Colorado’s largest teachers union says it opposes school funding formula rewrite

A classroom sits empty with equation on the blackboard
The Colorado Education Association has voiced its opposition to a funding formula rewrite pitched by state lawmakers, but says it's open to further conversations with lawmakers about the overhaul. (Hill Street Studios/ Getty Images)

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The state’s largest teacher’s union has joined opposition to a bill that would overhaul how Colorado funds schools.

The Colorado Education Association originally wanted lawmakers to amend the bill when officials first released it. But on Tuesday the union decided to officially oppose House Bill 1448, which would overhaul a 30-year-old system that is widely considered to not meet school or student needs.

The union says it’s concerned the bill includes wording that could open the door to funding private schools with state dollars, although the bill doesn’t include language to support vouchers and Democratic lawmakers have been staunchly against such a move. The union also argued there needs to be sustainable funding for the formula rewrite and has criticized the process behind the bill as too hasty.

CEA represents over 40,000 teachers statewide and is a powerful lobbying force on education-related legislation. Their move to fight the bill could present a significant political challenge for the bill’s backers.

The union has launched a statewide campaign calling for educators to voice their opposition to the legislation. But CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert said she’s open to further conversations with lawmakers and that the union’s position isn’t set in stone.

“We are continuing to work on this because ultimately we are committed to ensuring that our schools, students, and educators have the resources that they need,” Baca-Oehlert said.

Other opponents of the bill include the American Federation of Teachers Colorado and districts like Boulder, Douglas County, Adams 12, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

The bill calls for $500 million in new funding to schools phased in over a six-year period. It also changes how the state funds schools by first sending more money to schools based on the students they serve. Then it provides money for smaller and rural districts, and also factors in districts’ cost of living expenses.

Baca-Oehlert said she supports the idea that the formula should provide more for students with the greatest needs. But she said she’s worried about studies the bill calls for that mirror model legislative language from the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group that supports vouchers and shares legislative drafts with state lawmakers.

The studies would look at how the state spends money on students and analyze school and district needs based on student enrollment, according to sponsors.

House Speaker Julie McCluskie, a Democrat and another bill sponsor, said sponsors wanted to better understand how the new resources will be spent to support students. At the same time, she indicated she’d remove the references to the studies from the bill.

“While I adamantly disagree with the misunderstanding that this is ‘backpack funding’ or a pathway to privatizing public schools, I appreciate the feedback from CEA,” she said.

Baca-Oehlert and others have worried about whether the state would be able to support the big increase in spending that the bill calls for without asking voters for an education-specific tax referendum.

McCluskie has said the new formula would be funded through either education savings or growth in revenue the state already collects, but hasn’t provided more details. But if state tax revenue declines, it would threaten Colorado’s ability to phase in the formula.

Even though there’s widespread agreement that the current school funding system is badly outdated, efforts to actually revamp it have proven difficult because such a big overhaul might create winners and losers. That dynamic has reemerged: Some districts have worried about losing money over the long-term under the proposed rewrite.

Larger districts, especially those with a higher property tax base, wouldn’t get as much money as the current formula. Lawmakers have included a provision that would ensure their funding levels do not dip below next budget year levels.

Rural school districts would stand to benefit the most by far from the new formula and the $500 million that’s to be spent on the formula. Rural districts and the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance support the bill. Various other advocacy groups, including Democrats for Education Reform and the conservative Ready Colorado, also back the legislation.

Supporters of the bill have said the changes send more money to the students who need it most and will support increases in student achievement. They’ve said the rewrite creates more equitable funding for students across the state and supports districts who face the steepest challenges.

The proposal represents the culmination of years of work and follows many recommendations released by a 17-member task force in February.

In addition to McCluskie, the bill’s sponsors include Democratic Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, vice chair of the Joint Budget Committee, Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen, and Assistant Majority Leader Jennifer Bacon of Denver.

Jason Gonzales is a reporter covering higher education and the Colorado legislature. Chalkbeat Colorado partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage. Contact Jason at jgonzales@chalkbeat.org.

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