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Success Act negotiations get more time

A showdown over contentious parts of the Student Success Act didn’t materialize Tuesday after Sen. Mike Johnston, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, delayed action on the bill, saying, “We have some work to do on amendments.”

The Denver Democrat, who’s also a prime sponsor of House Bill 14-1292, raised some hackles last Thursday when he successfully argued to have the Senate Education Committee send the measure to finance rather than directly to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Johnston was on the losing side of key amendment votes in education, and some school district lobbyists feared he would strip those amendments in finance, where he and two Democratic allies have a majority. (See this story for details of last week’s meeting and background on the long fight over the bill. And get details in this legislative staff summary.)

Johnston mentioned that he needs to work with Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, who teamed up with three Republicans in Senate Education to pass the amendments Johnston opposed.

Those amendments increased to $120 million the funding that would be devoted to buying down the state’s $1.04 billion K-12 funding shortfall (the so-called negative factor), reduce a proposed $20 million increase for early literacy programs to $10 million, cut a proposed study of enrollment counting methods and eliminate funding for a proposed state website that would link users to information about district and school spending. Instead, districts would post that data on their own websites.

The hot-button issues are early literacy funding and financial transparency. Senate Finance next meets on Thursday morning, and people involved in the negotiations expect amendments to roll the negative factor reduction back to $110 million and to restore the early literacy funding.

The shape of a possible financial transparency compromise is less clear.

Henry Sobanet, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s budget director, made a rare appearance at the finance hearing, politely urging some sort of statewide financial reporting system.

“I think there is a cheaper way forward” to create a transparency website than was proposed in the original version of HB 14-1292. “Moving toward visibility we think is a good thing,” Sobanet said.

Transparency has become the surprise sticking point in the Student Success debate. School districts have opposed the mandate, arguing that they already provide substantial financial information for the public and that a new system would impose costs and administrative burdens they don’t need.

The sponsors, Hickenlooper and education reform interest groups have pushed for more transparency, especially at the school level, and for common data reporting among districts.

The dispute has been intense enough that it’s created hard feelings between sponsors and some district lobbyists.

(There are subtexts to the transparency debate as well. Reform interest groups think school-level data will shed light on whether schools with high at-risk populations get enough money. Charter interests want more detailed information on special education funding because they suspect districts don’t give them enough. And some Republican lawmakers hope more detailed financial information would highlight pension costs.)

Senate Finance did vote 3-2 to pass House Bill 14-1298, a companion measure known as the School Finance Act.

The committee left untouched Senate Education amendments that removed House restrictions on use of $17 million in at-risk early childhood funding and that modestly increased funding for full-day kindergarten. The bill still includes $30.5 million in additional funding for English language learner programs. Senate Education moved that funding to a separate account that won’t be subject to the automatic annual increases required by the constitution for some types of school funding.

Sponsor Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, indicated he may have amendments to HB 14-1298 in the appropriations committee or on the floor. (Get more details on other provisions of the bill in this legislative staff summary.)

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