It looks like Sen. Mike Johnston’s proposed overhaul of Colorado’s school finance system will be formally introduced in the legislature next week, and it’s also likely the bill will be at least a bit different from the draft version that’s been circulating publicly for nearly two weeks.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Mike Johnston explains his school finance plan during a Feb. 28 meeting.

The Denver Democrat talked about the bill and his plans during a two-hour “public forum” Thursday at the History Colorado center, attended by about 150 people. The event was the last of some 150 meetings Johnston has held over the last two years to promote and build support for his plan.

Johnston’s proposal is intended to make the state’s school funding system more equitable by directing money to schools with the greatest needs and more adequate by increasing the amount of funding. Key elements of the plan include more funding for at-risk students, English language learners and special education students; full funding of preschool for at-risk students and full-day kindergarten; a shift in the state and local shares of school funding, and increased overall funding to partially compensate for recent cuts in K-12 support.

The proposal requires two steps – legislature passage of the new formula and voter approval next November of perhaps $1 billion in tax increases to pay for the plan. If voters say no the formula wouldn’t go into effect. (Get more details on the current draft of the proposal in this EdNews story.)

Thursday’s meeting highlighted some of Johnston’s plans for the bill and some of the questions and objections to the plan. The session included breakout groups in which Johnston and aides explained and answered questions about various parts of the proposal.

“That draft is already outdated,” Johnston said referring to this version. But neither he nor his aides gave details on specific changes that will be included in the version to be introduced in the Senate. (Another set of data yet to be released are district-by-district financial estimates of the plan’s impact.)

There were lots of questions about and some criticisms of the plan. The strongest was voiced by Randy DeHoff, a former State Board of Education member who now works for an online school. The plan is “a lot more money going into a 19th century system,” he said, “leaving the districts in charge and leaving out the students.”

Here are some of the concerns that emerged during Thursday’s discussion:

Charter schools: Several speakers complained that the plan does nothing to solve the funding inequities imposed on charter schools by current state law. “There’s nothing in the bill right now, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be,” said Johnston aide Will Gohl.

Participants at Feb. 28 school finance meeting.
Meeting participants listen to Sen. Mike Johnston.

The negative factor: Current state law includes a mathematical formula called the negative factor that allows the legislature to reduce annual school funding to an amount the helps balance the state budget, regardless of what school funding should have been. His bill doesn’t address that issue, and Johnston said it’s “politically impossible” to eliminate the negative factors, which has slashed an estimated $1 billion from school funding in the last four years.

The Lobato decision: One speaker complained that Johnston’s plan doesn’t meet the requirements of a district court decision in Lobato v. State, which found the state’s school finance system unconstitutional. The case is pending before the Colorado Supreme Court. Johnston said, “We don’t believe this [bill] solves the Lobato lawsuit, nor is it meant to. It is one step along the way.”

Nobody at the meeting raised this question, but some conservatives, primarily state Treasurer Walker Stapleton, have complained that the proposed bill doesn’t address the cost of teacher pensions under the Public Employees’ Retirement Association. Johnston basically dismissed that criticism, saying PERA’s future solvency has been handled by legislation passed in 2009. “That’s why we haven’t seen it as part of the school finance plan.”

Responding to concerns, Johnston and his legislative partner, Boulder Democratic Sen. Rollie Heath, had some tough love for critics.

“Doing nothing is not an option,” Johnston said. “Insisting on a proposal you know can’t pass is a version of doing nothing.”

Heath was even more plain-spoken.

“This is put-up or shut-up time. … We can’t solve every problem everybody wants to solve. … Please understand you’re not going to get everything you want.”