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Updated Nov. 1 – Gov. John Hickenlooper released his 2013-14 budget proposal with good news for K-12 and higher education. It will take months before the figures are final but here’s a look at his proposal and our database showing the impact by school district.

Tough times: Rebounding from state funding cuts

Colorado spends the single biggest chunk of its state operating budget on K-12 education but state lawmakers, responding to the nation’s economic ills, chopped school spending in 2010-11 and 2011-12.

The result – School districts slashed hundreds of jobs, closed and consolidated schools, and raised student fees in attempts to bridge the gaps between growing expenses and shrinking revenues.

For 2012-13, as the economy continued its gradual recovery, state lawmakers stabilized K-12 funding. It was good news for school districts but many, faced with escalating costs of pensions, utilities and other items, still faced budget cuts.

For 2010-11, total program funding for K-12 education was cut 2.6 percent, dropping the state’s average per-pupil funding from $7,078 to $6,813.

For 2011-12, total program funding was cut another 4.2 percent, dropping the average per-pupil funding to $6,474. That’s the lowest state average since 2006-07.

For 2012-13, total program funding was stabilized at an average per-pupil funding of $6,474.

Meanwhile, the number of students enrolled in Colorado schools continues to grow, with statewide enrollment expected to surpass 817,000 for 2012-13.

Efforts to improve the state’s education funding continue. Voters soundly defeated a statewide ballot measure Nov. 1, 2011, that would have increased state taxes to generate $3 billion for schools over five years. But on Dec. 9, 2011, a Denver judge found the state’s system of funding schools violates the Colorado constitution, a ruling that could mean billions more for classrooms. Gov. John Hickenlooper and the State Board of Education are appealing the decision. (More on those efforts.)

Figuring out Colorado school finance

For 2012-13, state lawmakers appropriated $3.4 billion in tax dollars for K-12 schools – or 40 percent of the state’s $7.6 billion operating budget.

But that’s only the state share of K-12 funding. The local share – in the form of local property taxes and vehicle registration taxes – adds another $1.9 billion for a total appropriation of $5.3 billion this school year.

That’s slightly above last year’s $5.2 billion total, which was down from $5.4 billion in 2010-11 and from $5.6 billion in 2009-10.

Colorado’s school finance formula creates a single base per-pupil funding amount for every school district – $5,843 in 2012-13. The formula then increases the base for each district based on factors such as cost-of-living, size of district and numbers of students in poverty.

Per-pupil allocations range this year from $6,059 for the Branson School District in Las Animas County, with an expected 428 students, to $15,099 for the 88 students projected in the Pawnee District in Weld County. The average is $6,474.

In 2000, the state’s voters approved Amendment 23, which required legislators to increase education funding by the rate of inflation plus 1 percent. The 1 percent part of the formula expired at the end of the 2010-11 budget year.

Former Gov. Bill Ritter and the legislature substantially narrowed the interpretation of Amendment 23 in recent years as the state’s economic woes worsened. They said it applies only to base per-pupil funding and not the other factors, such as the number of students living in poverty and cost-of-living, allowing the state to spend less on schools.

Use of that interpretation has continued under Gov. Hickenlooper.

Other funding sources include federal grants, local tax increases

In Colorado, total program funding – the combination of state and local shares – is the basic building block for district budgets. It’s used to pay staff, operate buildings and cover daily operations.

But many districts also tap other revenue sources, from federal funds to offset the costs of educating poor children to state dollars for specific needs such as transportation to local tax increases for building schools or boosting instructional programs.

How much individual districts receive from those other sources varies widely.

For example, in 2010-11, the most recent data available, Denver Public Schools received federal grants equating to $2,247 per student. Douglas County, its southern neighbor, received federal grants equal to $591 per student.

The districts are not dissimilar in size – DPS is the state’s second-largest, with 81,000 students, while Douglas County is the state’s third-largest, enrolling 63,000 students.

But their demographics differ greatly. DPS has a poverty rate of 73 percent. Douglas County’s poverty rate is 11 percent, second only to Aspen among Colorado districts.

Some notes on funding for colleges and universities

Colorado colleges and universities receive only about a quarter of their funding from the state. The majority now comes from tuition, fees, federal funding and grants.

In 2012-13, higher education’s funding allocation is $513 million, down from $519 million in 2011-12 and from $644 million in 2010-11. The most recent high in funding for higher ed came in 2009-10, when it was $706 million.

This year, an additional $100 million, the same as in 2011-12, was appropriated for need-based financial aid. That money is distributed by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education to institutions, which use it in their student financial aid packages.

Total higher ed spending in 2012-13 is set for $2.18 billion, down modestly from last year.

Interactive Charts & Resources

EdNews coverage of efforts to increase state education funding – voters say no, a judge says yes

  • Lobato vs State funding lawsuit – A Denver District Court judge on Dec. 9, 2011 ruled in favor of plaintiffs who claimed Colorado’s spending formula for K-12 schools does not meet constitutional requirements for a “thorough and uniform” school system. Gov. John Hickenlooper and the State Board of Education, by a 4-3 vote, are appealing the ruling. Latest Lobato stories.
  • Proposition 103 – Colorado voters on Nov. 1, 2011 soundly defeated the only statewide tax ballot measure, which would have increased state income and sales tax rates for five years to raise about $3 billion for education. Proposition 103 stories.

Resources on Colorado school finance