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Education tax, parent ‘trigger’ surface

A proposed temporary tax bailout for education and a bill that could give parents a big tool to force closure of failing schools rolled out at the Colorado Capitol Monday.

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, is proposing a ballot measure that would temporarily raise state income and sales tax rates to provide a funding boost for school districts and state colleges, while a group of Republican legislators has introduced a bill that would allow a majority of a failing school’s parents to petition a school board for closure or conversion – and appeal to the state if they didn’t like the board’s decision.

“Our kids can’t wait”

Heath, a Senate Education Committee member who also has spent a lot of time studying the state’s fiscal structure, told a news conference he decided to do something after Gov. John Hickenlooper recently announced a proposed budget, including deep cuts to K-12 schools and modest ones to state colleges and universities.

“The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was when the governor presented his budget,” Heath said. “It gave me a sick feeling in my stomach.”

Hickenlooper on Feb. 15 issued his proposed 2011-12 budget, including a cut of $332 million in K-12 support and a $36 million trim for higher ed. Legislative Democrats have vowed to seek adjustments elsewhere in the state budget to reduce the size of the K-12 bite.

Heath is proposing to bring voters into the conversation next November with suggested changes to state law that would:

  • Increase individual and corporate income tax rates to 5 percent from the current 4.63 percent.
  • Increase the state portion of sales and use taxes to 3 percent from 2.9 percent.
  • Earmark spending of revenue from the increases for K-12 and higher education.
  • Start the higher rates on Jan. 1, 2012, and end them on Dec. 31, 2014.

The proposed rates are what state income and sales taxes were until the legislature lowered them about a decade ago.

Heath estimates the plan would raise about $285 million for the second half of the 2011-12 budget year, plus $532.6 million in 2012-13 and $562.3 million in 2013-14. To put that in perspective, the state currently spends roughly $3.2 billion on K-12 and about $500 million on higher education. (School districts receive an additional $2 billion from local taxes, and colleges raise about $1.5 billion from tuition.)

A variety of interest, civic and business groups have been discussing how to best fix both what they see as the state’s revenue squeeze and conflicting fiscal sections of the constitution.

“That conversation is going to take a long time,” Heath said. “Our kids can’t wait.”

He argues that education needs a cash infusion now while discussions about broader fiscal reforms continue. “This is a short-term fix.”

Heath has a big sales job ahead of him before making the final call on taking the plan to the voters.

He’s giving himself six weeks to see if he can raise sufficient support – and money – for signature gathering and a campaign.

Rich Jones, policy director of the Bell Policy Center, said, “We want to sit down and take a look at it” and gauge the potential support for, and cost of, such an effort. Bell is at the center of fiscal reform discussions.

The Colorado Education Association, with its ample campaign war chest, would have to be a key player in such a campaign. Spokesman Mike Wetzel said Monday, “While we don’t endorse any solution at this time, our members will continue encouraging elected leaders like Senator Heath, Senator Shaffer and Governor Hickenlooper to find a viable solution to Colorado’s revenue shortfalls.”

Ten Democratic legislators flanked Heath as he made his announcement, but none of them spoke.

Some members of the Republican leadership lurked on the fringes of Heath’s news conference, and after he was done House Majority Leader Amy Stephens, R-Colorado Springs, held an impromptu rebuttal, repeating familiar Republican talking points about tax increases not being the answer for economic recovery.

The GOP leadership also announced that it would introduce a resolution saying, “That we, the members of the Colorado Senate, resolve not to increase the tax burden on Colorado families and businesses during the Sixty-eighth General Assembly.”

Not that such a document will matter, given that Democrats have a five-vote majority in the Senate and given that Heath isn’t asking the legislature to vote on anything; he hopes to take his plan directly to voters.

Pulling the trigger on failing schools

A group of 14 Republican lawmakers Monday introduced House Bill 11-1270, the parent trigger bill that has been rumored for weeks.

Rep. Don Beezley, R-Broomfield / File photo
Rep. Don Beezley, R-Broomfield

Prime sponsors are Rep. Don Beezley, R-Broomfield and vice chair of the House Education Committee, and Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial and ranking Republican on Senate Eduation.

Under the terms of the bill, more than 50 percent of families at a low-performing school could petition a school board to close the school or convert it to a charter or innovation school. A school board could accept the petition, propose another alternative or, in limited cases, reject the petition. Parents could appeal to the State Board of Education, which would have the final say. A combined parent-district committee would have oversight of a school conversion.

Schools subject to such petitions would be those that have been required by the state to adopt a priority improvement plan for the second year in a row or that are required to adopt a turnaround plan.

Some 82 schools have been identified by the new state accountability system as needing turnaround plans.

A school board could reject a petition for financial reasons, if there is a lack of alternative management operations or lack of other schools into which students from a closed school could be placed.

The bill also sets specific deadlines for responses to petitions, board decisions, appeals and school closure or conversion.

Education interest groups Monday were still weighing their responses. Representatives of the Department of Education, Colorado Association of Schools Boards, Colorado Education Association and Colorado Association of School Executives all told Education News Colorado they were reviewing the bill.

The bill’s prospects may be dicey, given Democratic control of the Senate. Two other bills, both sponsored by Democrats, propose greater parent involvement in school turnaround decisions, including mandatory notification of parents and public meetings. Both of those bills also have uncertain prospects.

The trigger concept got started with a California law that now has been held up by that state’s board of education.

House Ed approves stipend change for private colleges

The House Education Committee Monday voted 8-5 to pass House Bill 11-1168, which would increase the amount of College Opportunity Fund stipends paid to students at three private colleges.

The stipends are off-the-top tuition discounts for students at state colleges and universities and vary year to year based on the vagaries of legislative budget decisions. While the stipends go to all resident students at state institutions, only students who also are eligible for federal Pell Grants receive them at three private campuses, the University of Denver, Regis University and Colorado Christian University. (Colorado College does not participate and for-profit colleges aren’t eligible.) Private college students only receive half the stipend.

HB 11-1168 would increase the private college stipend to the same amount paid at state colleges. That would trim state college stipends by only $6 per student – but could mean multi-thousand dollar losses for the colleges.

Bill Armstrong, president of Colorado Christian University, and Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, sponsor of HB 11-1168.
Bill Armstrong, president of Colorado Christian University, and Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, sponsor of HB 11-1168.

Colorado Christian President Bill Armstrong, a former Republican U.S. senator, testified for the bill. The state’s public colleges wrote a letter to the committee unanimously urging “caution” on the bill.

The vote split pretty much on party lines, with Republicans supporting the bill and Democrats voting no. But Rep. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, voted yes. A couple of other Democrats, including Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton, objected, saying public funds should not go to a religious college. Others opposed cutting any funding for public colleges. The bill specifies that total stipend funding would not increase.

This is yet another bill that could have a tough time in the Senate if it passes the House.

Counselor Corps saved again

Some $754,000 in funding for the Colorado Counselor Corps has been in play for weeks as the legislature tried to balance the current 2010-11 budget. The Joint Budget Committee initially recommended cutting the funds, but the Senate restored the money. Then the House took it out.

The JBC, meeting Monday as a conference committee to resolve House-Senate differences on several budget-balancing bills, voted to recommend the Senate version of Senate Bill 11-137 and keep the money in the corps’ budget. That proposal will go back to both houses.

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