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Budget squeeze dooms three education spending bills

The House Appropriations Committee Thursday killed three major education spending bills, including proposals to increase funding for preschool and for full-day kindergarten.

The votes were expected but that didn’t make the decisions any easier for some committee members. “We just don’t have the funds. … I think it’s a sad day in appropriations,” said Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon.

The third measure would have created a pilot program paying bonuses to highly effective teachers who work in low-performing schools.

The bills were doomed because of the state’s contradictory budget situation. Although the economy is healthy and state revenues are rising, there’s little money available for new or expanded programs because of constitutional spending caps and required refunds of surpluses to taxpayers.

These three measures were postponed indefinitely on 13-0 votes at the requests of their sponsors:

House Bill 15-1020 – The measure proposed that the state pick up the $236 million cost of providing full-day kindergarten for all students. The idea is a crusade for Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, who said, “We shall return.”

House Bill 15-1024 – The $11.3 million proposal would have added 3,000 places to the Colorado Preschool Program, which currently serves 28,360 at-risk students. The legislature has been trying for several sessions to chip away at the program’s waiting list but never has found enough money to eliminate it. (Get more information of the kindergarten and preschool bills here.)

House Bill 15-1200 – This bill needed $4 million to support a pilot program of paying stipends to highly effective teachers who work in low-income schools. A similar bill died last year. (Get more information here.)

The appropriations committee did approve House Bill 15-1165. This is the bill that would require American Indian school mascots to be approved by a state review panel. The committee stripped the bill’s $200,000 funding. (Read this story about the bill.)

New bill proposes school finance study

House Bill 15-1334, introduced late Wednesday, proposes creation of a 10-member “legislative oversight committee on school finance” to study Colorado’s K-12 funding system and recommend changes to both state law and the constitution.

The group would be advised by a nine-member technical advisory committee of district administrators and school finance experts. The two groups would work together this year and next and would make specific recommendations to the 2016 and 2017 legislative sessions.

The bill has bipartisan sponsorship in both houses, including Senate Education Committee chair Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, and the committee’s senior Democrat, Sen. Andy Kerr of Lakewood. House sponsors are Hamner and Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale. Both are members of the Joint Budget Committee.

The bill is seen as a modest nod to the continuing frustration of school district leaders with tight school funding. The measure will be heard in the House Education Committee on Monday. (Read the bill here.)

Similar legislative panels studied school finance in 2005 (see report) and 2009 (see story). Both committees produced extensive information but little in the way of substantive legislation. Colorado’s current school finance formula is two decades old.

In other money news, the Senate spent more than an hour in polite partisan recriminations Thursday before giving final 21-14 approval to Senate Bill 15-234, the 2015-16 state budget.

Highlights for K-12 include increased funding to cover inflation and enrollment growth but no reduction in the $880 million education funding shortfall. A small amount of additional school support will be proposed in the annual school finance bill, which hasn’t been introduced yet.

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