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School finance reform passes House

This House Monday voted 37-28 to approve a massive update of the way the state pays for schools. No Republicans support the bill, as was the case in the Senate.

Senate Bill 13-213 had been scheduled for a final vote Friday, but contention over a last-minute amendment derailed the bill. A revised version of that amendment was approved Monday before the final vote.

The amendment was needed because if voters approve a tax increase this fall, additional revenue would start flowing in 2014, but SB 13-213′s new costs wouldn’t kick in until July 1, 2015.

Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, proposed a revised amendment that would put up to 40 percent of that revenue into a new education reserve fund, up to 40 percent into the Building Excellent Schools Today construction fund and smaller amounts into an educator effectiveness fund and an education technology fund.

There was a brief moment of confusion when Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, attempted to offer a substitute amendment that would have launched the whole SB 13-213 a year early, in 2014-15. There was some disagreement over whether the amendment was in order, and the bill was briefly laid over. Murray withdrew her amendment after the bill was brought back up.

During a polite final round of debate, Republicans said they couldn’t support the bill because it lacks real education reform. Democratic speakers supported it, saying it’s needed to provide funding equity, expand early childhood education and fund some of the education reforms enacted in recent years.

Here are some snippets from that debate:

  • “I still think an opportunity is being missed. … There is some reform in this bill; there is in my opinion that is more of the same” system Colorado has now. – Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson
  • Like the old joke about a phony cowboy, the bill is “all hat but no horse.” – Murray
  • “I call it a Christmas tree, and [voters are] going to be asked to add a billion dollars more ornament.” – Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker
  • “They can’t do these reforms we have already passed,” and the bill provides the money to implement those. – Rep. Sue Schafer, D-Wheat Ridge
  • “It’s going to address equity in how we fund our students.” – Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora

Hamner ended the debate saying that the bill’s increased spending on preschool and full-day kindergarten “are huge reforms and huge investments in what works.”

There were a couple of final delays to rattle Hamner’s nerves. A vote was delayed until some members could return from a bill-signing ceremony. Then the vote stalled when Speaker Mark Ferrandino’s computer froze, forcing him to cast the last aye vote SB 13-213 would increase funding for kindergarten and preschool, provide significantly more money for districts with the highest concentrations of at-risk students and English language learners, devote more money to special education and make extra payments to districts for the cost of implementing reform mandates.

Because the Colorado constitution requires tax increases be approved by voters, the funding piece of the proposal would have to be passed in a statewide election.

Discussions about school finance reform started among education, business and civic groups two years ago and involved hundreds of meetings and private conversations, most of them involving the bill’s eventual sponsors, Sen. Mike Johnston and his cosponsor, Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder. But the bill’s progress through the legislature has been torturous.

Minority Republicans have consistently opposed the bill, saying it doesn’t contain enough education “reform” but many of them really meaning that they oppose raising taxes.

Lobbying from a variety of education interest groups has forced a variety of significant changes in the bill. After all that work, few interest groups – ranging from charter schools to school districts to business groups – remain whole-hearted in their support, or in their opposition.

Johnston upbeat about SB 13-213 changes

The always-upbeat Sen. Mike Johnston was all smiles Monday morning after the House gave final approval to SB 13-213, the Denver Democrat’s proposed modernization of the state’s school finance system.

Sen. Mike Johnston explains his school finance plan during a Feb. 28 meeting. / File photo
Sen. Mike Johnston explains his school finance plan during a Feb. 28 meeting. / File photo

“We’re actually very excited,” Johnston told reporters gathered outside the Senate chamber. He dismissed any thought that the long amendment process in the Senate had House had weakened the bill, saying, “I think the bill is actually stronger” than the version he introduced back on March 8. “The legislative process worked.”

Johnston cited sections related to charter schools, enrollment counting and financial reporting as parts of the bill that were improved.

Asked about Republican objections to the potential $1 billion cost of the bill, Johnston said, “There are folks who believe you don’t need any more revenue,” adding, “A great majority of us” believe schools needs stronger funding.” The facts are against them.”

Even though no Republican voted for the bill in either chamber, Johnston said be believed at the start of the process that he might get some GOP support. He indicated GOP members’ aversion to taxes overcome support for some of the bill’s policies. (During final floor debate in both houses several Republicans argued that the bill falls short on education reform.)

Given that calendars are in flux during the session’s closing days, Johnston said he didn’t know when the bill will come up in the Senate for consideration of amendments. He is expected to ask the Senate to concur with House amendments.

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