Dollars for schools

Republicans grouse about earmarked spending

Reducing the negative factor, the state’s $1.4 billion school funding shortfall, has gotten most of the attention this year, but there are plenty of bills floating around that propose spending money on a variety of other education programs.

A couple of Republican House members put a spotlight on some of those bills Monday with unsuccessful arguments to defeat the measures.

“Here we go again with expanding a program we can’t afford to expand,” said Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, after House Bill 14-1156 came up for preliminary debate. The bill would make students in third through fifth grade who now are eligible for reduced-price lunches able to get free lunches. (Preschool through 2nd grade students already get free lunches.)

Sponsor Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, originally included students up to grade 12 in his bill, but scaled it back to reduce the cost.

“I hesitate to speak against this,” Murray said, saying state spending ought to be focused on highways, basic K-12 support and public safety.

Moreno countered by saying, “We are talking about one of the most fundamental things in school, that kids get fed.”

Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, said, “It seems to me like we’re trying to raise test scores in the lunchroom. … Schools are for learning. They’re not for social programs.”

There was similar back-and-forth on House Bill 14-1276, which would create a modest grant program to pay for programs to teach high school students how to perform CPR.

“Here we go again, spending money on a new program, which could go to spending down the negative factor,” said Rep. Spencer Swalm, R-Centennial.

“What we’re doing is creating a new program when can’t fully fund the programs we have,” Murray added.

(There was a similar argument over House Bill 14-1124, which would provide resident tuition eligibility to Native American students who belong to tribes with historic ties to Colorado. “We can’t afford it,” argued Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen.)

In all three cases, the GOP arguments were for naught, as the bills passed on voice votes.

There is a wide range of bills that proposed spending on education programs other than the negative factor, and both Democrats and Republicans are involved in backing those efforts. Here’s a rundown on the measures still in play:

Democratic spending bills

Total cost – $7.2 million

Achievement gaps – House Bill 14-1376 would require the Department of Education to gather data, broken out by ethnic groups and other student characteristics, on how students perform in core courses. The measure is so new that a fiscal analysis hasn’t been done yet. (Awaiting House committee action)

Alternative ed campuses – Senate Bill 14-167 would create a pilot program for improvement of alternative education campuses’ performance, at a starting cost of $62,639. (Awaiting Senate initial consideration)

Adult education – House Bill 14-1085 would create a $960,000 program to fund adult education and literacy programs. (Awaiting final House vote)

Gifted students – House Bill 14-1102 proposes to spend about $3 million to beef up programs for gifted and talented students. (Awaiting initial House vote)

Health – House Bill 14-1276 proposes a $300,000 grant program for training high school students in CPR. (Awaiting final House vote)

Minority teachers – House Bill 14-1175 would give the Department of Education $50,000 to prepare on report on recruitment and retention of minority teachers. (Passed House 38-24 Monday)

Principals – Senate Bill 14-124 would spend $2 million to create a program for training school turnaround leaders. (Awaiting Senate initial consideration)

School meals – As amended in committee to reduce its cost, HB 14-1156 would make those students currently eligible for reduced-price school lunches eligible for free lunches, as a cost of $809,095. (Awaiting final House vote)

A Republican spending bill

Rural districts – Wilson’s House Bill 14-1118 would provide financial incentives to rural school districts to offer Advanced Placement classes, at a cost of $499,061. (Passed House 53-9 Monday)

Bipartisan bills

Total cost – $6.1 million

Counselors – Senate Bill 14-150 would increase funding for the Colorado Counselor Corps to the tune of $5 million. (Awaiting initial Senate floor action)

Safety – House Bill 14-1301 adds $700,000 in funding for the Safe Routes to School program run. (Passed House 42-20 Monday) Senate Bill 14-002 would provide $281,952 for placing the Safe2Tell program in the attorney general’s office. (Awaiting Senate initial consideration)

Testing – House Bill 14-1202 would spend $142,750 to help support a task force that would study the state testing system. (Awaiting Senate committee review)

Out of the running

Several proposed K-12 spending bills with a total cost of nearly $20 million have been killed. Here’s the list:

Data – House Bill 14-1039 proposed to spend $593,945 on linking ECE student data with the main K-12 data system. (Democratic)

ECE quality – House Bill 14-1076 would have cost $12.5 million to set up a program to improve quality of early childhood facilities. Senate Bill 14-006 proposed $470,115 to pay for scholarships for early childhood educators. (Both Democratic)

School supplies – House Bill 14-1094 proposed an August sales-tax holiday on school-related purchases at an estimated $2.8 million loss in state tax revenues. (Bipartisan)

Teachers – House Bill 14-1262 would have created a $4 program to pay bonuses to highly effective teachers who worked in low-rated schools. (Bipartisan)

Several of the surviving bills have had their price tags reduced to improve their chances for survival, but some have costs that would balloon after the 2014-15 budget year.

The two bills that comprise the main school finance package, House Bills 14-1292 and 1298, propose reducing the negative factor by $110 million. But they also include some specialized funding, including $20 million for READ Act early literacy programs, nearly $20 million for charter school facilities, $17 million to expand kindergarten access for at-risk students and $30.5 million in additional money for English language learner programs.

Those two measures have passed the House and will be heard in the Senate Education Committee on Thursday afternoon.

Big bills move with little debate

While the House squabbled a bit over minor education bills, some big measures advanced with no debate. They are:

  • House Bill 14-1202, the proposed study of statewide testing requirements, passed 62-0.
  • House Bill 14-1294, which sets requirements on CDE for protecting the privacy of student data, also was approved 62-0.
  • Senate Bill 14-165, which would give districts flexibility in how much to weight growth data for teacher evaluations in 2014-15, passed on a preliminary voice vote.

Over in the Senate, the College Affordability Act, Senate Bill 14-001, easily passed a preliminary vote. That debate consisted only of brief positive comments from supporters.

The measure is an “historic reinvestment in our higher education system,” said prime sponsor Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood.

“Arguably it’s not enough, but it is a step in the right direction,” said Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker.

The bill would increase higher education funding by $100 million next year and cap tuition increases at no more than 6 percent for the next two academic years.

The Senate Monday also gave preliminary approval to House Bill 14-1291, which would give charter schools authority to hire armed security guards.

Piece of the pie

Colorado bill would take back money from state-authorized charter schools

PHOTO: Denver Post
Students at James Irwin Charter Academy in Colorado Springs

A bill introduced in the Colorado House this week would take back money set aside for state-authorized charter schools and return it to the general fund, where it would be available for any purpose.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Cathy Kipp, a Fort Collins Democrat and former Poudre School District board member, would repeal one portion of a key compromise from the 2017 legislative session.

That bill required school districts to share money from mill levy overrides, a kind of local property tax increase, with charter schools that they had authorized. It also said that the legislature should set aside state money for schools authorized by the Charter School Institute, a state entity, to serve as the equivalent of that mill levy money. This money is on top of the base per-pupil funding that goes to all schools, much of it provided by state dollars.

This new proposal doesn’t affect charters that are authorized by districts, which would still be required to share additional local property tax money. But it does away with the fund within the state budget that provides extra money to state-authorized schools.

The Charter School Institute oversees 39 schools serving more than 18,000 students.

It’s unclear whether the bill will get traction. Kipp is the sole sponsor right now, and charter schools have enjoyed broad bipartisan support at the Capitol in the past. Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, is the founder of the New America charter network, which has schools authorized by the Charter School Institute as well as by local districts.

Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run nonprofit organizations. Opponents see them as siphoning students and money from traditional, district-run schools, while proponents argue they provide much needed diversity of school types within the public system and with that, options for parents and students.

The 2017 legislation passed with bipartisan support but divided Democrats, who now control both chambers of the Colorado General Assembly. This is the first legislation of the 2019 session to attempt to roll back gains made by charter schools under previously divided state government.

The 2018-19 Colorado budget includes $5.5 million, roughly $300 per student, for state-authorized charter schools to make up for local mill levy money they don’t get, and the proposed 2019-20 budget calls for that to almost double to $10.5 million. “Fully funding” the charter institute schools — meaning providing them the equivalent of what they would get from local property taxes if they were authorized by their districts — would cost $29.7 million.

Kipp said that with education funding tight, the state cannot afford to share with charters. She calls the plan to spend state money to make up for local property tax revenue “taxation without representation.” Mill levy overrides are approved by voters in those school districts, while there is no equivalent special tax approved statewide to help charter institute schools — or any Colorado schools, for that matter.

“You have a person who has never voted for a mill levy override, and their school may be drowning, and their tax dollars are going to another district,” she said.

Mill levy overrides, which can amount to thousands of dollars per student, provide important supplemental funding in districts where voters agree, but they’re also a major contributor to inequity in Colorado school finance. In the case of charter schools, the 2017 legislation means district-authorized schools benefit from those dollars, and state-authorized schools get some extra money from the state.

But district schools in places where voters have turned down requests for additional property taxes don’t get any additional money, even as the state continues to withhold money from schools under the budget stabilization factor.

Terry Croy Lewis, executive director of the Charter School Institute, calls the bill “very disappointing.” The extra state money, known as the mill levy equalization fund, represents a fraction of the money that charter schools would get if they had district authorization and access to mill levy overrides. It’s also a tiny fraction of the more than $7 billion that Colorado spends on K-12 education.

“We’re starting from way behind on funding equity,” she said. “To say that any charter is getting more than their share is just inaccurate. We still have a long way to go.”

Lewis sees the taxation question differently than Kipp. Parents are paying higher property taxes to support their district schools, while their children in charter schools don’t see the benefit. Meanwhile, charter schools have to pay for their buildings out of operating costs, meaning they have less money for teacher salaries and other educational needs.

At Mountain Song Community School, a 300-student Waldorf charter school in Colorado Springs, the extra $300 per student has allowed the school to hire an additional special education teacher and classroom aides to better serve students with disabilities.

“Our costs are rising rapidly because more and more severe needs students are coming to our schools,” said Teresa Woods, principal at Mountain Song. “Districts have economies of scale. As a single school, we’re doing the work that a district would do to meet our students’ needs, but we don’t have any resources to pool.”

“If the mill levy funds were cut, it would definitely cut into our ability to meet the needs of all our students, and we’re mandated by law to serve those students, including severe needs students,” she added.

At the Thomas MacLaren School, another Colorado Springs institute-authorized charter school serving roughly 800 students, administrators have treated the mill levy equalization money as one-time funds and used them for building upgrades, but if that money were reliable each year, the school would raise teacher salaries, which lag far behind those in the surrounding school district, Executive Director Mary Faith Hall said.

The Colorado Early College network, serving more than 2,900 students on campuses in Colorado Springs, Aurora, Parker, and Fort Collins, has used the additional money to provide bus transportation, to increase teacher salaries, and to cover some tuition, books, and fees for college courses. The early college model helps students earn college credit while still in high school, with many students graduating with both a high school diploma and an associate degree.

“The CEC Network of schools would be devastated to lose this funding” Chief Executive Administrator Sandi Brown wrote in an email.

Kipp said these financial challenges don’t mean the state should kick in more money than it does for district-run and district-authorized schools. These issues are embedded in the charter school model, she said, and it’s not the state’s job to solve them.

“Charter schools have always said they can do better for cheaper,” Kipp said. “So do better for cheaper, and don’t ask for disproportionate share.”

behind the budget

With House plan that adds money for vulnerable kids, all Indianapolis districts would gain

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Perry Township, along with the other Marion County districts, would see more per-student funding if a House budget proposal moves forward.

Every district in Indianapolis is tentatively slated to get more state dollars per student under House Republicans’ 2019 budget plan released this week — exceeding some school leaders’ expectations.

For the most part, new money added to the budget to fund each student along with higher enrollment estimates are driving the increases. But even though some districts are projected to lose students, they would still get more money because of changes to Indiana’s funding formula that add money for vulnerable students and because lawmakers put more money in the budget overall.

“I just didn’t think they’d be able to reach that level when they started the session,” said Patrick Mapes, superintendent in Perry Township. “It’s very much appreciated.”

In Indianapolis Public Schools, the city’s largest school district, per-student funding is expected to go up more than 3 percent to $8,029 from $7,764. Overall, the district would see about 4 percent more in total state dollars. Compared to other districts, IPS receives more per student in part because of the number of students there from low-income families. Having more English-learners and students with disabilities can also bring in additional funding per-student.

“There are still too many moving pieces in other parts of the comprehensive budget proposal to get a clear picture of what this will ultimately mean for our students and employees,” an IPS spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.

The estimates are far from final, as the Senate will still offer its own budget draft and lawmakers will eventually have to come to a compromise. But the House draft, which easily passed out of the Ways and Means Committee on Monday, will likely see support from the full House in the coming week.

This year, district funding estimates could be even more volatile because of problems with a calculation that drives extra aid to districts with larger shares of students from low-income families. It’s unclear how this might affect schools because the calculations were not changed from last year.

“We used the numbers that we felt gave schools the most realistic proposal,” said House Ways & Means Chairman Todd Huston. He said that he was not sure when more accurate projections would be available, but House Republican staff was working with other state agencies to dig into the problem.

The budget draft proposes increasing Indiana’s contributions to schools by $461 million — or 4.3 percent — through 2021, a little more than increases in years past. The basic per-student funding that all districts get would jump from $5,352 per student this year to $5,442 per student in 2020, and $5,549 per student in 2021.

House lawmakers also made some big overall changes to how schools are funded that do more to support some of the state’s most vulnerable students.

Funding for preschool for students with disabilities increased for the first time in more than 25 years, going from $2,750 per student currently, to $2,875 per student in 2020, and $3,000 per student by 2021. In 2018, about 13,000 students qualified for the program, costing the state about $36 million. The increased grant would up those totals to about $37.3 million in 2020 and $39 million in 2021.

The budget draft would also send more money to educate students learning English as a new language for the fourth year in a row. Last year, lawmakers set aside about $32 million. Over the next two years, there’d be more than $40 million available for grants, at $325 per student, up from $300 previously.

Higher per-student grants for English learners would help the district shift more money to teachers and other employees, said Mapes, the Perry Township superintendent. Raising teacher salaries has been a hot topic during this year’s legislative session, and while money is not specifically earmarked for raises in the House budget plan, Mapes said it doesn’t need to be.

“That’s local control,” Mapes said. “We have an elected school board whose job is to make that decision for each school corporation in the state. It’s not the job of the legislature to direct down a salary schedule.”

In Beech Grove, the funding forecast is slightly less optimistic — the district is the only in the county projected to lose funding overall through 2021, by a small margin of less than 1 percent. That’s driven by a projected loss of about 116 students out of a total of 3,033.

“We all need to take three steps back and not panic because … there’s a factor here that’s real critical — the standpoint that our enrollment has gone up for nine straight years until this year,” said Paul Kaiser, superintendent in the district. Lawmakers “are estimating our enrollment is going to continue to drop.”

Kaiser noted that the district does have a high rate of students transferring in from outside the district — Beech Grove had the second highest rate of students transferring into the district last year, with almost 1,200 students coming in. Like the rest of the county, Beech Grove is expected to get more dollars per student, so if transfers work out like Kaiser expects, the additional money would turn things around. He said he isn’t sure why enrollment was down last year.

“We’re hoping last year’s drop in enrollment was a blip on the horizon,” Kaiser said. “And if it’s not, then we’ll have to decide what we want to do.”

Part of Kaiser’s strategy is going to district voters in the fall to ask them to approve a tax increase — a move many school districts across the state, including IPS, are increasingly making to bring in more revenue.

One group that would see reductions under the House plan were virtual schools and virtual programs operated by school districts — they were cut from 100 percent of what students in traditional schools get to 90 percent, equivalent with students at virtual charter schools.

Lawmakers made the change in response to a rapidly growing virtual school in the Union school district, near Modoc, helped throw off school funding estimates in 2017. Even with the funding cut, budget projections show Union still would receive more state money, driven largely by growing enrollment.

House Republican staff did not confirm whether the change in all district-based virtual school funding resulted in cost-savings for the state, but a fiscal analysis from legislative staff estimated it could save the state about $3 million in 2020.