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.

What's fair

Colorado’s state-authorized charter schools could get more money next year

Students at The New America School in Thornton during an English class. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Charter schools authorized at the state level by the Charter School Institute are likely to get more money in the 2018-19 budget year. That’s one year before most other charter schools will see benefits from last year’s charter school funding equity bill.

That bill was a major compromise out of the 2017 session, and it requires school districts to share money from voter-approved tax increases with the charter schools they’ve authorized, starting in 2019-20. The bill also created the mill levy equalization fund to distribute state money to the Charter School Institute’s 41 schools. Because no local school board approved these schools, they wouldn’t otherwise be eligible for revenue from these increases, known as mill levy overrides.

Charter School Institute administrators came calling for their money this year, though, with a request for $5.5 million from the general fund. They arrived at this number by identifying institute schools within the geographic boundaries of districts that already share some extra revenue with their local charters and assuming institute schools got a similar share.

Institute Executive Director Terry Croy Lewis called it a “first step” toward parity that would bring institute and district-authorized charter schools to the same level in advance of the new law going fully into effect in 2019. Lewis said it seemed like a fair approach because the parents at institute-authorized schools often live within the geographic boundary and pay taxes at the same rates as parents whose children go to traditional schools or district-authorized charters.

However, the charter equity bill says that extra money for institute schools has to be distributed on an equal per-pupil basis. The original approach, which created more equity among schools in the same geographic boundary, created more disparities among institute schools in different regions – and the law might not have allowed it.

“I don’t think you can define equity in this conversation because equity cuts a lot of different ways,” said state Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat and member of the Joint Budget Committee.

Budget analyst Craig Harper suggested to the Joint Budget Committee that separate legislation might be necessary to allow the distribution proposed by the Charter School Institute, something no lawmakers wanted to see after the bruising fight over the charter school equity bill.

Instead, the Charter School Institute revised its proposal to distribute the money among its schools on a per-pupil basis, regardless of geography and whether the local district already shares money.

What sort of difference does this make?

In the first distribution scenario, Early College of Arvada, located in the Westminster district, would have gotten nothing – because Westminster doesn’t currently share money with its own charters. Under the new proposal, the school would get $131,233 based on its pupil count. Meanwhile, Colorado Early College – Fort Collins, which would have gotten $621,357 because the Poudre district already shares money, would instead get just $374,952

Lingering confusion over the distribution question led JBC members to postpone a decision several times before they voted 4-2 this week to include the $5.5 million request in the 2018-19 budget.

It still has to survive the extended battle over the budget that takes place in the full House and Senate each year.

Living wages

More than 1,000 Memphis school employees will get raise to $15 per hour

PHOTO: Katie Kull

About 1,200 Memphis school employees will see their wages increase to $15 per hour under a budget plan announced Tuesday evening.

The raises would would cost about $2.4 million, according to Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance.

The plan for Shelby County Schools, the city’s fifth largest employer, comes as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who had come to Memphis in 1968 to promote living wages.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson read from King’s speech to sanitation workers 50 years and two days ago as they were on strike for fair wages:

“Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life or our nation. They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation … And it is criminal to have people working on a full time basis and a full time job getting part time income.”

Hopson also cited a “striking” report that showed an increase in the percent of impoverished children in Shelby County. That report from the University of Memphis was commissioned by the National Civil Rights Museum to analyze poverty trends since King’s death.

“We think it’s very important because so many of our employees are actually parents of students in our district,” Hopson said.

The superintendent of Tennessee’s largest district frequently cites what he calls “suffocating poverty” for many of the students in Memphis public schools as a barrier to academic success.

Most of the employees currently making below $15 per hour are warehouse workers, teaching assistants, office assistants, and cafeteria workers, said Johnson.

The threshold of $15 per hour is what many advocates have pushed to increase the federal minimum wage. The living wage in Memphis, or amount that would enable families of one adult and one child to support themselves, is $21.90, according to a “living wage calculator” produced by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

Board members applauded the move Tuesday but urged Hopson to make sure those the district contracts out services to also pay their workers that same minimum wage.

“This is a bold step for us to move forward as a district,” said board chairwoman Shante Avant.