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Group calls for school finance reform

A coalition of education, business and civic groups is calling for a broad overhaul of Colorado’s school finance system, including alignment of financial support with educational outcomes.

The paper released today by the Colorado School Finance Partnership notes that the state’s current system was created in 1994. “This means that Colorado is still funding its schools according to formulas created a decade before recent reform legislation,” the paper says, citing the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, the new accountability system for districts and schools and the educator effectiveness law now being implemented.

The eight-page paper, titled “Financing Our Future: Assessing Colorado’s School Finance System,” sets out principles and goals for a new finance system but doesn’t provide detailed recommendations for how that system would work, including for how to align funding and outcomes.

The paper recommends the state launch a task force to draft a new school finance law. It also acknowledges that schools need more money. “It’s clear to everyone at the table that more resources are needed,” said former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, a partnership co-chair.

The group is notable for its breadth, ranging from the Colorado Education Association to the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

School finance law reform isn’t a new issue in Colorado. The system has been much studied and much discussed for years, particularly by education groups and legislative task forces.

And outside the world of reports and task forces, Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport ruled in December that the state’s spending formula for K-12 schools does not meet constitutional requirements for a “thorough and uniform” school system. The state appeal of the ruling in the Lobato case is pending before the Colorado Supreme Court. A high court ruling upholding Rappaport could set the terms for future debates about school finance.

Overview of partnership recommendations

Overarching principles

  • A new system should be based on “the most recent and research supported data and methodology.”
  • When per-pupil funding reaches sufficient levels, separate funding for specific programs should be used only when absolutely necessary.
  • A new system should include incentive programs that promote continuous improvement.
  • The funding system should provide incentives for the most efficient ways to produce desired outcomes.

Guiding principles

Alignment & Accountability: A portion of funding should follow students, individual schools should have significant budget flexibility and funding intended for particular groups of students should in fact go to those students. The paper also urges funding of full-day preschool for at-risk 4-year-olds, half day for 3-year-olds, plus full-day kindergarten and funding of high school/college dual enrollment programs.

Innovation: A new finance system should give districts flexibility in using funds, include a grant program for innovative programs and encourage a competency-based system, rather than one focused on seat time.

Equity: The system should include extra funding for students with special challenges and needs, should recognize different costs in different kinds of districts, strengthen regional services for small districts and be based on research. The paper also urges reform of state and local revenue sources and tax structures.

Sufficiency: The new system should provide enough revenue for districts to meet the expectations of recent reform laws, and “Colorado voters should be asked to support both a tax and revenue structure” to support and sustain the new system.

Many elements of the proposal exist – albeit often in truncated or underfunded form – in the state’s current system. For example, the state does provide some funding for preschool and full-day kindergarten, and for dual enrollment. The finance formula includes factors that provide some funding to account for at-risk students and for different costs in different districts.

But those current elements aren’t based on real costs, said Kennedy. That’s why the paper urges the new system be research-based, she said, “to really reflect the true costs.”

The paper recommends that the state convene a task force “charged with creating a new School Finance Act, in accordance with the principles and recommendations developed by the School Finance Partnership.”

The partnership also plans to develop an outreach program to present its views to interest groups and the public and to work with other civic groups that are studying Colorado fiscal reform. An expanded version of the eight-page paper is to be released next month.

Chris Watney, CEO of the Colorado Children’s Campaign and a partnership co-chair, said, “Overhaul of the school finance act is our ultimate goal” and that partnership members are committed to maintaining the paper’s principles in reaching that goal.

Bob Diebel, the third co-chair, said the group is resolved to “stay together” as the debates over school funding develop.

About the School Finance Partnership

  • The group was organized early last year by the Colorado Children’s Campaign and operated on two levels.
  • A Partnership Committee was open to any interested groups and individuals and met several times last year for briefings and discussion. See the partnership website for links to meeting reports and documents about school finance.
  • A 16-member steering committee deliberated and produced the recommendations, reaching all decisions by full consensus. Members of the steering committee represent the Colorado Association of School Boards, Colorado Association of School Executives, Colorado Education Association, Colorado Forum, Colorado Legacy Foundation, Colorado Succeeds, Denver Metro Chamber, Donnell-Kay Foundation, Great Futures Colorado and the Children’s Campaign.
  • See the full list of steering committee members here. The website list doesn’t include Paul Teske, dean of the UCD School of Public Affairs, who represents higher education.