Advocates of school finance reform said they were heartened by Gov. John Hickenlooper’s references to the issue in his Thursday State of the State speech to a joint session of the House and Senate.

Colorado CapitolDemocratic Sens. Mike Johnston of Denver and Rollie Heath of Boulder plus a coalition of advocacy groups are pushing a major upgrade of how school funding is allocated, which wouldn’t go into effect unless voters approved a tax increase next November.

Early in his speech, Hickenlooper referred to “ensuring that we have a school finance formula that offers equity to all districts and opportunity to all kids, and it means all of us committing to making Colorado the national leader, not just on reform, but on results.”

Much later in the address, he brought up the state’s “unsustainable fiscal course.”

He continued, somewhat enigmatically, “TABOR, the Gallagher Amendment and Amendment 23 shouldn’t be viewed in isolation. They create a fiscal knot that can’t be untied one strand at a time. Efforts to rewrite the School Finance Act would be well-served to take this into consideration.”

Johnston and Heath, interviewed later in the day, said they feel Hickenlooper’s remarks were supportive of what they’re trying to do. “I think it’s very consistent with what we’ve been working on,” said Johnston. “I was encouraged by the comment.”

Fixing the school funding system and related constitutional problems “has to come in phases. … These are all parts of the puzzle,” Johnston said.

Heath said he took the governor’s comments to mean, “He doesn’t want us to do one without the other. … I thought he validated it, the direction in which we’re going. … The caution was to make sure we do it right.” Heath supports taking a constitutional reform measure to voters in the fall of 2014, a year after a vote on school taxes.

Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said, “I was encouraged. I think he is interested and thinks this is an important effort in the bigger picture of improving our schools and, like others, will make a final call when the bill is fully drafted.” The children’s campaign has been at the center of groups working with Johnston.

Backers hope to pass the bill by mid-March, though it probably won’t be introduced until February. Johnston said he talks to the governor’s office “a couple of times a week” about the still-evolving bill.

Education, of course, was only a small part of Hickenlooper’s 45-minute speech, which ranged from last summer’s wildfires and Aurora theater shootings to economic development and referenced almost every other policy issue facing state government.

The governor called for passage of the civil unions bill and expanded background checks for gun buyers.

Here’ what else he said about education, taken from his prepared text:

Tuition rates for undocumented students

“Let’s find an equitable and fair way for undocumented kids — kids who have grown up here and done well in school — to pursue a higher education.”

The state budget

“Today, with an improving economy, we have the beginnings of a reserve fund and we should protect it. We are restoring funding for education — not enough to make up for the $1 billion shortfall we experienced in the Great Recession — but our steps are in the right direction.”

Education reform

Gov. John Hickenlooper
Gov. John Hickenlooper delivers State of the State speech, Jan. 10. 2013. / Image capture from legislative video

“We know that to maintain a business climate that attracts entrepreneurs and world-class businesses, we need to prepare world-class graduates. And we are doing this.

“Colorado leads the nation in establishing a system to measure teacher effectiveness.

“We must continue to build the best educator pipeline in the country, attracting the best and brightest people to enter teaching, and finding new ways to retain and reward the transformative teachers we have now.”

Early childhood education

“Early childhood education is one of the best investments we can make to ensure Colorado’s kids are competitive and prepared for the future. It was also a priority we about heard repeatedly in the TBD Colorado process.

“With your support, we will serve up to 6,500 new kindergartners and preschoolers.” (He was referring to part of his 2013-14 proposal, which would shift some funding to preschool for at-risk students and to full-day kindergarten.)