Another marathon

Tax credits, parent rights bills advance in Senate

Bills that would allow state tax credits for private school tuition and guarantee parent rights in educational and medical decisions were passed Thursday by the Republican majority on the Senate Education Committee.

The 5-4 vote on the tax-credits measure marked the first time in several sessions that such a bill has moved out of committee.

The five hours of hearings drew an overflow crowd, and the meeting was punctuated with sometimes-emotional testimony on the parent rights bill.

Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud and prime sponsor of the tax-credits measure, Senate Bill 15-045, argued that the bill is needed to give more support to private schools and home schooling. The current system “encourages in every way public schools and pretty much tolerates private schools and home schooling. This bill is intended simply to change that policy,” he said.

The witness list for the bill was surprisingly short, and committee members took more time discussing the bill than advocates did supporting or opposing it. Democratic committee members took up a fair amount of time with unsuccessful amendments designed to make points about other issues like education funding and non-discrimination.

There also was a bit of back and forth among committee members about whether tax credits, as opposed to vouchers, actually involve public funds and therefore have constitutional problems.

The bill would allow a tax credit equal to half of statewide per-pupil public school spending for taxpayers with children enrolled full-time in a private school. A tax credit of $1,000 would be allowed for full-time home-schooled students. People who donate to private school scholarships could claim a credit of half of statewide per-pupil funding or the amount of the scholarship, whichever is smaller.

The bill moves next to the Senate Finance Committee, where testimony and discussion is supposed to focus on the possible fiscal impacts of the bill.

Legislative staff analysts estimate the measure would cost the state $12.1 million in 2015-16 and $37 million in 2016-17, involving 35,891 students in that second year. It’s estimated the loss in tax revenues could reach $318.3 million by 2028-29.

K-12 funding is projected to drop by $44.1 million in 2016-17 and $81.3 million in 2017-18. Total K-12 spending currently is about $5.9 billion a year. (Read the full financial analysis here.)

Parent rights bill sparks emotional responses

Parent’s bill of rights sponsor Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, said those rights are under “assault” and that his bill would “reinforce” the rights of parents to raise and educate their children as they see fit.

Representatives of  the Colorado Bar Association and children’s advocacy organizations testified against the bill, warning of possible unintended consequences.

Much of the testimony from both sides focused on medical consent issues and alleged problems with family courts. There also was testimony from anti-vaccination activists.

Schools were less of a focus. Witnesses representing the Colorado Education Association, Colorado Association of School Boards and the Colorado Association of School Executives said the bill isn’t necessary because existing laws cover parent rights to opt their children out of lessons they object to, or out of sex education.

But anti-testing activist Anita Stapleton of Pueblo complained of students being coerced to take state tests and required to answer questionnaires that asked about drug use and sexual habits.

Senate Bill 15-077 declares that parents have the fundamental right to raise, educate and provide medical care for their children and that government cannot interfere with that unless there’s “a compelling interest.” It sets out a long list of parental rights, including withdrawal of children from classes whose content they find objectionable, receiving information about opting out of sex education classes, access to textbooks, and consent to medical and diagnostic procedures and to video and audio recording of children.

Read the bill text here.

It’s possible that both bills will pass the Senate, where Republicans hold a 18-17 majority. If that happens their chances are dim in the House, where Democrats have majority control. That’s what happens when there’s split legislative control – strongly ideological bills passed in one house tend to die in the other.

In the money

Here’s how Colorado schools would spend an extra $100 million from the state

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Hannah Moore, 8, shows off her moves during practice for an after school talent show that is part of the Scholars Unlimited After School program at Ashley Elementary school on March 10, 2017 in Denver, Colorado. Scholars Unlimited is an after school and summer program funded by the 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant, which is threatened to be cut entirely under the White House's budget cuts. The 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant served almost 20,000 students in Colorado between 2015 and 2016 and 76 percent of students showed academic improvement. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Legislators on the Joint Budget Committee unanimously decided this week to set aside $100 million to “buy down” the budget stabilization factor.

This number – $822 million in 2017-18 – is the amount by which Colorado underfunds its schools when compared to the constitutional requirement that spending on education increase every year based on student count and inflation. It’s more commonly known as the negative factor, though lawmakers are trying to get away from that term.

For several years now, lawmakers have held the negative factor steady, but this year, as Colorado has more money to spend than it has had in a long time, Gov. John Hickenlooper wanted to make a dent in it and requested the $100 million reduction. To be clear, a $100 million reduction in the negative factor is $100 million more that the state would send to districts. Technically, this number will be finalized in a separate piece of legislation, the School Finance Bill, which is coming any day now.

But state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee, wanted to give some reassurance to educators that the money will be there in the budget. 

“It would send a message to our K-12 community that we are not spending that money and have set it aside,” she said.

And educators have been clamoring to hear that message. The Colorado School Finance Project has been running a social media campaign for the $100 million buydown using the hashtags #k12needsco and #kidsmattertoo.

The non-profit asked school superintendents around the state to say what they would do with the extra money, which translates to an additional $114 on average for each enrolled student, compared to holding the budget stabilization factor steady. The answers are identified by region, but not by district.

Here’s a small sample of the responses:

You can read all of them here.

The Joint Budget Committee has set total program spending on education at $7.75 billion before the negative factor is applied, up from $7.45 billion this year, a 4 percent increase. Of total program spending, the state will pay $4.4 billion, with the rest coming from local property taxes. This doesn’t include voter-approved tax increases known as mill levy overrides.

That translates to average per-pupil spending of $7,959, compared to $7,662 this year. A budget stabilization factor of $722 million would yield an average per-pupil amount closer to $8,074. 

The smaller budget stabilization factor is significant beyond just one budget year because state law says that this number shouldn’t get larger from one year to the next. However, Colorado superintendents are also pushing for a tax increase and change to the distribution of school money. It will take more than an additional $100 million spread among 870,000 students to address all the needs they identify in their responses to the Colorado School Finance Project.

Hickenlooper had also requested an additional $200 million for the state education fund, with the intention that that money be used to offset costs to districts from proposed changes to the public pension system and expected reductions in property tax revenue in rural communities.

The Joint Budget Committee instead voted to set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with fixing the Public Employees Retirement Association’s unfunded liability – but in the general fund rather than the state education fund and not specifically to help schools, where retirement costs account for a big chunk of the personnel budget.

The committee also agreed to set aside $30 million to help small rural districts with low tax bases and was supportive of setting aside $10 million to address rural teacher shortages, though some of the details are still being worked out.

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.