM and transparency elements of the original bill drew particularly heavy criticism.

That lobbying efforts had an impact, as the Success Act now contains a negative factor reduction and additional funding for existing programs such as the READ Act, not for new initiatives. And the bill’s total price tag has been lowered to about $160 million.

The School Finance Act, HB 14-1298, is partly a technical measure needed every year to set K-12 funding. In addition to the kindergarten and ELL money, it contains a spending increase for boards of cooperative education services and a declaration, largely symbolic, that the 2015-16 negative factor can’t be larger than in 2014-15.

If both bills pass, they 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. Without the proposed increase, the per-pupil average would be $6,839 next year as set by the main state budget bill, House Bill 14-1336.

This story was updated on April 11 to correct the explanation about the amendment on BEST funding.