money matters

Coloradans seeking more school funding inch closer to 2018 ballot

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post
Fourth graders at College View Elementary in Denver.

Proponents of increasing funding for Colorado’s public schools cleared a major hurdle this week in their attempt to ask voters to bump up taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents.

A state panel made up of representatives from the legislature, attorney general’s and secretary of state’s offices on Wednesday approved language for eight different ballot initiatives that, if any one is approved by voters in November, would raise between $1.4 billion and $1.7 billion more for Colorado schools.

While each proposal varies slightly, each would create a new graduated income tax on individuals making more than $150,000. Some proposals would also create a new corporate tax, while others would make modifications to how personal and commercial property is taxed for schools. Some do all three.

The backers of the measures — Martha Olson of Boulder and Donald Anderson of Fort Collins — expect to file another 10 initiatives with the Secretary of State by the end of the month. Altogether, they will ask the state to approve nearly 20 different versions of the same concept. Individuals and groups seeking to put questions on the ballot sometimes float a few different versions of the same question to test political viability.

Ultimately, though, voters will vote on just one of the various proposals — if Olson and Anderson and their network of supporters can gather enough signatures to place one on the ballot.

The state’s approval of the ballot language comes on the eve of the 2018 legislative session where lawmakers are at the midpoint of studying and — if an agreement can be reached — updating the way the state funds its schools.

Taken together, 2018 could be a watershed year for the school finance debate that has bedeviled lawmakers and school leaders alike for decades.

It could also be the year everything falls apart: There’s no guarantee that lawmakers will reach consensus on how to update the funding system. And any ballot initiative faces a steep upward battle — especially after voters made it more difficult to pass such measures.

This election also will also feature a deeply partisan gubernatorial race — the likes of which the state hasn’t seen in decades. And the specter of President Trump’s Washington will loom large in congressional races.

Olson and Anderson, who are working with some of the state’s most ardent supporters of increasing school funding, acknowledged the long road ahead, but said it was imperative for the voters to act.

“It’s an enormous effort,” Olson, a former New York educator, said. “But there’s a growing recognition that something has to be done. … Our kids can’t wait.”

Colorado’s state constitution requires voters to approve all new tax increases. Voters have so far rejected every proposed tax increase for schools put before them. The last time voters considered a tax increase in 2013, it was defeated two-to-one.

And now after the 2017 election, there’s an even higher threshold to pass such constitutional amendments — 55 percent of voters. Voters approved the higher threshold at the last election.

Anderson, who is a father of two students in the Poudre School District in Fort Collins, said he hopes a greater grassroots push and clear messaging about how much additional revenue each school district stands to receive will help them succeed where others have failed.

“The biggest part is building a good base,” Anderson said.

He added that one of the reasons he got involved is because of the growing inequities among school districts that have passed local tax increases for schools and those that haven’t.

“We’ve been lucky, out voters have stepped up,” Anderson said. “But from corner to corner, that isn’t the case. And the challenges we face as a whole really irritates me.”

Not everyone in the education community is anxious to ask voters again for more money.

“Colorado voters have been really clear that they want schools to be prioritized but aren’t willing to invest more,” said Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for conservative education reform policies including charter schools and school quality ratings.

Ragland said he hopes that lawmakers can come up with better ways to spend the more than $6.5 billion in tax dollars the state already sends to schools.

“I’m getting really frustrated with the conversation that nothing can change until we have more money,” Ragland said. “There are things we can do to improve the way we fund schools that can help kids immediately.”

Supporters of increased school funding point to numerous different reports that put Colorado at or near the bottom in spending per pupil. This year the state is spending about $6,546 per student. Conservatives argue, however, that a more accurate number is closer to $10,000 when you factor in local tax increases, grants and federal dollars.

Supporters, likely opponents and political observers all say it is unclear whether the political climate of 2018 will help or hinder their cause.

On one hand, a billion dollar tax increase could hinder the chances of Democrats winning seats. While on the other, progressives and Democrats dissatisfied with the Trump administration are expected to turn out in far greater numbers for a midterm election.

“I have to believe it’s going to be a big Democratic turnout,” said Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver. “I actually think it’s a good time for a progressive ballot initiative. An income tax might not be popular, but given the climate in Washington and the 1 percent doing so well — it may not be a losing position.”

Teske previously sat on the board of Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for greater school funding and that is consulting with Olson and Anderson on the ballot initiatives.

Ragland, the conservative, echoed Teske’s sentiment that Democrats are likely to have a banner year but cautioned that much can change between now and November.

“If you look at who has the wind at heir back, it’s definitely the folks on the left,” Ragland said. “But it’s a long way until Election Day.”

new money

House budget draft sends more money to schools, but not specifically to teacher raises

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Despite months of heated debate, Indiana House Republicans are not setting aside extra dollars for meaningful teacher raises in their version of the state’s $14.5 billion education budget plan released Monday night.

Even though lawmakers are proposing preserving a controversial merit-based bonus pool and adding small amounts for teacher training programs, their budget draft would largely leave it up to school districts to dole out raises through increased overall funding.

The budget draft proposes increasing what Indiana spends on schools overall 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 are also adding in a one-time payment of $150 million from state reserves that would pay down a pension liability for schools. But while lawmakers and Gov. Eric Holcomb have said that pension payment would free up about $70 million in schools’ budgets each year, the state likely wouldn’t require the cost-savings be passed along to teachers.

Although increasing teacher pay is a top goal for House Republicans, lawmakers have crafted bills that hinge on districts spending less money in areas such as administration or transportation rather than adding more money to school budgets and earmarking it for teacher salaries.

Their criticism of school spending has raised the ire of superintendents and educators who say they have little left to cut after years of increasing costs and state revenue that has barely kept pace with inflation.

But budget draft, which is expected to be presented to and voted on by the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday, doesn’t completely omit efforts to incentivize teachers to stick around. Unlike Holcomb’s budget proposal, House lawmakers are keeping in the current appropriation of $30 million per year for teacher bonuses.

The House budget draft would also set aside $1 million per year for a teacher residency pilot program and $5 million per year for schools that put in place career ladder programs that allow teachers to gain skills and opportunities without leaving the classroom.

Teacher advocacy groups, such as the Indiana State Teachers Association and Teach Plus, have been supportive of residency and career ladder programs, but the organizations have also called for more action this year to get dollars to teachers. Additionally, the ideas aren’t new — similar programs have been proposed in years past.

Calls for the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take to raise teacher salaries to be more in line with surrounding states will likely go unheeded for now as the state instead prioritizes other high-profile and expensive agencies, such as the Department of Child Services and Medicaid.

But while plans for major teacher pay raises appear to be on hold, House lawmakers are looking to boost funding in other areas of education to support some of the state’s most vulnerable students.

The budget draft would increase what the state must spend on preschool programs for students with disabilities from the current $2,750 per-student to $2,875 in 2020 and $3,000 in 2021 — the first such increase in more than 25 years.

House lawmakers are also proposing the state spend more money on students learning English as a new language, at $325 per student up from $300 per student now. While all schools with English learners would receive more money per student under this plan, the new budget draft removes a provision that had previously allocated extra dollars to schools with higher concentrations of English learners.

A 2017 calculation error and an uptick in interested schools meant state lawmakers did not budget enough money for schools with larger shares of English-learners in the last budget cycle, so they ended up getting far less than what the state had promised. But even the small increases were valuable, educators told Chalkbeat.

House lawmakers also suggested slashing funding for virtual programs run by traditional public school districts. Going forward, funding for both virtual charter schools and virtual schools within school districts would come in at 90 percent of what traditional schools receive from the state — now, only virtual charter schools are at the 90 percent level. It’s a marked change for House lawmakers, who in years past have asked that virtual charter school funding be increased to 100 percent.

The virtual funding proposal comes as lawmakers are considering bills that would add regulations for the troubled schools, where few students pass state exams or graduate.

The budget draft also includes:

  • $5 million per year added to school safety grants, totaling $19 million in 2020 and $24 million in 2021
  • Doubling grants for high-performing charter schools from $500 per student to $1,000 per student, at a cost of about $32 million over two years. The money is a way for charter schools to make up for not receiving local property tax dollars like district schools, lawmakers say.
  • $4 million per year more to expand the state’s private school voucher program to increase funding for certain families above the poverty line. Under the plan, a family of four making between $46,000 and $58,000 annually could receive a voucher for 70 percent of what public schools would have received in state funding for the student. Currently, those families receive a 50 percent voucher.
  • About $33 million over two years (up from about $25 million) for the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program.

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.