First round in a big bout

Speaker Ferrandino pitches new higher ed funding formula

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Colorado
Speaker Mark Ferrandino meets with Colorado Commission on Higher Education

The questions were flying like balls out of pitching machine Friday when House Speaker Mark Ferrandino defended his new higher education funding bill at a meeting of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.

Questions and comments by member Hereford Percy summed up what many of his colleagues: “What are we fixing?” and “Do we have time to do it adequately?”

Ferrandino’s bill proposes to create a new formula for dividing state support among Colorado colleges and universities, putting more money into the resident tuition discounts known as College Opportunity Fund (COF) stipends and also basing some college funding on student retention and graduation rates.

“For too long the budget was focused on the institutions and the needs of the institutions,” said Ferrandino, sitting alone at the witness table in the Capitol’s cavernous Old Supreme Court Chamber. “We need to look at what are the needs of the public.”

The University of Colorado and the University of Northern Colorado would lose funding under the plan, along with Adams State University, according to a spreadsheet Ferrandino has circulated.

The biggest gainers would be the Colorado State University System and Metropolitan State University of Denver. The bill would produce only modest additional revenue for the community college system. Colorado Mesa University, Fort Lewis College and the Colorado School of Mines also would gain funding.

The Denver Democrat’s bill has been rumored for weeks, was first circulated widely early this week and was introduced formally on Thursday as House Bill 14-1319 with more than 40 cosponsors.

Ferrandino, who’s serving his last year in the General Assembly, wants a bill passed into law this session. It would go into effect for the 2015-16 budget year. The measure does include a provision allowing CCHE and the institutions to review the bill over the summer and suggest possible changes to the 2015 legislature.

“We have eight weeks in the legislative session left,” Ferrandino said. “I know some people think that’s not a lot of time [but] if there’s a will there’s a way.”

Higher education lobbyists “do a very good job of making sure that nothing changes the status quo too much,” he said. “The only way I see for this conversation to really happen” is for the bill to be considered this session, he said.

Several commissioners were skeptical of the rush, saying a shift in how colleges are funded needs a longer conversation.

Happy Haynes / File photo
Happy Haynes / File photo

“This is a huge endeavor [for] eight weeks,” said commissioner Happy Haynes. “Help me visualize what the work plan looks like to reach resolution, a work plan that involves any of us sleeping.”

Ferrandino stuck to his guns and stressed he’s open to changes in the bill. “I want to emphasize here that this is the start of the conversation,” he said.

Calling the current funding system “something of a black box,” Ferrandino said state support needs to be better aligned with state policy goals like increasing enrollment of underserved students, doing a better job of retaining students and raising the numbers of students who receive degrees.

“People don’t have that high a view of higher education,” he said. “I believe something like this changes that conversation with the public. Their view is you give money to the institutions and it’s squandered, it’s wasted [on] highly paid executives, football stadiums.”

He also said, “I like change. I like taking the apple cart and turning it over and seeing what happens.”

Commissioner Patricia Pacey quipped, “I don’t want to upset the apple cart unless I think the new apple cart will produce a better product.”

Commissioners also were skeptical that the bill would produce significant change.

The measure would allocate more than half of state support based on enrollment through COF stipends, and only 3.9 percent on funding would be based on student retention and 6.1 percent on degree completion, according to a Department of Higher Education analysis.

“I still have a hard time understanding what this bill is trying to improve upon,” said commissioner Luis Colon. “I just don’t see what the incremental improvement is.”

Several commissioners noted that state has an existing higher education performance-funding plan, which is supposed to go into effect in a few years if certain budgetary targets are met.

Ferrandino said that program is too small to influence institutional behavior but would remain on schedule if his bill passes.

(State support, by the way, supplies only about a quarter of higher education funding, with the rest of institutional revenue supplied by tuition.)

Pacey, who’s an economist with experience in government finance, said she needed more information. “Can we expect something more substantial in the next week or two?” she asked. “Can we get some scenarios across different institutions?”

A word from the institutions

University of Colorado President Bruce Benson / File photo
University of Colorado President Bruce Benson / File photo

Ferrandino left after spending more than 90 minutes with the commission. He was followed at the witness table by two of the state’s more prominent presidents, Kay Norton of UNC and Bruce Benson of CU.

“Certainly we at UNC agree with the fundamental goal of the proposed legislation … that policy ought to drive funding and ought to be student focused,” Norton said. “What we don’t agree on is how to have a thoughtful conversation,” indicating the remaining weeks of the legislative session don’t provide enough time.

Benson said, “We do have a problem with the further inequities that would be created” by the bill. “The most troubling issue with the bill is the impact it will have over time. When are we going to hit another bump in the road, when we will have another downturn.”

The bill does a provision that would cushion loss of support by individual colleges when overall funding drops. And if state support dropped more than 15 percent in a year, future legislatures could suspend use of the bill’s formulas.

Ferrandino said he hopes to meet with college and universities leaders late next week, prepare amendments based on that meeting and then get back to the commission.

Read the bill text here.

listening tour

We asked six Colorado school board members what they want from the state’s next governor. Here’s what they said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Late last week, nine candidates for Colorado governor came together to talk education, addressing an annual fall conference of school board members.

Now, we’re giving some of those audience members a chance to speak up.

Before the gubernatorial hopefuls took the stage, Chalkbeat recorded interviews with a half-dozen school board members who represent districts across the state. Our question to them: What are the big education questions you hope the next governor will take on?

Not surprisingly, funding challenges came up time and again.

One school board member asked for a more predictable budget. Another asked for schools to get their fair share of annual increases in new tax dollars. One went so far as to say the next governor would be a chicken if he or she didn’t take on reforming the state’s tax code.

We also heard a desire for leadership on solving teacher shortages, expanding vocational training and rethinking the state’s school accountability system.

Here are the six gubernatorial wishes we heard from Colorado’s school board members:

Reform TABOR to send more money to schools

Wendy Pottorff, Limon Public Schools

Since the Great Recession, Colorado schools have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while the state legislature has tried to close its education funding shortfall, lawmakers haven’t been able to keep up. Getting in the way, Pottorff says, is the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

Change the conversation about public schools


Paul Reich, Telluride School District

Reich says public schools are under attack under the false premise that they’re failing — and that isn’t helping the state recruit bright young teachers. He said the next governor must change the conversation about schools to make teaching a more desirable profession.

Provide a clear budget forecast

Anne Guettler, Garfield School District

Approving a school district’s budget is one of the many responsibilities of a Colorado school board. That’s a tall challenge when the state’s budget is constantly in flux, Guettler says. She hopes the next governor can help provide a clearer economic forecast for schools.

Rethink school accountability to include students and parents

Greg Piotraschke, Brighton 27J

Colorado schools are subject to annual quality reviews by the state’s education department. And it’s time for the state to rethink what defines a high-quality school, Piotraschke said. He suggested the governor could help rethink everything from how the state uses standardized tests to how to incorporate parents and students into the review process.

Give schools more resources to train the state’s high-tech workforce

Nora Brown, Colorado Springs District 11

In light of Colorado growing tech sector, several gubernatorial candidates have come out in support of more technical training for Colorado students. But that costs money, Brown says. The Colorado Springs school board member said promising better job training for high school students without more resources is empty.

Remember there’s a difference between urban and rural schools

Mark Hillman, Burlington School District

Crafting statewide policy is an onerous task in Colorado, given the diversity of the state’s 178 school districts. Hillman said the next governor must remember that any legislation he or she signs will play out 178 different ways, so they must be careful to not put more undue pressure on the state’s smallest school districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Five things we learned when Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates got on the same stage to talk about education

Colorado Republicans running for governor addressed some of the state's school board members at a forum hosted by the state's association of school boards. From left are George Brauchler, Steve Barlock, Greg Lopez, Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Nine Republicans and Democrats hoping to become Colorado’s next governor offered contrasting views Friday of the state’s public schools to an audience of more than 100 local school board members.

Most of the five Republicans told the crowd of locally elected officials — who are charged by the state’s constitution with governing Colorado’s public schools — that their programs were in need of improvement and innovation, and that they were there to help.

The four Democrats hoping to succeed fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, pledged to reform the state’s tax code to send more money to schools.

The candidates spoke at the annual fall delegation conference of the state’s association of school boards.It was the first forum of its kind to address education issues exclusively this election election cycle.

Unlike previous elections, Colorado’s public education system has been a key policy debate early in the campaign. Several candidates, especially Democrats, have worked on education issues before.

Here are our five takeaways from the forum:

The Republican candidates didn’t pull any punches when they said the state’s public schools were in need of improvement — and several said that they were the ones to do it.

From District Attorney George Brauchler to businessman Doug Robinson, every Republican candidate said one part or another of the state’s school system needed to do better.

“Education is life itself,” said former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell. “And there is no greater challenge facing our state than 50 percent of our at-risk kids who graduate can’t complete college-level course work.”

Both Mitchell and Robinson pointed to their experience as entrepreneurs as evidence that they could help set the state’s schools free of what they consider unnecessary red tape. Brauchler called for empowering teachers and parents.

Every Democrat and several Republicans agreed that the state’s schools were in a “funding crisis.” But they offered very different paths forward.

It was an easy question for Democrats. Businessman Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne were in lock-step that the state’s schools are in need of more money.

“If we don’t fundamentally solve this crisis, the rest of the issues don’t matter,” Johnston said.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne talk after a forum for gubernatorial candidates. Both are Democrats. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Johnston and Kennedy forcefully pledged to take on the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which limits how much tax revenue the state can collect and requires voter approval to raise taxes.

Lynne was more tempered. While she acknowledged tax reform was needed, she said wanted a legislative committee working on school finance to complete its work before suggesting any overhauls.

Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker and a small business owner, was the only GOP candidate who said he would take on the state’s complicated tax laws. If elected, he promised to establish a committee to send a reform proposal to voters.

Robinson and Brauchler acknowledged that schools were in a funding crunch. But they stopped short of saying they’d send more money to schools.

Mitchell said “he wasn’t sure” if there was a funding crisis, but added, “The system should be reformed before it’s fully funded.”

PERA, the state’s employee retirement program, could play a prominent issue in the election — especially for Republicans.

Earlier at the conference, school board members received a briefing on a proposed overhaul to the state’s retirement program, which includes school district employees.

While the situation is not as dire as it was a decade ago, the program’s governing board has become so increasingly worried about unfunded liabilities that it’s asking state lawmakers to pass a reform package to provide more financial stability.

Two Republicans, Brauchler and Steve Barlock, who co-chaired President Trump’s campaign in Colorado, said PERA was in crisis. Barlock warned school board members that their budgets were in jeopardy as lawmakers fiddle with the system.

Neither went into any detail about how they hoped to see the retirement program made more fiscally stable. But watch for this issue to gain greater traction on the campaign trail, especially as Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton ramps up his gubernatorial campaign, and as lawmakers begin to wrestle with PERA reforms next year. (Stapleton did not attend the forum.)

Some candidates offered careful responses to a question about school choice. Others, not so much.

Every Democrat and one Republican, Brauchler, said they respected a family’s right to choose the best school for their children. But that choice, they said, should not come at the expense of traditional, district-run schools.

“I’m concerned that we’d build a system where the success of some schools is coming at the expense of other schools,” Kennedy said.

Republicans strongly supported charter schools, and in some cases, vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools. Robinson called on creating new ways to authorize charter schools. Mitchell said he wanted to repeal a provision in the state’s constitution that has been used to rebuff private school vouchers.

There’s no party line over rural schools.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the state needed to step up to help its rural schools, which are typically underfunded compared to schools along the Front Range. They need more teachers, better infrastructure and fewer regulations, the candidates said.

“We need to get rural areas into the modern age,” Robinson said.