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Panel advances other school funding bill

The K-12 lobby beat the Hickenlooper administration Wednesday in a committee tussle over funding for preschool quality improvement, one portion of the proposed school funding bill for 2013-14.

The House Education Committee voted 11-2 to send Senate Bill 13-260 to the appropriations committee, but not until after members had rejected an amendment the Hickenlooper administration wanted. The panel also defeated a second amendment that a committee member needed to pay for another bill.

The original version of the bill included an initiative, called the Expanding Quality Incentive Program, which would have created a $5 million grant program in the Department of Education. School districts could have applied for money to seek quality ratings for their preschool programs and also to improve program quality. That program, plus a 3,200-student increase in state-funded preschool slots, are key parts of the bill and were included partly in response to the wishes of the Hickenlooper administration, which has made early childhood education a policy priority.

But the program was stripped on the Senate floor by a coalition of Republican and Democratic senators and the money was diverted into general school support.

A group of school district and association lobbyists (known around the Capitol as the “K-12 Mafia”) and school district executives pushed for that change. State school funding has been cut by an estimated $1 billion over the last four years through use of a budget-balancing device called the negative factor. The K-12 lobby has been united this year in resisting new programs, arguing that lawmakers should prioritize reducing that shortfall as much as possible.

Bill sponsor Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, on Wednesday proposed what she called a “compromise” amendment that would give $3 million to the preschool quality program.

Hamner’s amendment caught many committee members by surprise, and some felt it didn’t meet legislature rules for prior notice of multi-page amendments. Chair Rep. Cherilyn Peniston, D-Westminster, said she let the amendment to go ahead so as to not stifle discussion with a technicality.

The discussion did stretch out for some time, with a couple of Republicans subtly indicating they didn’t appreciate being pressured by the executive branch.

The committee should say, “Sorry, governor, not this year,” commented Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock.

The committee did just that, with Hamner’s $3 million amendment failing on a 5-8 vote. Two Democrats, Brittany Pettersen of Lakewood and Dave Young of Greeley, joined the six Republicans in voting no.

Lobbyists on both sides now are laying plans and counting votes for an expected floor fight over the issue.

That same coalition combined to defeat an amendment proposed by Rep. John Buckner, D-Aurora. As it came from the Senate, the bill included a $20 million boost for special education. He wanted to take $7 million from that amount and use it to fund a measure he’s sponsoring, House Bill 13-1211, which seeks to improve programs for English language learners. That measure has passed the Senate and is pending in the House, but it doesn’t have a firm funding source. Defeat of the amendment could well doom the bill.

Key elements of SB 13-260

Colorado schools are funded every year through a two-part process. Basic funding is included in the annual state budget bill, while additional fund ing and special programs are included in the school finance act.

Here are the major features of this year’s bill:

• Total program funding, the combination of state and local funding that pays for basic school operations, would rise to $5.5 billion, increase of about $210 million.

• Average per pupil funding would rise from the current $6,479 to $6,652, a 2.7 percent increase.

• Total program funding still would be 15.5 percent less that what it would have been without application of the negative factor.

• Funding would be provided to increase enrollment in the Colorado Preschool Program by 3,200 slots. Districts could use the money for full-day kindergarten.

• The facilities cost reimbursement fund for charter schools would rise to $7 million from $6 million.

• $16 million is included for implementation of the READ Act, the 2012 law intended to improve literacy skills among K-3 students.

• $200,000 is provided for the Great Teachers and Leaders Fund, which supports the State Council on Educator Effectiveness.

• Funding for special education is increased by $20 million.

• Additional funding of $2.5 million is provided for facilities schools, which serve students in juvenile detention and treatment.

• Some $1.3 million is provided for stipends to teachers who hold national board certification.

• A $3 million program to recruit high-quality rural teachers would be created, to be run by an outside consultant.

The bill also requires that half of any state surplus at the end of 2013-14 budget year be transferred to the State Education Fund, a special account used to supplement state K-12 funding. That amount is estimated to be about $137 million. Before that infusion of cash, the SEF is estimated to have between $615 million and $775 million left in it at the end of 2013-14.

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