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Once more into the breach on school finance


Most of us like to kick back a bit over the summer, but 10 Colorado legislators will devote part of their summer (and autumn) to the brain-twisting task of studying the state’s labyrinthine system of paying for public schools.

It’s the second time in five years that a legislative interim committee has tackled that job. A 2005 panel, aided by a large advisory committee of experts and interest-group representatives, compiled an extensive body of data and recommendations, but no significant legislation resulted. (That regularly happens to all kinds of interim committees.)

The 2009 committee begins work this Thursday with an unofficial “listening” meeting at which representatives of education interest groups – and anyone else – can speak about what the committee should do.

Despite the recentness of the 2005 study, and regardless of whether the 2010 legislature acts on what the committee eventually recommends, many in education agree the time is right to at least restart the big conversation about school finance. There are several reasons, among them:

The 1988 School Finance Act was designed to achieve financial equity among school districts, not to support a system that hopes to achieve proficiency for every student, as is now the direction of both national and state education policy. (And, some experts note, the average state school finance law lasts about seven years.)

Part of the current Amendment 23 school funding formula, the requirement for a 1 percent annual increase on top of inflation, expires in 2011. Referendum C, the five-year timeout from some Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights limits that gave the legislature some additional money to spend on non-education programs, also expires in 2011.

The restructuring of the K-12 system envisioned by the 2008 Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids likely will cost money to be effective. (A separate outside study of that isn’t due to begin for several months.)

And, the state’s dismal revenue situation is putting pressure on the school finance/A23 structure.
A 2008 base increase of about $20 per student was rolled back this year because of the state’s fiscal situation.

Some legislators have talked about redefining (i.e., narrowing) the base of the funds on which annual increases are calculated.

The legislature is holding $110 million of school funding in “escrow” until January and will release it only if financial conditions improve.

Months before it convenes, the 2010 legislature already face the need to find more than $800 million in cuts, fund transfers and revenue increases to balance the 2010-11 budget.

Low inflation rates could turn the Amendment 23 formula into a diet rather than a boost for school districts.

The drop in property values is expected to shortly show up in reduced tax collections in parts of the state, putting more pressure on the state to cover the loss of local district revenues.

Also meeting this summer is another committee on overall state fiscal stability, whose recommendations also could have an affect on school finance, given that more than 40 percent of state general fund spending goes to K-12 schools.

Some lawmakers feel a Colorado Supreme Court decision earlier this year gives lawmakers a window in which they can raise revenue by closing tax loopholes – without voter approval. But many experts still feel significantly improving education revenues will require going to the voters. Many observers now don’t see that happening before November 2011.

So, all in all a sober prospect for the 10 members of the school finance interim committee, which includes several legislative education experts. Here’s the lineup:

Rep. Karen Middleton, D-Aurora (chair) – A former State Board of Education member, Middleton also has expertise in higher education and in non-profit management and has become influential on education issues.

Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver (vice-chair) –  With background as an investment banker and in charter school management, Romer is an outspoken (some of his colleagues think too outspoken) advocate for education choice and at-risk children. He’s a proponent of the idea that the legislature can raise revenue by closing tax loopholes without voter approval. He was a leader of the 2000 campaign to pass A23.

Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins – Chair of the Senate Education Committee, Bacon has long legislative experience. Before that he was a teacher and school board member. He’s seen as something of an elder statesman on education issues.

Sen.-elect Mike Johnston, D-Denver – Principal of the Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts and a sometimes-advisor to the Obama administration, Obama has street cred among education reformers but is brand new to the legislative process. He was just appointed to replace former Senate President Peter Groff, a leading reform voice now working in Washington.

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs – The operator of an early college charter school, King has long legislative experience, has carried several school finance bills and is a master of legislative procedure. He’s also a vocal advocate for at-risk students.

Rep. Tom Massey, D-Poncha Springs – With varied experience in education issues and groups, Massey often is a voice for rural districts. He usually works harmoniously with Democrats and is considered a leading GOP figure on education issues.

Rep. Michael Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs – A retired music teacher and chair of House Education, Merrifield is an influential voice for more traditional views about public school structure and administration, and for teachers. He’s in his last term.

Rep. Christine Scanlan, D-Dillon – A school board member in Summit County, Scanlan has played a key role on important education bills such as last year’s CAP4K program and this year’s contentious school finance bill. Like Middleton, she’s seen as something of an up and comer.

Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial –  Long a GOP leader on education issues, Spence is a formal Cherry Creek school board member and a longtime advocate for school vouchers of various kinds. Spence is known for candor sometimes rare among lawmakers.

Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument – Chair of the House GOP caucus, Stephens doesn’t have the Statehouse education background of the other interim committee members. She formerly worked on pubic policy and youth issues for Focus on the Family.

Except for Johnston and Stephens, all panel members also are members of the House or Senate education committees. You probably noticed that all but two of the members represent Front Range districts.

Bacon, King, Merrifield and Spence were members of the 2005 committee, and Middleton was on the task force that advised that panel.

Thursday’s hearing will run from 10 a.m. to no later than 3 p.m. in the State Board of Education meeting room on the first floor of 201 E. Colfax Ave.

The committee wants to hear from witnesses on issues they’d like to see addressed by the panel, suggested areas of focus for committee working groups and feedback about the 2005 interim committee. Each witness’s testimony will be limited to three minutes.

Do your homework

• Go to the legislature’s website to read the 2005 committee’s report and other documents and listen to recordings of its meetings.