K-12 school funding bill remains in limbo

The Colorado Statesman

Before the bell rings on the “Capitol High School” legislative session that ends May 7, a slew of education proposals must still make their way through the process, including a significant K-12 funding measure that still faces controversy.

The so-called Student Success Act would add $110 million in funding. But the issue has been a volatile one, with lawmakers going back and forth on how much to invest in the negative factor, or buying down the $1 billion education shortfall that resulted from the economic downturn.

The measure started at $80 million before it was introduced. Then it went to $100 million before crawling to $110 million. An amendment to House Bill 1292 increased the negative factor funding to $120 million. There would have been reduced funding from other areas, including cutting $10 million from early literacy programs.

But during Senate Finance on Thursday, the committee once again backtracked to a $110-million negative factor buy-down, while restoring the early literacy funding.

“Everybody wants the biggest number possible, and we all do too, we’re just trying to balance that desire — getting the most amount we can for schools — with the desire to be fiscally responsible,” explained Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, who crafted The Student Success Act and is a prime sponsor.

One issue is that an increase in 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 trigger spending mandates that the state can’t afford in future years.

“We don’t want to spend so much that in a year from now we’re back cutting schools more than we gave them,” explained Johnston.

He, however, believes that lawmakers have hit the magic number with $110 million, and that all remaining tweaks to the bill will be less dramatic.

“We’re getting a lot closer, we’re getting a lot more agreement,” suggested Johnston. “The numbers are pretty tightly in place now…”

But Republicans still have an issue with the current form of the bill. The bill was sent to Appropriations on a 3-2 party-line vote.

For Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, the issue is more about mandates to local school districts. Hill sits on the Senate Finance Committee.

“Part of my frustration is over the last couple of years we’ve taken so much money out of the control of local school districts, and when we put it back in, we’re putting it back in with all these strings attached,” said Hill.

“We took it away and said they have to figure out a way to cut it,” he continued. “The right, fair, just thing to do is say, ‘You can have it back, but you figure out how it goes back.’”

Hill also echoed concerns from many other Republicans that the legislature can do more to buy-down the negative factor by cutting from other areas of the budget.

“The constitution requires us to do this, we’re supposed to provide a thorough and uniform system of free public education,” said Hill. “So, when we talk about uniform, let’s stop doing all these pilot programs… let’s give it to the counties and let the counties and the school districts actually do with the money what the local parents and the local teachers think is the best thing to do to educate their kids.”

Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, said her organization is also very disappointed for similar reasons. Schools were hoping that the legislature would hear their cries for an even larger increase to buying-down the negative factor while providing more flexibility.

“It may not seem like a lot of money, but the point is most districts have done everything they could to protect the children in poverty and their learning needs first. They’ve just done everything. They’ve cut elsewhere…” explained Urschel.

“They need the money to restore what they’ve cut, and the flexibility is what’s critical to the use of the negative factor dollars,” she continued.

Urschel, however, acknowledged that the education world has made significant progress with the legislature this year.

“We have come a long way,” she said. “The response [originally] was that nobody understands the negative factor in this building and no one wants to talk about it. Well, look how far we’ve come.”

The other contentious issue facing the Student Success Act is transparency and how to develop a website that would allow the public to access information about district and school spending. The question remains as to whether to allow school districts to post such data on their own websites.

Johnston on Thursday offered an amendment that he hopes would address some of the transparency concerns. The amendment passed on a party line 3-2 vote.

“It’s an attempt to bridge some common language on the transparency requirements,” he said. “It keeps the transparency language that was proposed in the Senate Education Committee… It still does create a centralized place to store and portray that data for statewide use.”

Education bills move at frenzied pace

The Student Success Act wasn’t the only education bill moving through the legislature as the session winds down. In fact, it was one of about two-dozen measures that are moving at a frenzied pace before the session ends.

Most of the bills have bipartisan support and are not controversial. One bill, however, Senate Bill 182, remains a sore spot for Republicans.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton, would require school boards to record and publish the amount of time they spend in executive session.

The bill came about following controversies with conservative-leaning school boards. Douglas County has been accused of crafting policies behind closed doors; while similarly in Jefferson County, citizens alleged that the new school board worked behind the scenes to oust Superintendent Cindy Stevenson earlier than she had planned to resign.

The bill passed the Senate on Wednesday by an 18-17 party-line vote.

“I deeply disagree with this bill,” declared Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud. “I believe the bill will do little more than simply harass school district boards. If it’s really a good idea that there be this higher standard of reporting on executive session, then it should be across the table for all boards within the state rather than simply school boards.

“What I have observed is a few school boards are actually taking independent action, and of course different than the prescribed path that all school boards are expected to take…” he added.

But Hodge believes Republican worries are unsubstantiated. She said the bill is much simpler than the GOP believes and that it would not impact the policy directions taken by school boards.

“What Senate Bill 182 does is it amends the school board sections of our state statute to add that they keep track of the time for each topic that they discuss in their executive session,” she said of her bill.

Many of the less controversial education bills, however, have seen lawmakers reaching across the aisle to improve schools and colleges across the state.

Senate Bill 1 — a measure touted by Senate Democrats as their primary agenda item — would invest an additional $100 million into higher education, with $40 million going to financial aid.

The so-called “College Affordability Act” passed the Senate with overwhelming support and was backed by the House on second reading on Thursday.

“Within the next month, nearly 46,000 Colorado students will graduate from high school. For some of them, college or trade school is out of reach because of cost,” explained Sen. Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge, a prime sponsor of the legislation. “We need to ensure that students can continue their education if they so choose…”

“The College Affordability Act is historic,” added Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, who also sponsored the bill. “Through the recession, education suffered major cuts. With this legislation, we are making a tremendous effort to reinvest in education, which we all know is the foundation of our economy.”

Another higher education measure seeks to make sweeping changes to how colleges are funded. House Bill 1319 made it through the House and is awaiting a hearing in the Senate.

The bill, sponsored by House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, and Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, would change the amount of money devoted to higher education by:

• Requiring that at least 52.5 percent of appropriations be allocated to the College Opportunity Fund, whose proceeds are awarded to Colorado students;

• Incentivizing students to graduate with degrees or certificates, including 10 percent bonuses to disadvantaged students, or those eligible for federal grants;

• Boosting payouts for completion of credit hours; and

• Increasing payments to smaller rural schools.

“For too long our focus has been, as a legislature, on what the institutions need, and not what the state and the students need,” Ferrandino said of his bill when it was in the House Education Committee on April 9. “This bill tries to move that to looking at what our policy goals are and funding based on those policy goals.”

Another higher education bill, House Bill 1384, would use $30 million to create the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative in order to award tuition assistance to students across Colorado.

“This program will help more students across the state, especially from lower-middle-income families who don’t qualify for federal assistance, get the diploma that will be their ticket to successful careers,” said one of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood.

Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, also sponsors the measure. It passed the House unanimously on Thursday and now heads to the Senate.

Not all education measures, however, focus on dollars. Senate Bill 167, sponsored by Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, would create a pilot program for alternative education campuses. Such campuses serve at-risk students, including dropouts and expelled students.

The measure has made it through the Senate and is awaiting a hearing in the House.

‘This bill has two big goals — to help these high-risk students attain a high school diploma or equivalency, and to improve their chances of success in post-secondary education opportunities and in their chosen career fields,” Zenzinger, a former alternative education teacher, said of her bill.

House Bill 1175, sponsored by Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, and Assistant Majority Leader Dan Pabon, D-Denver, would require a study to improve the recruitment and retention of minority teachers.

“There is a diversity gap in our schools right now,” said Fields. “Nearly half of students are minorities, but just a small percentage of teachers are non-white. We need to make sure that our students have teachers and role models in the classroom that they can identify with.”

House Bill 1202, sponsored by Rep. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, would require a study to evaluate the value of state-mandated tests. The measure passed the House and is awaiting a hearing in the Senate.

“When it comes to kids, parents are passionate,” said Scott. “During the hearing on this legislation, we heard that passion loud and clear. Parents and teachers across the state have voiced growing concern over the number of days spent on multiple standardized tests and the associated costs.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com