Statehouse roundup

District liability bill gets initial House approval

Desiree Davis (center) testifies at the Capitol while husband Michael (left) listens.

The bill named after a student who died in a school shooting and that would change the liability of school districts for such tragedies won initial floor approval in the Colorado House late Thursday night.

And even later in the evening, the House also gave preliminary approval to a complicated proposal that would allow the state to sell bonds to help shore up the Public Employees’ Retirement Association.

A few hours earlier, a House committee passed a just-introduced measure that promises some relief for K-12 and higher education funding in the future. But the measure faces some big hurdles in the 2015 session’s closing days.

“Claire Davis Act” moves quickly

Senate Bill 15-213, named in honor of Arapahoe High School student Claire Davis, who was killed in a December 2013 shooting, received preliminary House floor approval after an emotional debate.

Several House Republicans raised questions about the bill. Rep. Yeulin Willett, R-Grand Junction, proposed an amendment that would have set a higher liability standard for districts than the bill proposes. That failed on a 26-38 vote.

“I am more fearful of this bill than I am of PARCC or Common Core,” said Willett, a lawyer.

But a speech by Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, drew the most attention. Wilson, a retired rural superintendent, said, “You can’t legislate safety folks, you just can’t do it.” His voice choking up, Wilson said, “Weigh your vote carefully.”

Just hours earlier the bill passed out of the House Judiciary Committee on a 10-3 vote. The centerpiece of that hearing was testimony from Claire’s parents, Michael and Desiree Davis.

“If this bill becomes law, school districts will have a new responsibility. They will be responsible for protecting kids from foreseeable harm,” Michael Davis said. “A vote in favor sends a clear message to public education entities that the status quo is no longer acceptable.”

“I am here on behalf of my daughter, Claire,” said Desiree Davis. “These bills are not for us, they are for the next family.” (A companion measure would create a study committee on school violence and youth mental health.)

The main elements of the bill would allow districts and charter schools to be held liable if they don’t use “reasonable care” in protecting students, faculty or staff from “reasonably foreseeable” acts of violence – murder, first-degree assault and sexual assault — that lead to serious bodily injury or death. Damage caps would be set at $350,000 for individuals and $900,000 in cases of multiple victims.

School districts have been nervous about the bill since it was introduced but have had to be careful in lobbying, given that the bill is sponsored by bipartisan leaders in both houses.

But amendments along the way have softened the measure noticeably. A key change gives districts two years to implement new safety policies before they could be held liable for incidents. And individual teachers would be protected from liability. (See this story for more details on the bill.)

“Those amendments have made it a better bill,” said House Majority Leader Crisanta Duran, D-Denver and a prime sponsor.

A related measure, House Bill 15-1273, got final House floor approval on 64-0 vote Thursday morning and heads to the Senate. The bill is designed to improve statewide reporting of violent incidents at schools, a system that was criticized in the wake of Claire Davis’ death. Among other things, the bill would require marijuana-related incidents and sexual assaults to be reported separately. They’re now lumped into other categories. (Get more details in this legislative staff summary.)

Fast-track pension bill moving ahead

The other big education-related issue debated during the House’s late-night session was House Bill 15-1388, a complex plan for the state to sell bonds to help reduce the unfunded liabilities of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, or PERA.

Proceeds from bond sales would be deposited in PERA’s state and schools trust funds, both beefing them up and giving the pension system more money to invest.

The bill received preliminary approval after 11 p.m. following a relatively short debate.

The bill was introduced only late Tuesday and approved by the House Finance Committee on Wednesday.

The plan has the backing of the Hickenlooper administration, GOP state Treasurer Walker Stapleton, the PERA board and most school districts. It also has bipartisan sponsorship but may face hurdles because of its complexity, the possible risks of such a plan and because it surfaced so late in the session.

If the plan works, supporters estimate the bill would bring PERA to solvency five years sooner than currently projected and would save $4.5 billion.

Heavyweight interests push for change in hospital fee

The House Health, Insurance and Environment Committee spent a long afternoon listening to witnesses urging approval of House Bill 15-1389, another just-introduced measure that could provide future benefits for both K-12 and higher education.

The committee passed the bill 7-6 after hearing from a long parade of supporting witnesses representing K-12 and higher education, state agencies, major hospitals, think tanks and business groups. Committee Republicans, some of whom didn’t seem to fully grasp the bill, all voted no.

The bill involves a six-year-old state program called the hospital provider fee, which imposes a charge on hospitals. That revenue provides money the state uses to gain federal Medicaid matching funds, money that couldn’t be tapped without the fee.

Even though the charge is a fee, not a tax, the revenues count against the state’s spending limit under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. Tax and fee revenue has risen fast enough that the state will need to pay TABOR refunds to taxpayers this year and, likely, a couple of years into the future.

That has squeezed the amount of additional money available for K-12 and other programs. The bill, sponsored by Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder, would reclassify provider fee revenues so that they wouldn’t count toward the TABOR limit. The fee program would become what’s called an “enterprise,” which isn’t subject to TABOR. For example, the state’s higher education system is classified as an enterprise, so tuition revenue isn’t counted against the limit.

There’s been chatter for months about reclassifying the provider fee, and Gov. John Hickenlooper belatedly proposed the change a couple of weeks ago.

The bill would “allow us to more fully fund the state’s top spending priorities in the coming years,” Hullinghorst said.

If the bill passes it won’t affect funding of any state programs in 2015-16, nor would it affect TABOR refunds to taxpayers in 2016. But it could free up more than $200 million in revenue for spending in 2016-17, and there wouldn’t be taxpayer refunds in 2017.

Without the bill, “There are going to be some big losers in the budget next year,” Hullinghorst warned, including transportation funding, higher education and likely K-12 as well.

The bill has some things working against it, including its lateness, its complexity and the fact that any perceived tinkering with TABOR makes Republicans nervous. The measure currently has no GOP sponsors in the Senate, where Republicans hold the majority.

But working in its favor is the phalanx of education, highway, health care and business lobbyists who’ve combined forces to push the bill.

Get more information about HB 15-1389 in this legislative staff summary.

House avoids school finance fight

The House Thursday, during its morning floor session, backed away from a confrontation with the Senate over the 2015-16 school-funding bill by stripping a controversial amendment from the measure.

The amendment, added on the House floor Thursday, would have resurrected a two-year legislative study of the school finance system. The Senate earlier killed a separate bill that contained the proposal.

Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, proposed backing off Wednesday’s amendment.

While saying she supports the study, “We also have to be the adults in the room. The school finance bill passing in the Senate is really important.” Leaving the amendment in the bill “really does put the bill at risk.”

The House voted to strip the amendment and then passed Senate Bill 15-267 on a 45-19 vote. The measure returns to the Senate for consideration of non-controversial amendments added in the House earlier.

For the record

Help for rural districts – The Senate Education Committee, after about 90 minutes of wandering testimony and discussion, voted 6-3 to pass House Bill 15-1201. This measure would create a grant program for boards of cooperative educational services to help small school districts consolidate administrative services. The bill was introduced with a $10 million price tag, but it emerged from Senate Ed with only $2 million. And now the measure has to be reviewed by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Paying for school

Sweeping study proposes major changes to the way schools are funded in Michigan

Michigan needs to change the way it funds education so that schools get more money for students who need extra attention — such as those who live in poverty and those who don’t yet have a strong command of the English language.

That’s the top recommendation from a prominent group of educators, policymakers, and business leaders who have been studying Michigan’s school funding system for much of the past two years.

While many states use a complex formula that gives schools more money if they serve children facing extra challenges, Michigan has long used a system that distributes the same amount of money for virtually all students, regardless of their needs.

The state provides some extra funding for students with disabilities — but not nearly enough, according to a state study last year that found schools across Michigan are getting $700 million less a year than they need to serve those students.

The study released Wednesday recommends a major restructuring so that schools would be fully funded for special education programs and would get extra funds to provide resources to students who need extra help. With that money, schools could offer lower class sizes, add counselors and social workers, and give teachers more support, the report says.

The study was conducted by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates on behalf of the Michigan School Finance Research Collaborative.

The collaborative — including top business and education leaders across the state — came together in 2016 after an earlier “school adequacy study” was largely ignored by political leaders.

The earlier study, which was funded by the state legislature, recommended that the state significantly increase the amount of money it sends to schools per student.

The collaborative hopes this new more robust study, which clocks in at more than 300 data-packed pages, will have a greater impact.

Since this study used multiple methods to determine the right funding method for schools, it will be more difficult to ignore, the group hopes.

The study — paid for with $843,000 from major foundations and 18 county school districts — included interviews with hundreds of educators including district and charters school teachers to determine how much money schools need to more effectively do their jobs.

The study examined geographic cost differences in different parts of the state, labor cost differences, and other factors and determined that schools need approximately $9,590 each for students who don’t have special needs, including funds that would come from the state and federal governments.

The study recommends that schools get 35 percent more for students living in poverty, between 50 and 70 percent more for students who are learning English, 70 percent more for students with mild disabilities and 115 percent more for students with moderate disabilities.

Among other recommendations in the  report is that charter schools receive the same per-student funding as districts. Currently, the state’s funding system pays some districts more per student than others based largely on historic funding levels as opposed to current needs. Some districts — including most charter schools — are currently getting around $7,600 per child from the state while others get thousands of dollars more. Schools also get federal funding on top of that. 

It’s difficult to compare how much funding schools are getting now with the proposed $9,590 per student because schools get a mix state and federal dollars and the $9,590 doesn’t include things like transportation dollars.

The report suggests that the state use a new approach to student transportation in which transportation dollars are distributed differently, taking into account differences between urban and rural school districts.

The report did not put a price tag on the cost of implementing the recommendations. It also did not spell out how Michigan could come up with the extra money, instead outlining that conversation as a next step — and highlighting a potential pitfall that could arise.

“While outside of the scope of this current study, the study team feels it is important to highlight during the implementation of a new system that student and taxpayer equity will also need to be considered,” the study’s executive summary reads. “Ensuring that each district and charter has the ability to raise funds needed to meet all resource needs is critical to ensuring both an adequate and equitable school funding system.”

The findings were released Wednesday morning, with press conferences planned in Lansing, Grand Rapids, and in the Detroit area.

Read the full report here:

spending squeeze

Facing a state budget crunch, Gov. Cuomo proposes modest 3 percent education boost

Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers his executive budget address.

Facing budget pressure at home and from Washington, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed increasing school aid by 3 percent this year —  far less than what advocates and the state’s education policymakers had sought.

Cuomo put forward a $769 million increase in school aid during his executive budget address on Tuesday, less than half of the $1.6 billion sought by the state’s Board of Regents. In response, the state’s top education officials said they were “concerned,” and suggested that they would press lawmakers to negotiate for more education spending.

The governor’s modest increase in school funding comes amid a projected $4.4 billion state budget deficit, a federal tax overhaul expected to squeeze New York’s tax revenue, and the threat of further federal cuts.

Still, Cuomo, a Democrat who plans to run for reelection this fall and is considering a 2020 presidential bid, defended his spending plan as a boost for schools at a time of fiscal uncertainty.

“We have increased education more than any area in state government,” he said during his speech in Albany. “Period.”

He also floated a plan to have the state approve local districts’ budgets to ensure they are spending enough on high-poverty schools. And he set aside more money for prekindergarten, after-school programs, and “community schools” that provide social services to students and their families.

Now that Cuomo’s proposal is out he must negotiate a final budget for the 2019 fiscal year with lawmakers by April 1. While the Democratic-controlled assembly is likely to push for more school spending, the senate’s Republican leaders are calling for fiscal restraint and tax cuts.

What was the response?

Advocates and policymakers were alarmed by Cuomo’s proposed $769 million education bump — a 3 percent spending increase compared to last year’s 4.4 percent boost.

Last month, a coalition of statewide education organizations estimated that the state would need to increase spending by $1.5 billion just to maintain current education services. The group, which includes state teachers union and groups representing school boards and superintendents, called for a $2 billion increase.

In a statement Tuesday, Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia noted that Cuomo’s proposal was less than half the amount they sought. They promised to work with lawmakers to ensure the final budget amount “will meet the needs of every student throughout our State.”

Anticipating such criticism, Cuomo noted in his speech that he has expanded education spending by nearly 35 percent since taking office. His proposal would bring total school aid to $26.4 billion — the largest portion of the state budget.

Still, that didn’t prevent pushback. A state assemblyman heckled Cuomo as the unveiled his education spending plan, suggesting it was not enough money.

“It’s never enough,” Cuomo shot back.

Will poorer schools get more funding?

Cuomo said he wants to fight “trickle-down education funding” and ensure that poor schools receive their fair share of cash.

To that end, Cuomo wants the state education department and his budget office to review local school district budget plans. The plan is aimed at larger school districts, including New York City, which Cuomo singled out in his speech.

“Right now we have no idea where the money is going,” Cuomo said on Tuesday. “We have a formula. We direct it to the poorer districts. But what did Buffalo do with it? What does New York City do with it?”

It’s unclear how the proposal would impact New York City, which already uses a funding formula designed to send more money to schools with needier students. But some education advocates were intrigued by Cuomo’s idea, which they said could be a way to expose and fight inequities in school funding across the state.

“Right now, school-level expenditure with consistent definitions is really a mystery,” said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of The Education Trust – New York. “It means that a lot of inequity can be swept under the rug.”

Cuomo officials also said that 73.1 percent of funding will be directed to high-needs districts in this year’s budget, which the state said was the highest share ever. Last year, they received 72 percent.

But advocates are more concerned with the state’s “foundation aid” formula, which funnels a greater share of funds to high-needs districts. The formula was created in response to a school funding lawsuit settled more than a decade ago; advocates say schools are still owed billions from the settlement.

Cuomo proposed boosting foundation aid this year by $338 million, a far cry from the $1.25 billion requested by the Board of Regents. Without more foundation aid, some advocates say Cuomo’s promise of greater funding equity rings hollow.

“Equity is you’re actually helping to lift up poor districts so that they can provide an equitable education,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the union-backed Alliance for Quality Education. “Not just that they’re receiving a larger share of a too-small pot.”

What does all of this mean for New York City schools?

New York City is not immune from Albany’s budget crunch.

The total increase proposed for the city — $247 million — falls about $150 million short of the mayor’s projections in November, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office.

It may also be difficult for the city to wrangle funding for big-ticket items. Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to expand his prekindergarten program to 3-year-old students, but he estimates that he will need $700 million from state and federal sources by 2021. (The governor proposed $15 million to expand pre-K seats across the state.)

How about charter schools?

Cuomo would boost spending for charter schools by 3 percent the same rate as for district schools. He also wants to provide more support for schools that rent private space, which is a major financial burden for some schools.

“Once again, Gov. Cuomo demonstrated his unwavering commitment to ensuring every student in our state has access to a great public education,” said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center.