The work of the School Finance Interim Committee has boiled down to 13 possible bills, none of which propose any sweeping changes in the way Colorado pays for K-12 education.
The legislative panel has held more than half a dozen meetings to study and discuss the finance system, but the state’s budget crisis seems to have dissuaded members from floating any major changes to the formulas that drive distribution of the $3.5 billion in annual state aid to districts. (An additional $2 billion in local taxes also is spent on schools.)
Committee discussion – and individual member interests – has produced 11 bill drafts and two bill ideas that the panel kicked around on Thursday. The committee is supposed to vote later this month on which bills to recommend to the 2010 legislature.
While there are no significant changes proposed, some of the draft bills propose interesting approaches to significant problems, including some with school reform implications.
Enrollment counts: Newly appointed Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, is proposing that the system of counting enrollment (and doling out state aid) be changed from the current Oct. 1 headcount to one based on average daily membership across the school year. This is a touch subject for school districts because average daily membership typically is lower than the enrollments counted every Oct. 1. So, the idea would be to conduct a pilot program and then phase the switch over three years.
Johnston, a principal in the Mapleton district, was at an out-of-state conference Thursday so couldn’t attend the meeting.
“I definitely think it [such a change] is coming; I don’t think it’s there yet,” said chair Rep. Karen Middleton, D-Aurora, referring to nervousness about such a switch during tight budget times. “We can contemplate it further at the next meeting.”
At-risk funding: Johnston also is proposing changes that would allocate money for at-risk students at charter schools based on actual at-risk enrollments. (The current system gives charters such funds based on the overall at-risk enrollments in their home districts.) His idea also would require districts to funnel a set percentage of at-risk dollars to the individual district schools the students actually attend.
A similar plan died in the 2009 legislative session. It’s a somewhat touchy idea because of its potential to create financial winners and losers among individual schools.
Johnston also is proposing an overall – but unspecified – increase in state at-risk aid, something that Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, called “over the rainbow” in the current budget climate.
New funding system for small districts: Middleton and Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, are proposing variations on an idea to create a new funding systems for districts with fewer than 2,000 students. The current per-pupil funding system makes such districts financially vulnerable to even small enrollment drops.
The proposals would allow such districts to choose a stable amount of funding for five years, giving them time to plan for enrollment changes. Committee members are interested in using such a scheme as a “carrot” to encourage small districts to control costs by sharing services, and perhaps even superintendents, with neighboring districts.
Property tax freeze revenues: Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, is proposing a bill that would requires that all school aid saved by the state because of the 2007 property tax freeze be deposited in the State Education Fund.
The freeze law prevented automatic tax reductions in many districts, meaning the state didn’t have to backfill for the loss of those local revenues. Republicans termed the law unconstitutional, but the Colorado Supreme Court ruled otherwise earlier this year. King argues it’s only right that the saved money be earmarked for other school spending out of the SEF, which is projected to become insolvent in the next year or two.
Some Democratic committee members cautioned Thursday that doing so would just shift money around to no purpose and reduce legislative budgeting flexibility.
School improvement zones: Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, is floating a bill that would authorize a school board or two boards “to create a school improvement zone of up to 10 public schools for the implementation of significant innovations in practice and procedure that are designed to improve academic performance.” Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, noted that the 2008 Innovation Schools Act pretty much allows that to happen now, and Romer acknowledged that.
Weighted student funding: King is proposing a state grant program for school districts to design weighted funding systems that would more finely target money based on individual student needs.
School awards: King and Merrifield want to come up with some money “to pay for banners and trophies for schools that are identified as eligible to receive awards under the Colorado school awards program.” (This one has “gifts, grants and donations” written all over it.) Merrifield said, “I’d buy the first two banners.” King replied, “I’ll buy as many as you do.”
Online education: Massey wants to continue a $500,000 program of supplemental funding for online education that is scheduled to expire.
Speech therapists: Massey also is proposing loosening of state requirements for speech and language pathology assistants who work in schools. Many districts have complained that current requirements are too high for the kind of assistants needed in schools, and that has led to a shortage of assistants. Some school administrators would prefer a system of waivers to accomplish this.
Spence piped up, “I’m trying to make the connection between this bill and school finance,” echoing an uncomfortable discussion that came up at the panel’s last meeting.
Online financial information: Rep. Christine Scanlan, D-Dillon, and Massey are floating a plan to require school districts and other education agencies to post their financial information online, to be phased in over three years. This is a redo of a Republican idea killed in the legislature last spring.
State law cleanup: This draft bill would eliminate a handful of the reports school districts have to file with the state.
Do your homework:
- Read bill drafts – links at bottom of committee webpage. (Based on committee discussion Thursday, several of the drafts likely will be changed substantially.)
- Click this “Budget” tag for a directory of stories that includes articles about previous committee meetings.