Weekly wrap-up: Colorado school finance picture is still coming into focus

Expect the wrangling over the Public School Finance Act to continue in the next to last week of the 2019 legislation session.

With extra money freed up by unexpected property tax adjustments, the Senate Education Committee resisted an attempt Thursday to reduce a $25 million commitment to rural schools to $15 million and to remove $5 million for behavioral health funding.

But the Senate Appropriations Committee compromised somewhat Friday, approving an amendment reducing rural school funding to $20 million and removing the behavioral health funding.

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat and Appropriations chairwoman, noted Senate Bill 246 next goes to the Senate floor “where I believe we will be discussing and possibly adding some further amendments.”

One amendment would move $22 million to special education funding, Zenzinger said in an email Saturday. Another may move any other savings in the bill to the state education fund. Spending more on special education is one of Zenzinger’s priorities this session. Right now, districts pick up the lion’s share of extra costs for students with disabilities.

The $7.4 billion school finance package is scheduled for floor debate on Tuesday, but could be called up on Wednesday instead.

The separate $175 million bill funding universal full-day kindergarten is scheduled for Senate Appropriations Committee action early Tuesday morning. And Gov. Jared Polis signed the state budget Thursday, which sets aside money for kindergarten.

Meanwhile, a measure aimed at giving test scores less weight in teacher evaluations faltered at a Thursday evening committee hearing. The Senate Education Committee postponed action on the measure after hearing from more than a dozen supporters, many of them teachers.

Senate Bill 247 reduces the 50 percent requirement based on student academic growth to 30 percent, with school districts to determine the remaining 20 percent. It also creates a commission to examine the evaluation system created by the legislature in 2010.

But committee members questioned whether districts are fully using the flexibility allowed in the existing evaluation system.

State Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat, said it appears districts have an “over-reliance on test score data and under-reliance on the flexibility…. it is time to revisit this to take a look at how this is being implemented.”

The bill isn’t on Thursday’s Senate Education Committee calendar at this point, though that could change as lawmakers move quickly through their final two weeks.

Still, state Sen. Tammy Story, a Conifer Democrat and bill sponsor, sounded sad in addressing those who showed up for a hearing that ended shortly after 9 p.m. Thursday.

“I’m incredibly grateful for all the people who hung out for hours and hours,” she said, voice breaking. “I appreciate the magnitude of commitment in this room. It is impressive. It is very clear that this single bill doesn’t come close to addressing what needs to be done.”

She noted she’s committed to addressing the evaluation system, and was met with applause from the educators in the room.

In other action last week:

Don’t forget to check out Chalkbeat’s bill tracker for a full look at education legislation.