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A bill to overhaul school finance

State Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, is proposing legislation to overhaul Colorado’s nearly 20-year-old school funding system that will include a “trigger” so it won’t go into effect unless voters are willing to fund it.

Johnston discussed details of the bill, which state Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, said he’ll co-sponsor, at a Monday night discussion of school finance reform attended by four national experts and more than 120 state education leaders, lawmakers and policy wonks.

The legislation will link policy and finance, with an emphasis on “a clear set of outcomes and goals … we could deliver with the new investment,” the former high school principal said.

“What I believe is how voters answer the question, ‘How much are you willing to spend on K-12 education in Colorado?’ is inextricably linked to how we answer the question, ‘How do you plan to spend it?’ ” he said.

Johnston outlined a four-step process that he said he hopes state lawmakers, members of the state School Finance Partnership and, ultimately, voters will agree with.

First, he said he plans to file a bill within the next two weeks that lays out a policy framework for a school finance system that would ultimately replace the current School Finance Act, enacted in 1994.

The new legislation would include commitments to policies such as full-day kindergarten for all families who choose it, concurrent high school/college enrollment that doesn’t financially penalize either school districts or colleges and funding for recent reforms such as the educator effectiveness law.

Second, a task force or group would figure out the total costs of implementing the new policy framework.

Third, a technical advisory committee would help craft the funding formula necessary to meet those costs: “How would you actually adjust those formulas, what would it look like mathematically?” Johnston said.

Fourth, Colorado voters would be asked to fund the new system – and, if not, the system would not be implemented.

“It’s threading the needle with all of these components and doing it as something the population can buy into because they’re the ones who ultimately are going to have to support revenue increases to make this happen,” said Massey, who is chair of the House Education committee.

Discussion follows release of report calling for school finance reform

Monday night’s discussion comes on the heels of a report released by the School Finance Partnership, which has been meeting since spring 2011 to discuss revising the state system of funding schools.

The partnership, which includes Johnston and Massey on its steering committee, and the Colorado Department of Education hosted four national school finance experts to discuss innovative ideas in K-12 funding.

Two of the four – Eric Hanushek of Stanford and Marguerite Roza of the University of Washington – advocated the use of funding as incentive to spur improvement. The other two – Michael Rebell of Columbia University and John Augenblick of Augenblick, Palaich & Associates in Denver – argued schools first need an adequate funding base before their performance should be judged.

“We systematically tend to give districts more money if they’re failing. And this creates an incentive to go in the wrong direction,” Hanushek said in a lively media briefing before the evening discussion. “You want to use the funding system to reward people who do a good job as opposed to a bad job.”

Rebell, sparring politely with Hanushek, referred to him by his first name.

“We’ve got to start with an adequate base, then I’m willing to get into a discussion with Rick about incentives and how you deal with it,” he said. “But our problem is that many districts around the country and certainly many in Colorado have been resource-starved. So you can’t even get into a fair discussion of incentives and holding people accountable for performance when they don’t have the basic resources you need to be able to achieve that performance.”

National school finance experts spar on some issues, agree on others

The four did agree on some things, such as no state now has a funding system that Colorado should use as its model. And they agreed that different students have different needs and require different levels of funding – all 50 states now provide more funding for disadvantaged or poor children and for those with special needs, Hanushek said.

They even agreed that states should have a base funding level for students, though they don’t agree what that amount should be.

“It’s a frustrating conversation,” Roza said. “We can’t pretend there’s no political part to this.”

Augenblick said asking the question may be more important than the answer, which is likely to be controversial.

“What those of us that work out there care about is that states actually make the effort to find out, that they actually ask the question – how much does it cost to get what we want to get?” he said.

The four agreed that linking education funding to education policy, as Johnston’s bill will attempt to do, is the new frontier in school finance, which tends to get bogged down in debates over whether more money will spur better results or whether schools should show results before getting more money.

Or, as Johnston described the debate, “some who believe we can’t do more without more money” versus “those who believe we can’t do more money until we do more.”

“We are mindful of the argument that we can’t afford to transition to a new system until there’s new revenue,” he said. “That’s not going to stop us from building a new system, that’s going to instead encourage us to build that system in conjunction with the partnerships that it will take to pass the policy and pass the revenue and then be prepared to use that revenue in the most effective way possible.”

Johnston said he doesn’t expect the issue would come before voters for another 18 to 30 months.

How one national expert sees the future of school funding

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