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School finance update passes floor test

The proposed rewrite of Colorado’s school funding system won preliminary House approval Monday, with approval of two amendments intended to assuage the concerns of key interest groups.

“There is nothing more important to Colorado than a well-educated population,” said prime sponsor Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon. “Senate Bill 13-213 is a very significant piece of education legislation. … Our current school finance act is not working. It’s outdated.”

Republican opponents of the bill had a different view.

“The issue is the current school finance system hasn’t been adequately funded, and yet we say it doesn’t work,” argued Rep. Jim Wilson of Salida, a former school superintendent.

Rep Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, said, “What we see in this bill is more of the status quo.”

The 3 1/2-hour debate was dominated by enthusiastic but doomed attempts by minority Republicans to amend the bill. Proposed changes included extending the school year, providing more money for charter schools, raising pay for teachers of at-risk students and even adding the contents of a dead parent trigger bill onto SB 13-213.

Of more importance were two Democratic amendments that passed. One would increase funding for at-risk students in some districts where fewer than half of the enrollment is at-risk. The other changes the bill’s provisions relating to principal autonomy in spending some at-risk funding. Those changes had been pushed by some large suburban districts and by the Colorado Association of School Boards.

Major elements of the bill would 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 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.

The brainchild of Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, SB 13-213 grew out of nearly two years of study and consultation by a coalition of education and civic groups known as the Colorado School Finance Partnership.

But all those discussions didn’t mean the bill has had a smooth path through the legislature. Some suburban districts were unhappy that they’d receive smaller per-student increases than high-poverty districts like Denver and Aurora. Many charter schools were unhappy with their proposed funding while districts had different concerns about charter provisions. There also was pressure to expand to expand the possible uses of a $100 million innovation fund, which originally was restricted to lengthening of the school year for districts that want to do that.

The bill awaits a final House roll-call vote, and then the House and Senate will have to agree on amendments. That isn’t expected to be a major problem, given that the successful House amendments were carefully monitored and negotiated by Johnston and his staff.

So although the bill now looks likely to pass, the final say will be with the voters. The bill has a price tag of about $1 billion, and funding it requires approval of an income tax increase by voters. Two sets of possible tax-increase ballot measures are pending, and proponents are expected to decide in a few weeks which one to propose to voters.

Amendment after amendment

Here’s more detail on the key Democratic amendments passed Monday:

• The bill includes a “concentration” factor that tends to reward districts with very high percentages of at-risk students and English language learners, such as Denver and Aurora. That prompted districts with lower concentrations but significant numbers, such as Jefferson County, to complain. An amendment passed Monday increases per-pupil at-risk funding for 15 districts, including Jefferson County, St. Vrain, Mesa 51, Thompson, Brighton and Pueblo 70. Most districts would realize $274 more per at-risk student.

• The bill originally proposed that principals be given the freedom to decide how to spend state funding for at-risk and ELL students. The Colorado Association of School Boards was adamantly opposed to that, arguing it violated constitutional guarantees of local control. Business groups liked the provision because they like “backpack” funding. The amendment approved Monday gives school board review power over principals’ spending plans.

• The bill’s approach to charter school funding has been a hotly contested issue. An amendment adopted Monday creates a formula for distribution of extra funding to charters to compensate for facilities costs, something that some charters currently havo cover from per-pupil instructional revenues.

Republican amendments covered the waterfront, and proposed, among other things:

  • Appending an A-F school and district grading system and a parent trigger provision to the bill. (Both were contained in House Bill 13-1172, killed earlier in the session.
  • Adding 10 more days to the school year.
  • Increased funding for charter schools.
  • Bonus pay for teachers who work with at-risk students.
  • Changing the bill’s definition of at-risk and diluting the at-risk and ELL concentration factors.
  • A ban on extracurricular and transportation fees.

One Republican amendment, proposed by Murray, R-Castle Rock, was approved. It would provide $1 million for principal training in budgeting, part of the backpack funding issue.

Republicans proposed more than 20 amendments (not counting Murray’s and two that were withdrawn), compared to 18 proposed by Hamner and her Democratic allies. GOP members also tried “do overs” on eight amendments, as is allowed at the end of preliminary consideration.

Late in the debate, after the initial round of amending was done, Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, came to the microphone to tease Democrats about the complicated algebraic equation – with square roots – that’s included in the bill, in the section covering how state and local shares of school funding are to be calculated.

“Nobody can explain this funding formula,” Gerou complained. “You don’t understand your funding formula.”

Democrats were a little shaky on that issue. Hamner said, “The only people who will understand the formula are our district chief financial officers.”

One school district lobbyist, watching the proceedings from the House gallery, quipped that maybe even the CFOs don’t grasp everything about SB 13-213.

[View the story “House floor debate on SB 13-213” on Storify]

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