School Finance

School funding proposal fleshed out

The Colorado School Finance Partnership today issued “Financing Colorado’s Future,” an expanded version of a March report that calls for “a school funding system that drives student achievement and aligns with our state’s values around educational access and excellence.”

Photo illustration of piggy bankThe report argues, “Now is the time to create a system that is equitable, innovative and sufficiently funded.”

The new report asserts the same major principles and goals as did the March document, but it expands on those issues and provides more background.

The partnership held a lengthy series of meetings in 2011, and a 16-member steering committee representing a wide range of educational and civic groups developed the report.

The eight-page March version of the report was issued partly in hopes of sparking legislative action this year on some school funding issues, and Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, promised to carry legislation on the subject. But Johnston was preoccupied with bills on undocumented student tuition and early childhood literacy, and he said near the end of the session that school finance needed more study before it was ready for legislative discussion.

The partnership’s report calls for creation of a state “task force charged with creating a new School Finance Act in accordance with the principles and recommendations developed by the School Finance Partnership. … The state should contract for a cost analysis of reaching state education standards using a balance between all available methods” of calculating school costs.

The partnership’s future role in the school finance discussion hasn’t been fully determined, Chris Watney told Education News Colorado in a recent interview. Watney is president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, which organized the partnership. Watney said that regardless of the partnership’s future form, the children’s campaign will continue to be active on the issue.

The partnership’s study is the most recent in a long series of finance studies done in recent years by legislative committees, advocacy groups and research organizations.

But the school finance document that carries the greatest urgency is the December 2011 ruling by Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport, who held that the current finance system is unconstitutional because it doesn’t meet the state constitution’s requirement for a “thorough and uniform” educational system. The Lobato v. State case is on appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court, and Attorney General John Suthers recently filed the state’s opening brief in the case.

Most observers doubt there will be any significant movement on school finance reform until after the supreme court rules on Lobato. A decision could come late this year or early in 2013.

The partnership’s report echoes some of the points made by the Lobato plaintiffs, including a guiding principle that the state funding system “should provide revenue sufficient for districts to meet state standards as well as assessment, accountability and evaluation expectations.”

The other three guiding principles of the report are:

Alignment & Accountability: A portion of funding should follow students, individual schools should have significant budget flexibility and funding intended for particular groups of students should in fact go to those students. The paper also urges funding of full-day preschool for at-risk 4-year-olds, half day for 3-year-olds, plus full-day kindergarten and funding of high school/college dual enrollment programs.

Innovation: A new finance system should give districts flexibility in using funds, include a grant program for innovative programs and encourage a competency-based system, rather than one focused on seat time.

Equity: The system should include extra funding for students with special challenges and needs, should recognize different costs in different kinds of districts, strengthen regional services for small districts and be based on research. The paper also urges reform of state and local revenue sources and tax structures.

About the School Finance Partnership

  • The group was organized early last year by the Colorado Children’s Campaign and operated on two levels.
  • A Partnership Committee was open to any interested groups and individuals and met several times last year for briefings and discussion. See the partnership website for links to meeting reports and documents about school finance.
  • A 16-member steering committee deliberated and produced the recommendations, reaching all decisions by full consensus. Members of the steering committee represent the Colorado Association of School Boards, Colorado Association of School Executives, Colorado Education Association, Colorado Forum, Colorado Legacy Foundation, Colorado Succeeds, Denver Metro Chamber, Donnell-Kay Foundation, Great Futures Colorado and the Children’s Campaign.
  • See the full list of steering committee members here.

after parkland

Tennessee governor proposes $30 million for student safety plan

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Gov. Bill Haslam speaks with reporters Tuesday about his budget amendment, which includes $30 million for a school safety plan.

Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday proposed spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, joining the growing list of governors pushing similar actions after last month’s shooting rampage at a Florida high school.

But unlike other states focusing exclusively on safety inside of schools, Haslam wants some money to keep students safe on school buses too — a nod to several fatal accidents in recent years, including a 2016 crash that killed six elementary school students in Chattanooga.

“Our children deserve to learn in a safe and secure environment,” Haslam said in presenting his safety proposal in an amendment to his proposed budget.

The Republican governor only had about $84 million in mostly one-time funding to work with for extra projects this spring, and school safety received top priority. Haslam proposed spending $27 million on safety in schools and $3 million to help districts purchase buses equipped with seat belts.

But exactly how the school safety money will be spent depends on recommendations from Haslam’s task force on the issue, which is expected to wind up its work on Thursday after three weeks of meetings. The possibilities include more law enforcement officers and mental health services in schools, as well as extra technology to secure school campuses better.

“We don’t have an exact description of how those dollars are going to be used. We just know it’s going to be a priority,” Haslam told reporters.

The governor acknowledged that $30 million is a modest investment given the scope of the need, and said he is open to a special legislative session on school safety. “I think it’s a critical enough issue,” he said, adding that he did not expect that to happen. (State lawmakers will soon begin campaigning for re-election this fall.)

Education already was receiving a solid bump in Haslam’s $37.5 billion spending plan unveiled in January. His budget for 2018-19 allocates an extra $212 million for K-12 schools, including $55 million for teacher pay raises. But Haslam promised to revisit the numbers — and specifically the issue of school safety — after a shooter killed 14 students and three faculty members on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida, triggering protests from students across America and calls for heightened security and stricter gun laws.

Haslam had been expected to roll out a school safety plan this spring, but his inclusion of bus safety was a surprise to many. Following fatal crashes in Hamilton and Knox counties in recent years, proposals to equip school buses with seat belts have repeatedly collapsed in the legislature under the weight the financial cost.

The $3 million investment would help districts begin buying new buses with seat belts but would not address existing fleets, as several legislative proposals have tried to do. Haslam acknowledged that it’s just a beginning.

“Is it the final solution on school bus safety? No, but it does [make a start],” he said.

The governor presented his school spending plan to lawmakers on the same day that one House panel was scheduled to consider whether to give districts the option of arming some trained teachers with handguns. That bill, sponsored by Rep. David Byrd of Waynesboro, easily cleared its first legislative hurdle on Feb. 28 and has since amassed close to 50 lawmakers signing on as co-sponsors in the House.

Editor’s note: This story will be updated.

More money

What Colorado’s booming economy might mean for the state education budget

More money is forecast to appear below the gold dome (Denver Post photo).

Gov. John Hickenlooper wants to put an extra $200 million into education next year and another $100 million in the 2019-20 fiscal year, but a lot of that money could go to offset hits to districts from anticipated reforms to the state’s pension program and reductions in local tax revenue.

The proposal comes in response to new economic forecasts released Monday that show Colorado having more money than previously expected.

Legislative economists predict that lawmakers will have a whopping $1.3 billion or 11.5 percent more to spend or save in 2018-19 than is budgeted in 2017-18. The forecast from the governor’s Office of State Planning and Budget predicts similar increases in revenue. After meeting the reserve requirement of 6.5 percent, Colorado will have an additional $492 million in reserve for this fiscal year, and even with a higher reserve of 8 percent proposed for next fiscal year, the state would have an additional $548.1 million in 2018-19. 

It’s normal for the forecasts to be slightly different because the economic analysts often use slightly different assumptions. In this case, the governor’s office predicts that the additional revenue will be more spread out over this fiscal year and the next one, while legislative economists think more of the money will be coming in next year. That difference means the legislative forecast shows the state potentially hitting the revenue limits imposed by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, despite lawmakers making more room under the cap just last year, while the governor’s forecast does not.

These are the numbers that the Joint Budget Committee has been waiting for to finalize its recommendations for the 2018-19 budget year. Republicans and advocates for more transportation spending have already seized on the numbers to support a plan to ask voters to approve new debt to pay for road construction and dedicate up to $300 million a year to pay off that debt.

Of course, these forecasts are also inherently speculative – and legislative economists warned these forecasts contain even more uncertainty than usual.

State Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee, summed up the message as one of caution about dedicating too much of the new revenue to ongoing expenses. The more that gets committed, the harder it will be for the state to meet all of those commitments in future years.

Those who want to see Colorado spend more on K-12 education have pushed back on the Republican roads bill out of fear that the commitment could make it harder to send more money to schools in the future.

The governor’s budget director Henry Sobanet recommended treating much of this new money as “one-time” funds that should go to “one-time” uses. In a letter to the Joint Budget Committee, he laid out a plan.

In the case of roads spending, he’s recommending an extra $500 million for road construction in 2018-19, but only $150 million in 2019-20. And in the case of education, he’s recommending an additional $200 million in 2018-19 and an additional $100 million the following year.

However, this extra money might not show up in classrooms – or rather, it might show up in a lack of cuts rather than new money.

The governor’s budget request already called for a reduction in the budget stabilization factor of $100 million. That’s the amount by which Colorado underfunds K-12 education compared to the requirements of Amendment 23. In this budget year, it’s $822 million, after a mid-year adjustment. Some of the extra money could go toward reducing it even further.

However, Sobanet said he envisions most of it going to offset reductions in local property tax revenue that will be caused by a provision of the Colorado constitution that governs the ratio between residential and commercial property tax revenue.

It’s also possible that school districts could end up having to pay more toward some sort of agreement on changes to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, or PERA. The final form of reforms to PERA is far from certain.

“Another downgrade in the residential assessment rate means more state share to keep total per pupil spending up,” Sobanet said. “We know that since the December announcement of property taxes and since we know PERA might be on the table for something, let’s set aside some resources and make sure we can handle this.”