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Funding fight brews over literacy bill

Two of this year’s most significant education bills – the annual school finance act and the proposed early literacy legislation – have become entangled in maneuvering over how to pay for the literacy measure.

Rep. Tom Massey acknowledged Monday that he wants the finance measure, House Bill 12-1345, to sit in the House until he has a better idea what the Senate wants to do about funding House Bill 12-1238, the measure that would encourage holding back some third-graders with low reading skills and generally seek to upgrade literacy education in early grades.

Massey, a Poncha Springs Republican and chair of the House Education committee, is the prime House sponsor of both bills.

The funding bill went to the House floor on April 10. Normally, the school finance act moves more or less in synch with the main state budget bill. This year’s version of that measure, House Bill 12-1335, passed the House last Thursday.

The school funding legislation has been on each day’s House calendar since late last week but has been laid over every day, including on Monday.

Chatter about the issue has spread around the statehouse. During a budget briefing for senators Monday, Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, referred to the school finance bill “being held hostage in the House at the moment.”

The literacy bill has drawn the most public attention on the issue of holding back some third graders.

Background

But the bill doesn’t propose mandatory retention of third graders based on reading scores, and those parts of the bill were softened as the measure moved through the House. Massey said Monday he doesn’t think that should be an issue, although he said he’s hearing “there still seems to be some heartburn over retention.”

Rather the potential cost of a new literacy program in the early grades has emerged as the biggest concern as the bill moved from the Republican-controlled House to the Senate, where Democrats have the majority.

“That is a significant part of the discussion,” said Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont.

Massey noted that various interest groups are arguing that “costs will be more significant” than originally estimated. If the bill needs more funding, Massey said that might well have to come from the finance act. The two bills “are integrally linked,” Massey said.

“We want to control our own destiny,” he said, explaining why he’d like the finance bill to stay in the House until there’s some agreement on costs and how they should be covered.

Shaffer said, “One of the major concerns is that the bill creates unfunded mandates.”

The current version of the literacy bill would provide about $5.3 million for the new Colorado Early Literacy Act, most of it taken from the existing Read to Achieve grant program, which serves only a small percentage of students statewide.

One person familiar with the ongoing literacy negotiations said the two sides are $5 to $10 million apart on how much more funding the bill should have. (At one point, some school district representatives reportedly argued that the bill should require $37 million in funding.)

School districts have experienced successive years of state budget cuts and also are sensitive about the unfunded requirements of recent reform legislation, including the 2008 Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids and the 2010 educator effectiveness law. So they’re digging in their heels on the literacy bill.

Massey said he agrees that bill needs to be appropriately funded.

Shaffer said a lot of work remains on the funding issue. “There are a variety of ideas [but] we’re really at a brainstorming stage. … I wish I could be more specific. … We’re still in the process of trying to figure that all out.”

The literacy bill currently is scheduled for a hearing in the Senate State Affairs Committee on April 25.

Asked if discussions would be wrapped up by then, Shaffer said, “We are working on it and hopefully have something positive in the next week or two.”

Taking money out of the 2012-13 school finance act for the literacy bill could be a tricky issue. As it now stands, the finance act would provide enough state funding in 2012-13 to keep per-pupil funding at the same level as this year, although many school districts would still have to make cuts in their budgets. Eating into that pot of money for literacy programs would reduce funding for overall school operations, a move school districts would resist.

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