A House committee decision to kill two charter school bills Tuesday ended the 2016 legislative session’s most contentious education debate.
Charter school advocates are getting some of what they wanted in another piece of legislation but not the thing they desired most – mandatory sharing of district tax override revenues with charters.
Highlighted by strong feelings and intense lobbying on both sides, the charter funding issue at times seemed more about rhetoric than about money.
Charter advocates framed the issue as about “funding equity,” while districts argued that “local control” needed to be protected so school boards and their charters could negotiate financial deals tailored to individual districts.
The running debates in the two houses also surfaced older charter disagreements, such as waivers from state laws that allow charters flexibility in several areas, including not being required to hire certified teachers if they ask for that exemption. .
There wasn’t a huge amount of money at stake. The Colorado League of Charter Schools, a prime backer of the bills, estimated that districts overall share about 60 percent of override revenues and that only about $25 million of such revenues are not shared statewide.
Some districts share 100 percent of override revenues, some share none. But individual districts provide other funding for charters, such as picking up special education costs.
The sharing proposal would have affected about three-dozen districts that have both charters and overrides. The state has 178 districts.
Revenue sharing was the centerpiece of Senate Bill 16-188, passed 22-13 by the Senate last week but postponed indefinitely on a 9-2 House Education Committee vote during a five-minute meeting on the House floor Tuesday night.
Overrides are property tax increases approved by local voters that generate revenue above and separate from the funding districts receive through the school finance formula. Most overrides support a district’s general operating expenses. But some districts have earmarked overrides that support full-day kindergarten costs, transportation or other programs.
A companion measure, House Bill 16-187, included various flexibility measures sought by charters, such as relief from some state accountability paperwork and streamlined audit procedures.
That bill passed the Senate 25-10 but also was in danger in the House, where the Democratic leadership was opposed to both bills. During a series of at times acrimonious maneuvers on the Senate floor last Thursday night, the provisions of HB 15-187 were amended into a separate measure, House Bill 16-1422. A bid to insert watered-down charter sharing language into that bill failed.
The charter flexibility provisions include streamlining of charter audit requirements, notification to charters about vacant district buildings, more detailed accounting of district services to charters and rules for allocation of some special state and federal funding to charters.
The charter deal was on hold until everyone was sure HB 16-1422 passed with the flexibility language intact. That happened Tuesday evening, but not until lawmakers resolved a contentious but unrelated issue concerning safety net funding for a handful of rural districts that have budget problems.
With those provisions protected, the House Education Committee voted 9-2 to kill HB 16-187 moments after killing its companion measure.
All that maneuvering leaves a somewhat lopsided compromise. School districts got their top goal — no mandatory revenue sharing — while charter interests got their secondary goal. Backers of override sharing acknowledged it was “a hail Mary” but feel the debate raised legislative awareness about charter funding issues.
“I think we have built great bipartisan support for all kids in Colorado,” said Nora Flood, president of the charter league. She said she hoped the debate raised the visibility of charter school funding issues.
“This fight isn’t over,” predicted Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson and a member of the House Education Committee.
One additional bill also affects charters and provides some financial stability to schools that change their authorization from local districts to the state Charter School Institute, or vice versa.
Some of those schools now experience big shifts in per-pupil funding if they switch authorizers. Senate Bill 16-208 allows a school to maintain its original per-student funding when it changes authorizers. The bill passed the House 65-0 late Tuesday night.
The original version of SB 16-188 also included a proposal that would have required the state to provide extra funding to Charter School Institute schools to match the shared override funds they would have received if they had been district-authorized schools. Sponsors dropped that provision from the bill before the main charter deal was cut.