Facebook Twitter
A DSST Cole Middle School teacher checks on students work during a class in November 2015.

Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat

Colorado Democrats block charter school funding mandate in larger spending bill

Colorado Senate Democrats, aided by a rural Republican, stripped away a contentious amendment from this year’s school funding bill that would have mandated school districts share local tax increases with charter schools.

The amendment was a near duplicate of separate legislation, Senate Bill 61, that the Senate approved with bipartisan support but has stalled in the state House of Representatives.

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican and sponsor of both bills, vowed to work in the waning days of this year’s legislative session with House Democrats who have raised objections to the charter school funding bill.

“We continue to work toward a compromise that will treat all of our students in public schools equally,” he said.

The charter school funding legislation, Senate Bill 61, is this session’s most contentious education policy debate.

Supporters of the bill believe the practice of school districts withholding locally-approved tax increases, known as mill levy overrides, from charter schools is discriminatory.

Some opponents to the measure believe local school boards should have the authority to decide how to spend that money — not the state.

The local tax increases generally go to specific programs such as funding full-day kindergarten or teacher training. The tax increases have become popular among school districts as state funding has lagged. Senate Bill 61 in its current form would only require school districts to share funding with a charter school if they offer a similar program the taxes are earmarked for.

The annual school funding bill, which passed on a voice vote, is necessary to divide the state tax dollars among Colorado’s 178 school districts. Friday’s debate is not the first time the routine bill has become political. Last year, a bipartisan group of legislators attempted to amend similar charter school funding language into the 2016 school funding bill.

Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform nonprofit that championed the charter school legislation, called Friday’s debate a “devastating blow.”

“Those who voted to strip equal funding for charter students sent a clear message that they think some students deserve less,” he said.

But opponents to the charter school funding bill said they were pleased to see the mandate removed from the larger funding bill.

“We are happy the Senate took out the amendments related to Senate Bill 61 from the School Finance Act as we felt they didn’t belong,” said Matt Cook, director of public policy and advocacy for the Colorado Association of School Boards.

Friday’s debate on the school funding bill got off to a raucous start when Democrats used a procedural move to block the charter school amendment and others.

The chamber was thrown into further chaos when the Republican senator overseeing the debate attempted to sidestep the Democrats’ objection.

Lawmakers from both parties huddled around law books and policy manuals to sort out how to proceed. A roll call was taken and the amendments were stripped from the larger funding bill on a 18-17 vote.

Senate Democrats, who are the minority party by one vote, were aided in their effort by Montrose Republican state Sen. Don Coram.

“This was a settled matter,” Coram said referring to the Senate’s debate on the charter school funding bill. “We’ve been through this before. My district doesn’t want this. I vote my district.”

The Senate is expected Monday to give final approval to the school funding bill. Then all eyes to turn to the Democratic-controlled House, which must act on both the finance act and charter school funding bill.

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat and chair of House Education Committee, has been working toward a compromise.

Her idea would require school districts to develop a plan to use their local tax dollars to address the needs of the district’s students — especially those who face learning challenges — regardless of what school they’re enrolled in. The district could also choose to comply with the idea of Senate Bill 61 and share the local tax dollars equitably.

The compromise is a longshot. But negotiations are ongoing.

“I very much appreciate Rep. Pettersen’s willingness to work on this,” said Dan Schaller, director of governmental affairs for the Colorado League of Charter Schools. “The fact that she’s starting from a position of recognizing that charter school students are public school students, too, and that all public school students should be funded equally is particularly encouraging.”