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Disagreements still dog finance overhaul plan

The House Education Committee voted 7-6 late Monday to pass Senate Bill 13-213, the proposal to overhaul the state’s K-12 funding system. The panel approved some key amendments to the bill, but those don’t appear to be significant enough to ease all the concerns about the bill that have been voiced by a variety of interest groups.

No committee Republican supported the bill. The measure received no GOP support in the Senate either.While most of GOP members expressed concerns about the bill’s cost or its lack of what they consider substantial reform, Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, had a different reason for voting no.

Noting that most of the major education interest groups oppose the bill or still want amendments, Wilson said, “The education world is not comfortable with it. … I just think we’re rushing into something.”

Implementation of the bill – if it passes – is dependent on approval of a $1 billion tax income tax hike by voters. Bill prime sponsor Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, referred to that as “a modest tax increase,” to the silent disagreement of some Republicans.

Later in the hearing, Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, said, “It’s going to be a tough pill to swallow to raise a billion dollars in this state.” Murray is the ranking GOP member of House Education. And at the end of the session, Murray said, “I don’t think there’s enough reform in this reform legislation.”

The most important amendments adopted by the committee include some changes in funding provisions for charter schools, but it remains to be seen if those tweaks really will satisfy charter school interests or business groups.

“We’re not done yet,” said Vinny Badolato, lobbyist for the Colorado League of Charter Schools. Charters and business groups want the bill to mandate that districts share the proceeds of local tax overrides with charters. As amended, the bill falls short of that but would require districts to negotiate with charters about revenue sharing and would require the Department of Education to monitor and report on how districts share revenues with charters. The amended bill does provide $18 million to reimburse charters for some facilities costs.

Also unresolved Monday night was a key question about what’s being called “backpack funding.” The bill currently would allow the state share of at-risk and English language learner funding to be controlled by school principals, not district administrators.

A compromise on that issue reportedly fell apart over the weekend. Because of that, Jane Urschel of the influential Colorado Association of School Boards told the committee that her group now opposes the bill. No amendments were offered on that issue, but Urschel said she’s continuing to negotiate with Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, who is the primary author of SB 13-213. The amount of money involved is about 3-4 percent of the total $1 billion cost, according to bill supporters.Other amendments adopted Monday would:

  • Expand possible uses for the bill’s $100 million Innovation Fund, which originally was focused primarily on expanding learning time.
  • Specify that any ballot measure passed would have to provide for the full cost needed to trigger the new system.
  • Set the funding law to expire in 2017 if no ballot measure is passed before then.
  • Make technical changes to provisions of the bill that would prevent some districts from losing state funds and that set floor funding for a group of other districts.
  • Provide quicker annual funding adjustments for fast-growing districts and charters.
  • Increase the bill’s funding for gifted and talented students from $5 million to $7 million.

Republican-sponsored amendments proposing a longer school year, a change in the launch of bill’s new enrollment count system, changes in innovation fund, stipends for highly effective teachers and a narrower definition of at-risk students all were defeated by the committee’s Democratic majority.

In addition to disagreements over charter funding and principal autonomy, there are broader concerns with the bill on the part of some business groups.

Patrick Pratt, policy director of the South Metro Chamber of Commerce, said his group still opposes the bill because it doesn’t treat districts equitably and doesn’t solve the bigger fiscal problems in the state constitution.

The bill is the outgrowth of a two-year study process by a coalition and education, civic and business groups.

The overall thrust of the bill is to fully fund preschool for at-risk students and full-day kindergarten for all students, provide a substantial increase in financial support for at-risk students and English language learners, give districts more flexibility to raise revenue locally and to give principals more autonomy in spending some at-risk and ELL funding from the state.

The bill also would change how enrollment is counted, require more detailed financial reporting by schools and districts and mandate periodic studies of school funding and the effectiveness of the new funding system. The new system would roll out in 2015-16 – if a ballot measure goes to voters this November and if they pass it. (See this story for more details on amendments made in the Senate.)

[View the story “Senate Bill 13-213 testimony” on Storify]

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