More money for education means more fights

The Colorado Statesman

Lawmakers are learning the hard lessons of funding an education budget in a year when there is more money to go around. Fights are already underway between educators, administrators and legislators over how to reduce the so-called “negative factor” before enacting additional mandates on teachers and districts.

Lawmakers on Tuesday formally introduced what is being called the Student Success Act, or House Bill 1292, a bipartisan effort that would address some of the fallout from the failure of Amendment 66 this past November.

The bill could be a shining moment for lawmakers, with both Republicans and Democrats putting aside the election in order to fund public schools. Republicans had adamantly opposed the nearly $1 billion tax increase proposed under Amendment 66 to fund K-12 education. Democrats had criticized Republicans for failing to come up with an adequate strategy to fund education without a tax increase.

The result of the bickering appears to be HB 1292. It is a $263 million proposal that draws upon many of the reforms outlined in last year’s Senate Bill 213, the mechanism that lawmakers passed to ask voters to approve the tax increase.

Legislative leaders scheduled HB 1292 for a hearing Monday in the House Education Committee.

But educators and administrators have already raised issues with the bill. When it was first unveiled last week, there was such an outcry that immediate changes were made.

The introduced version includes reduction in the negative factor, or buying down the $1 billion education shortfall that resulted from the economic downturn. HB 1292 would increase total funding by $100 million, $20 million more than the earlier draft of the bill. The $100 million figure had been a sticking point for special interests, though some believe the state could do more.

The new draft also would create a one-time fund of $40 million for school districts to address current mandates, including tests and educator evaluations. The previous version would have created a fund of $100 million.

The other components of the bill would:

• Allocate $10 million in one-time funds to establish a better system to count membership for funding;

• Dedicate $5 million to implement a new website to track funding;

• Direct $40 million from marijuana taxes to school capital construction, including $30 million to full-day kindergarten, $5 million for technology assistance and $5 million to charter schools. A separate $13 million from education funding would also be earmarked for charter school capital construction;

• Invest an additional $35 million into English Language Learners, allowing certain students to stay in the program for up to five years; and

• Provide an additional $20 million in ongoing funds for implementation of the READ Act, which mandates that additional services be provided for struggling readers in grades K-3.

About a dozen lawmakers from both sides of the aisle flanked House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, last week at a news conference in which they announced the pre-introduced draft.

“All of us share the goal of ensuring that the children of Colorado get the best education possible so they can compete for the jobs of the future,” said Ferrandino. “This isn’t a Democratic or Republican priority — it’s a Colorado priority.”

“Quality education should not be a partisan issue and I’m thankful that we could come together to create a bill with significant reforms to help Colorado students excel,” added House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland. “The Student Success Act provides education reforms which will provide fiscal transparency, more accurate student counts and greater funding of charter schools all while using available state resources.”

Education lobbyists say Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, is the true architect of the funding proposal, though he has opted to stay out of the spotlight following failure of Amendment 66. Johnston was the prime sponsor of SB 213 last year and he spearheaded the tax initiative.

Instead, Rep. Carole Murray of Castle Rock, the ranking Republican on the House Education Committee, has taken the lead along with Democratic Rep. Millie Hamner of Dillon.

“I am pleased to see this bipartisan approach to education reforms in our state that are fiscally responsible and focused on directing more funding to all students across Colorado,” said Murray. “I’m proud that the Student Success Act includes all the best thinkers in our public school community to create opportunities for our Colorado students.”

But those “best thinkers” hammered sponsors following the news conference, appalled that the original proposal didn’t do more to reduce the negative factor.

“Fix the funding first, no more mandates — that’s our message to lawmakers,” Colorado Education Association President Kerrie Dallman told lawmakers on behalf of teachers, school executives and school boards.

The CEA has also launched a campaign urging against additional mandates, including an ad targeted at lawmakers titled, “Free Our Teachers, Value Our Students.”

Lawmakers said they heard the outcry and responded with the introduced bill that aimed to resolve concerns from within the education community.

“I’m proud of this bill and I look forward to the improved outcomes it will produce for students across Colorado,” Hamner said on Wednesday. “We want to make this bill as responsive as it can be to all concerned, and we are engaged in ongoing discussions with all stakeholders.”

But concerns remained on Wednesday, even after the changes were made. Much of the education world remains concerned about the bill, including the CEA, as well as the Colorado Association of School Boards and the Colorado Association of School Executives.

“The problem that remains is the bill containing new programs that will tie districts in more bureaucratic red tape,” said Dallman.

“Our classrooms lost more than $1 billion in just five years, and districts across Colorado are still struggling to provide the resources educators need and students deserve,” she added. “School administrators and educators need funding that can immediately be used to solve the most pressing problems our students face at the local level.”

Teachers and school boards remain concerned over mandates imposed on them by Senate Bill 191 in 2010, which requires that student testing be tied to teacher evaluations. The CEA is suing to have parts of SB 191 overturned. The union also supported Amendment 66, which would have funded many school reform initiatives in Colorado.

Teachers and school boards received a brief victory on Wednesday when the House Education Committee approved an amended version of House Bill 1202, sponsored by Rep. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction. The measure calls for a study of state-testing requirements to analyze effectiveness and the potential for districts to opt out.

Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, said that for her organization, the funding issue also comes down to addressing a growing list of mandates.

“It’s exactly where we are, we just cannot sustain mandates until we restore what’s been cut, and we’re saying, ‘Legislature, you didn’t tell us where to cut, don’t tell us where to restore,’” explained Urschel.

“We are appreciative of the start, but there are a number of things that we do have concerns about,” she added.

Bruce Caughey, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, expressed similar thoughts: “There’s progress being made and there’s a real effort to try to pair down the negative factor, which is what superintendents are asking for to provide more flexibility,” he said. “But right now the bill just doesn’t do enough.”

Political implications

The issue comes with its own unique political implications. Democrats don’t all agree on education reform, including teacher accountability and testing standards, which have exposed a rift between the far left and more moderate Democratic interests.

Some Democrats have already had to go up against teachers and administrators on both the school finance and teacher accountability issues. That has intensified this year.

Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, is experiencing his own tensions over the school funding issue. As a member of the Joint Budget Committee, he knows budget fights firsthand.

Even before the Student Success Act was unveiled, he was defending against rumors that he was working with Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, on his own proposal to address the negative factor and funding for charters.

The issue was alarming enough to prompt a text message from Ferrandino, who was working at the time on his own news conference to unveil the Student Success Act scheduled for just two days later.

“Rumor is you working with Renfroe on 100m neg factor and 50m charters?” read the text message sent to Steadman from Ferrandino.

Steadman denied working on such a proposal and took to Twitter to express his outrage.

“When did K-12 lobby devolve into spurious rumor mill?” asked Steadman. “Quit talking about me and start talking to me.”

“I keep hearing that I’m sponsoring a bill to do all sorts of things, or that I’ve vowed to kill things,” Steadman later clarified when asked by The Colorado Statesman.

Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, may also find himself at odds over the school-spending proposal. His office is worried that the legislative proposal far exceeds his budget request and that it may impact future school spending.

For budget gurus, the issue is tied to the negative factor. Increasing base funding could mean additional funding mandates in future years because the state constitution requires annual school funding increases. A particularly large cut in the negative factor could result in calculated spending mandates that the state can’t afford in future years.

“At this time, there are ideas in the General Assembly that total several hundred million dollars above our request,” explained Eric Brown, a Hickenlooper spokesman. “After the March forecast, we will work with the JBC and leadership on a budget package that predicted revenue can support.”

Funding in the Student Success Act is likely to change as the legislative session continues. Lawmakers are waiting on the March revenue forecast before making those decisions. School funding issues are also likely to be debated separately in the annual school finance bill, which could lead to complications.

Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton, a member of the Joint Budget Committee, said she is worried that school-funding proposals could overlap, making matters even more complicated.

“If I ran the world… we would have one bill, the School Finance Act. But I don’t run the world…” joked Hodge.

She has heard that the March revenue forecast could predict as much as $50 million less for the state, which would trigger cuts.

Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, acknowledged the tensions over the current spending proposal, suggesting that it will likely take a different shape by the time it gets to the Senate.

“It’s the beginning of a conversation…” explained Carroll. “There’s a lot of pent-up frustration from unfunded mandates, there’s been a very aggressive series of cuts that have happened, and when you get so far short on funding it’s hard.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com