School Finance

Lawmakers looking for ways to salvage school finance law

Sen. Mike Johnston often compared his school-finance reform law to a high-powered car that just needed “gas” from Amendment 66 to whisk Colorado into a bright future of education reform and improved student achievement.

Colorado CapitolBut voters declined to pay at the pump, and Johnston’s Senate Bill 13-213 is sitting on blocks in the legislative garage. The question now is, will Johnston or others try to salvage it for parts and build a couple of compacts, and will anyone be willing to pay for them?

In the days following A66’s defeat, Johnston and other amendment backers were cautious about predicting what they or others may do.

“I can’t answer that yet,” Johnston told EdNews on Election Night when asked about which pieces of SB 13-213 he might try to resurrect. The Denver Democrat was similarly circumspect in later media interviews, although he certainly didn’t close the door on reviving parts of SB 13-213.

But lawmakers love to propose education bills, and with more than $1 billion in the State Education Fund, a dedicated account used to supplement annual school funding, there’s little doubt there will be some attempts to revive pieces of Johnston’s omnibus bill from last session.

Minority House Republicans were first out of the gate last week, announcing they’ll introduce 2014 bills to change how student enrollment is counted, provide better facilities and transportation funding for charter schools and to improve transparency of school district finances. Most of those issues were addressed in SB 13-213. (Get details in this news release.)

Another part of the GOP package is a bill by Rep. Clarice Navarro, R-Pueblo, to increase funding for English language learners and to extend the number of years students are eligible for such funding. She, along with Rep. John Buckner, D-Aurora, saw the 2013 version of that idea die in committee. SB 13-213 contained significant increases for ELL students as part of the overall K-12 funding formula.

Disassembly may be difficult

Pricey shopping listEstimated costs of some SB 13-213 components
  • Reform laws implementation – $374 million
  • Special education increases – $188 million
  • Innovation grants – $100 million
  • Charter facilities – $21.6 million
  • Gifted and talented – $7 million
  • Teacher career ladders – $6 million
  • New count and financial reporting systems – $5 million
  • Services for students in detention – $2.6 million
  • Cost and return on investment studies – $500,000

It’s hard to break out figures for some of the bill’s more expensive elements, including additional funding for at-risk and ELL students, more preschool spaces for at-risk children and full-day kindergarten for all students. But there is consensus that those elements would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Leanne Emm, CDE budget chief, says the cost of those as separate programs would require new calculations.

Figures reflect new spending and are from a legislative staff analysis of the bill.

Johnston also frequently liked to describe SB 13-213 as a “grand bargain,” a plan that had something for every education interest, from more money for districts to some additional funding for charters to a modest amount of autonomy for principals in spending money on at-risk students.

“I think the beauty of 213 was that it was a comprehensive package,” notes Kayla McGannon, a lobbyist who had education clients.

Given that its pieces were so interconnected, SB 13-213 may be tough to disassemble. And even if parts of the law surface in 2014 as separate bills, they face the same problem that Johnston’s big bill did – they need gas.

The total SB 13-213 package would have cost an estimated $1.3 billion in 2015-16, its first year of operation. That would have been on top of the $5.7 billion Gov. John Hickenlooper is proposing be spent on district support in 2014-15.

So big-ticket elements of SB 13-213 are expected to be off the table because there’s no money to fund them.

But Capitol observers still expect Johnston and others to consider reusing smaller pieces.

The most likely one is a change in counting student enrollment. District funding currently is based on attendance counts taken during a small window around Oct. 1. Many legislators and educators favor switching to the system called average daily membership (ADM), under which student counts are taken frequently throughout the school year and averaged. The education theory behind ADM is that districts will have a greater incentive to keep students enrolled.

But rolling out ADM isn’t without cost – estimates run between $5 and $10 million – and it would take some time to implement. Even SB 13-213 wouldn’t have changed the count system until the 2017-18 school year.

New bills will get close scrutiny

Even relatively small and largely one-time costs like changing to ADM may face opposition.

That’s because school districts, now without the prospect of an A66 boost, will be pushing hard to get as much support as they can from the current school finance formula.

Hickenlooper is proposing that basic K-12 support, known as Total Program Funding, increase only by inflation and enrollment growth in 2014-15, as required by Amendment 23. That would put total program at about $5.7 billion in state and local revenues. The governor’s plan proposes very little change in what’s called the negative factor, a mathematical formula used by the legislature to reduce school funding from what it would have been under the full terms of A23, the 2000 constitutional amendment that will continue to guide education funding now that A66 is dead. It’s estimated districts have lost more than $1 billion in funding over the last few years because of the negative factor.)

Districts lost a fight with Hickenlooper and the Joint Budget Committee last spring over reduction of the negative factor. Districts are expected to resume the battle in January and to resist spending money on new education initiatives instead of using it to trim the negative factor.

“Most districts want more money spent out of the State Education Fund” on total program, said one lobbyist. “I think it’s going to be a rough year.”

Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, said recently, “Our legislators need to understand the burden and stress unfunded mandates have placed on educators across the state. We would caution the upcoming Colorado General Assembly against adding any new education reforms to this over-burdened education system.”

Other education advocates also think the state perhaps should focus on successfully implementing education reforms already in the pipeline.

This school year districts are rolling out new academic content standards, a new early literacy program and evaluating principals and teachers under the terms of Senate Bill 10-191, the landmark evaluation law. That system will be fully implemented in the 2014-15 school year, along with new online tests.

“We need to regroup and focus on things that already are in law,” said Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, which was a major backer of SB 13-213 and of A66.

Speaking of those initiatives, Sen. Rollie Heath said, “If we get all of that right I would be very happy,” adding, “I don’t see a lot of meaningful [new] things happening” during the 2014 session. The Boulder Democrat was Johnston’s cosponsor on SB 13-213 and will be Senate majority leader next session.

There’s even some stray Capitol chatter that the defeat of A66 could put existing reforms – or at least their timetables – at risk.

Tony Salazar, CEA executive director, acknowledged that risk recently, but he added, “It’s too early to say if delays are needed.”

Even Hickenlooper, speaking with reporters last week, said, “If 66 had passed we would have been able to implement Senate 191 at a high level,” along with other programs. “The money’s not there now.”

Investment strategy

Here are the initiatives Memphis’ education philanthropists will focus on in 2018

PHOTO: Matt Detrich/The Indianapolis Star
A charter leader from Indianapolis, Marcus Robinson is now CEO of the Memphis Education Fund, a philanthropic collaborative that invests in education improvement initiatives for Memphis schools.

A Memphis philanthropic group has shed its “Teacher Town” name but still plans to spend this year recruiting new teachers while also investing in growing the city’s single-site charter operators.

Unlike similar organizations in other cities across the country, the Memphis Education Fund plans to center its search locally — by helping local universities and groups prepare teachers for the challenges of urban education.

Originally called Teacher Town, the fund was created in 2014 by Memphis education leaders and local philanthropists with a goal of transforming Memphis into a destination city for talented teachers. That vision built on a major investment by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to improve teaching in the city.

In 2016, the group adopted a broader goal of improving all schools; brought in a new leader, Marcus Robinson, from Indianapolis; and joined Education Cities, a national collective of local groups seeking to reshape schools in their cities

In part inspired by changes that have taken place in Indianapolis, where Robinson had worked as a charter leader, Education Cities coordinates local groups advocating for the “portfolio model,” a vision in which cities have more charter schools and let district schools operate more like charters.

Robinson told Education Cities a year ago that his next step for Memphis would be “to unite everyone around a common set of operating principles, expectations, and evaluations to create a level playing field for each operator to perform optimally.” This appears to be in line with the portfolio vision, which aims to give all schools flexibility to operate as they see fit, while holding them equally accountability for results.

But instead of bringing the Shelby County Schools district and local charter operators closer together, 2017 saw them waging open competition for students.

For 2018, Robinson is tackling priorities that are not likely to inflame divisions. The fund will continue to focus on principal training, along with helping single-site charter organizations, boosting reading skills among the city’s youngest students, and recruiting new Memphis teachers.

“We’re hell-bent to fill classrooms with teachers,” said Robinson, pointing to elementary schools as having some of the greatest need.

Memphis will need an estimated 3,600 new teachers by 2020, said Lesley Brown, who directs how the fund invests its money to attract, develop and retain talent for local schools.

Rather than recruiting teachers from outside of Memphis, Teacher Town’s original focus, Robinson said the fund is strengthening partnerships with local universities and teacher preparation programs, such as one launched at Rhodes College in 2016 with the help of a $7 million gift from the fund.

The Memphis Education Fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including The Pyramid Peak Foundation and the Hyde Foundation. (Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

Robinson added that the fund also is ramping up its support for single-site charter operators, such as helping teachers implement new literacy curriculum at Memphis Delta Preparatory Charter School and STAR Academy Charter School.

“There’s less of an appetite for national charter organizations to move into Memphis,” he said. ”The next phase isn’t national CMOs (charter management organizations), but how do we encourage single-site schools to evolve.”

The group has doled out such grants to charters as part of a larger effort to boost student reading levels and develop teacher training for Core Knowledge Language Arts and KIPP Wheatley.

“Early literacy is a huge focus,” Robinson told Chalkbeat. “When we look at the test scores, early elementary scores are horrific. What’s the root? Access to quality literacy instruction.”

Paying for school

Sweeping study proposes major changes to the way schools are funded in Michigan

Michigan needs to change the way it funds education so that schools get more money for students who need extra attention — such as those who live in poverty and those who don’t yet have a strong command of the English language.

That’s the top recommendation from a prominent group of educators, policymakers, and business leaders who have been studying Michigan’s school funding system for much of the past two years.

While many states use a complex formula that gives schools more money if they serve children facing extra challenges, Michigan has long used a system that distributes the same amount of money for virtually all students, regardless of their needs.

The state provides some extra funding for students with disabilities — but not nearly enough, according to a state study last year that found schools across Michigan are getting $700 million less a year than they need to serve those students.

The study released Wednesday recommends a major restructuring so that schools would be fully funded for special education programs and would get extra funds to provide resources to students who need extra help. With that money, schools could offer lower class sizes, add counselors and social workers, and give teachers more support, the report says.

The study was conducted by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates on behalf of the Michigan School Finance Research Collaborative.

The collaborative — including top business and education leaders across the state — came together in 2016 after an earlier “school adequacy study” was largely ignored by political leaders.

The earlier study, which was funded by the state legislature, recommended that the state significantly increase the amount of money it sends to schools per student.

The collaborative hopes this new more robust study, which clocks in at more than 300 data-packed pages, will have a greater impact.

Since this study used multiple methods to determine the right funding level for schools, it will be more difficult to ignore, the group hopes.

The study — paid for with $843,000 from major foundations and 18 county school districts — included interviews with hundreds of educators, including district and charters school teachers. Those interviews helped researchers determine how much money schools need to more effectively do their jobs.

The study examined geographic cost differences in different parts of the state, labor cost differences, and other factors and determined that schools need approximately $9,590 each for students who don’t have special needs, including funds that would come from the state and federal governments.

The study recommends that schools get 35 percent more for students living in poverty, between 50 and 70 percent more for students who are learning English, 70 percent more for students with mild disabilities and 115 percent more for students with moderate disabilities.

Among other recommendations in the  report is that charter schools receive the same per-student funding as districts. Currently, the state’s funding system pays some districts more per student than others based largely on historic funding levels as opposed to current needs. Some districts — including most charter schools — are currently getting around $7,600 per child from the state while others get thousands of dollars more

It’s difficult to compare how much funding schools are getting now with the proposed $9,590 per student because schools get a mix state and federal dollars and the $9,590 doesn’t include things like transportation dollars.

The report suggests that the state use a new approach to student transportation in which transportation dollars are distributed differently, taking into account differences between urban and rural school districts.

The report did not put a price tag on the cost of implementing the recommendations and did not spell out how Michigan could come up with the extra money. But members of the collaborative said they hope lawmakers will consider the report as they make policy changes. 

“The issue here is not about whether you live in Farmington or whether you live in Ingham County, it’s about every child ought to have the opportunity to be successful and that ought to be our goal in Michigan,” said Randy Liepa, the Superintendent of Wayne County’s intermediate school district. “I don’t think there will be significant pushback on that.”

The findings were released Wednesday morning, with press conferences planned in Lansing, Grand Rapids, and in the Detroit area.

Read the full report here: