More tight belts

School funding shortfall would grow under new Hickenlooper budget plan

Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed 2016-17 state budget proposal contains a mix of good and bad news for K-12 education, given the financial squeeze facing the state.

The good news is that average per-pupil funding would rise to $7,397 from this year’s $7,284, up 1.4 percent. That would be driven by the constitutional requirement that school funding be increased annually by inflation and enrollment growth.

But there’s bad news in what’s called the negative factor, the device the legislature uses to control school spending and balance the overall state budget. For the last five years, the K-12 community has focused on the negative factor as its key indicator of school finance health.

Hickenlooper’s proposal would peg the 2016-17 negative factor at $904 million, up from $855 million in the current school year.

“I would expect there is going to be a lot of noise around that,” state budget director Henry Sobanet told reporters during a briefing before the budget plan was released late Monday afternoon.

Earlier this year, the Colorado Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the constitutionality of the negative factor, allowing the legislature to continue using it.

Sobanet also had bad news about an extra $70 million in additional funding school districts had hoped to gain in the current budget year.

“It’s out,” he said.

The school funding law passed last spring contains a non-binding clause saying that the 2016 legislature will retroactively increase funding if local revenues are higher than projected last spring. Typically, when local revenues rise the state contribution is reduced in the middle of the school year.

While local property tax revenues are expected to be higher than was forecast, Sobanet indicated the state won’t have the money to meet that promise.

Some districts also are fearful that needed mid-year adjustments in the current budget would force cuts in current school funding.

“We’re not going to support cuts,” Sobanet said. But he said he didn’t know yet if the state can afford the mid-year increases that often are made to cover high-than-projected enrollments.

Overall, the governor’s budget proposes K-12 total program funding of $6.4 billion from state and local funds, up from $6.2 billion this year.

The governor is required to deliver his budget proposal to the legislative Joint Budget Committee at the beginning of November. His plan is by no means the final word on the subject, as the ultimate decisions on the budget are up to lawmakers. A final budget usually isn’t passed until the second half of the legislative session in April.

Colorado is stuck in a paradoxical budget situation. Even as tax revenues rise, state government spending is constrained by a variety of constitutional provisions that in some cases limit state spending and in other cases require certain programs like K-12 to expand.

“I think we are at a point in time where we see many, many years of uncoordinated fiscal policies now colliding with each other,” Sobanet said.

He noted that $830 million would be needed to fully fund the four biggest drivers in the 2016-17 budget – K-12 costs, $289 million in required taxpayer refunds under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Right, refilling the state reserve and paying higher Medicaid costs.

But there’s only $457 million in projected new revenue available to meet those costs.

Learn more about school funding in this archive of Chalkbeat Colorado stories.

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

state of the state

Whitmer: Michigan needs ‘bold’ changes to fix schools — not just more money

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her first State of the State address on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Michigan’s new governor called for “bold” changes to the way schools are funded — though she’s not saying what those changes could be.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who took office last month, devoted a large part of her first State of the State Address on Tuesday night decrying a “crisis” in education defined by alarming declines in childhood literacy.

Those declines can’t be blamed on students or schools, she said.

“Our students are not broken,” she said. “Our teachers are not broken. Our system has been broken … And greater investment alone won’t be enough.”

Whitmer offered no specifics about the reform she wants to see, but said she didn’t think incremental changes would be enough to fix Michigan schools.

“Phony fixes won’t solve the problems,” she said.

“A government that doesn’t work today can’t get the job done for tomorrow,” she said. “That ends now. As a state, we must make the bold choice so we can build a stronger Michigan.”

Whitmer is expected to propose her first state budget next month. She said that budget will “give our frontline educators the tools they need to address the literacy crisis.”

Her comments come amid a growing chorus from education and business leaders across the state who have called for funding schools differently, giving schools more money for students who cost more to educate, such as those who are learning English or living in poverty. That would be a departure from Michigan’s current system of giving schools largely the same amount per student, regardless of that student’s needs or background.

A report from Michigan State University last month found that Michigan had seen the largest education funding decline in the nation since 2002 and currently has one of the nation’s lowest funding levels for students with disabilities.

Changing school funding could pose a challenge to a Democrat working with a Republican-controlled legislature.

Whitmer’s hourlong speech was greeted warmly by Democrats who cheered her policy proposals but drew less support from people across the aisle.

At one point, she seemed concerned that only Democrats stood to applaud a line about “generations of leadership” failing Michigan children.

“I know Republicans love education, don’t you?” she asked.  

Whitmer invited Marla Williams, who teaches special education at Detroit’s Davison Elementary School, to the speech. She praised her for “tireless” advocacy that includes visiting children when they’re sick and doing their laundry.

“That’s because she — like so many Michigan educators — knows teaching is more than a career. It’s a calling,” Whitmer said. “I want to send a message to all the devoted educators across Michigan: You’re not failing us. We have been failing you.”

Detroit teacher Marla Williams waves during Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address.

The only specific education policy proposals Whitmer offered in her speech involved helping high school graduates attain career certificates or college degrees.

She proposed a scholarship program called MI Opportunity Scholarship that would guarantee two years of debt-free community college to qualified high school graduates.

Whitmer said this would make Michigan the first midwestern state to guarantee community college to all residents, but the impact would be minimal in the 15 cities — including Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo — that already offer free community college through Promise scholarships.

Whitmer’s proposed scholarship would also provide two years of tuition assistance to students seeking four-year degrees at nonprofit colleges and universities. She said the option would be available to all Michigan students who graduate with a B average.

The Detroit Promise scholarship pays the four-year tuition for students who earn a 3.0 grade point average and score above a 21 on the ACT, or a 1060 on the SAT.

Whitmer’s scholarship proposal bears some similarities to a popular Michigan scholarship called the Michigan Merit Award that gave scholarships to students who earned high scores on a state exam. That program was cut from the state budget over a decade ago.