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School finance bill moves in Senate

The 2012-13 school funding bill received preliminary Senate floor approval Tuesday morning, with the addition of some extra money for the still-to-be-passed early literacy bill.

That extra money is $3 million for state purchase of software that teachers can use to administer literacy assessments to K-3 students. The system also would generate individual reading plans and instructional materials for struggling students.Last week Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, persuaded the Senate Education Committee to add $6 million for the program to the school finance act, House Bill 12-1345. But the Senate Appropriations Committee stripped that money from the bill on Monday.

Johnston was at the Senate microphone today with a compromise version of the idea, costing only $3 million. School districts could voluntarily apply to the Department of Education for funds, and the program would have a preference for low achieving and Title I schools.

The full Senate bought Johnston’s lower-cost version and then passed the bill on a voice vote. The additional money brings the full cost of the literacy bill to $24 million in its first year. A final vote will come Wednesday, the last day of the legislative session, and the House will have to consider the Senate amendments.

Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, fought a losing rearguard action against the Johnston amendment, complaining that the spending should have been considered during the regular budget process. He argued that because the school finance act is moving after the main state budget (that bill was signed Monday) education advocates are loading extras onto the school finance act.

“This bill should have passed out of here two months ago. … It’s been hijacked, and it’s become a Christmas tree,” Lambert complained.

The bill authorizes spending of $5.3 billion on K-12 operating costs in 2012-13. That puts average per-pupil funding at $6,474.24, the same as this year. But many school districts still will see budget cuts anyway because of rising costs.

The total amount is still 16 percent below what total funding would be without use of what’s called the negative factor. That’s a calculation used to reduce school spending to the amount necessary to balance the overall state budget. The finance bill is the legislation that activates the negative factor. School funding is now $1 billion below what it would have been if that factor hadn’t been used in recent years.

Other key provisions – the ornaments on the Christmas tree that Lambert mentioned – of the finance act are:

  • An increase from $5 to $6 million in the amount allocated to charter schools on a per-pupil basis to help cover facilities costs.
  • A $1.3 million appropriation to boards of cooperative education services to help fund implementation of various state education reform initiatives.
  • The addition of $480,000 to the Colorado Counselor Corps on top of $4.5 million in the main budget bill.
  • A boost of $3.8 million in additional funding to charter schools that may have not been receiving at-risk support in proportion to the actual number of at-risk pupils they enroll. (Charters that have been receiving more at-risk money than their enrollment would indicate will continue to receive those funds.)

In other action

House Bill 12-1114 – This measure requires the Department of Education to contract for a comprehensive outside study of digital learning, both online and in-classroom. It’s pretty much the only piece of online legislation passed this year. The House accepted Senate amendments and re-passed the bill 65-0.

Senate Bill 12-036 – This measure requires parent consent for most kinds of surveys and non-academic questionnaires given to schoolchildren. The Senate agreed to House amendments and re-passed it 35-0.

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