Panel OK's School Finance Act

By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

The bipartisan wheels are turning fast in an effort to race a new School Finance Act through the Senate this week.

After being introduced Monday, Senate Bill 256 gained a favorable 8-0 vote in the Senate Education Committee Wednesday and is expected to pass the full Senate by week’s end.

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster and Senate President Peter Groff, D-Denver, talk during the Senate Education Committee hearing on SB 256.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

The bill, if passed, will set the stage for Colorado to compete for the highly competitive “Race to the Top” funds included in President Barack Obama’s stimulus package. If the state wins the funds, it could net $1 billion in new education funding.

Among a myriad of components included in Senate Bill 256 is a section that would overhaul the state’s education system by rewarding student and teacher performance. The bill also ensures that money allocated for at-risk students follows the students from school to school rather than being given directly to districts and charter schools to spend as they see fit.

Furthermore, it sets up a pilot program to establish an at-risk boarding school in Denver funded in part by grants and donations, allows school districts greater flexibility to spend required reserves established under TABOR and increases the mill levy cap from 20 percent to 25 percent.

The bill is being packaged with Colorado’s “Race to the Top” bill, which is currently being negotiated with leaders in the House and with Gov. Bill Ritter’s office. That bill is expected to set higher academic standards for public school children and implement a new “Colorado Regents Exam” for high school students. Students with the highest scores would be offered free or supplemented in-state tuition, depending on their socioeconomic status.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are calling both pieces of legislation true bipartisan policy and a large step forward in making Colorado a nationwide leader in education reform.

“I am very excited. Across the spectrum from Sen. (Keith) King, who represents a different philosophical approach to education, to Sen. Evie Hudak, we made a very big move,” said Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, the bill’s sponsor. “I think you will hear about this around the country. This is a good move for Colorado and is a big, big deal in helping us win the (Race to the Top) funding.”

Obama’s Race to the Top program will distribute $4.35 billion nationwide to eight to 10 states. Lawmakers, who have been exploring the longitudinal growth model Colorado began using in 2008 to determine student achievement and the proposed School Finance Act changes, believe the state is in an excellent position to land the highly competitive funds.

In total, more than $1 billion could be deposited into the state education fund.

Supportive concern voiced

Although they have some concerns, most state education groups — including the Colorado Education Association, the Colorado Association of School Boards and the Colorado Association of School Executives — say they are hopeful the legislation will bring positive change to the state’s education system.

Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, listens to testimony during the Senate Education Committee hearing.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

Several spokespeople for the groups said they were unable to take an official position on the pending legislation because the legislation is moving so quickly through the Senate that changes can’t be tracked and there’s no time to discuss it with their membership.

Deborah Fallin, a spokeswoman for the CEA, said the group doesn’t oppose the concept of teacher pay for performance programs — similar to those implemented in the Denver Public Schools — but that the decision to move in that direction should be made at a local, rather than state, level.

“It is something that we believe is best done by the districts themselves in cooperation with the teachers,” Fallin said. “Some of the things that happen with imposed programs is there are bonuses that are given to, say, 20 percent of the teachers. And that, in turn, can pit teachers against each other. Education is a field that needs cooperation between professionals, not competition, for the good of the kids.”

She said the CEA is in favor of providing incentives to encourage achievement for at-risk students, however, and views the legislation as a positive step toward finding federal funding for state education programs.

“Too often, under No Child Left Behind, the poor schools that were working hard but were not making adequate yearly progress were put into a position of having resources taken away from them, and we have always been opposed to that,” Fallin said. “But, to offer additional resources to schools that show improvement with an at-risk population is, in theory, a good idea.”

Other concerns from education groups, including CASB, are that the proposed Regent’s Exam isn’t necessary and that a provision that requires 9th graders to sign up for College in Colorado will create a two-track system in which some students are headed for college and others are not, said Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the CASB.

“This bill is a research-and-development bill that will test certain (education) hypotheses,” Urschel said, adding that CASB supports the legislation — but with reservations.

“An R&D approach is entirely an appropriate role for both the state and federal government to play as long as we do not oversimplify (it),” she added. “Since this bill was rolled out to the Senate floor on Monday, our members have not had much of an opportunity to view or test drive it, and they have expectations and needs that this bill does not address.”

A bipartisan push

Republican Sens. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker and Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, listen during the committee hearing on SB 256.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

Unlike much of the major legislation passed this year, the School Finance Act is enjoying bipartisan support. Both Republicans and Democrats are compromising on the bill in order to make it palatable for the other side.

Originally included in the SB 256 before Wednesday’s Education Committee hearing was a provision that would penalize school districts that lower local property taxes — or “Re-Bruce” — and, thereby, reduce the amount that they pay into local schools. Under the provision, school districts that Re-Bruce would not receive state funding to make up the difference of property taxes that would not go to school districts because of the lowered tax rate. Today, the state makes up the difference.

The provision is designed to stop end runs around a recent decision by the state Supreme Court that upheld the state’s mill levy freeze, which keeps property tax rates from falling as home values rise.

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, proposed an amendment that stripped the provision calling it an “unconstitutional” measure that was inviting lawsuits against the state.

“This is a fight that we do not need in this bill,” King said. “We do not have the right to take away the (voice) of local people and a local vote to decide how they handle funding of their school districts.”

King’s words echoed those of Republican Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, who issued a statement Tuesday saying the provision was a direct jab at districts that choose to Re-Bruce in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling.

“Now that the voters have a chance to cast an informed vote about whether they want to see their property taxes increase, the Legislature wants to punish them if they vote in favor of lower taxes,” Suthers said in a prepared statement.

Romer, who worked with King on a number of amendments, said he believes the provision is constitutional but favors pulling it from the bill to ensure bipartisan support for the legislation. Such bipartisan support is essential to the state’s ability to compete for the federal Race to the Top funding, he said.

“I think we really do have an important issue to make this a bipartisan bill,” Romer said. “I do not want it in the bill because it’s counter to the goal of having a bipartisan statement that we are going to be a leading candidate for reform.”

The amendment to strip the provision passed on a 6-2 vote with Sens. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, and Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, opposed.

King also proposed an amendment that would require school districts to ensure state funding for at-risk students follows the students to the schools they attend instead of being given to the district on a whole. The bill originally only called on charter schools to follow that provision.

“I think it’s more than hypocritical to treat at-risk kids at one school different than we do at another school,” King said.

Bacon, a former member of the Fort Collins School Board, disagreed, saying school districts serve many at-risk students and should be allowed to make decisions about how to use funding at the local level.

Despite Bacon’s concerns, King’s amendment passed on a 5-3 vote, with Bacon, Hudak and Romer opposed. Sens. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, Mark Scheffel, R-Parker, and Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, and Senate President Peter Groff, D-Denver, joined King in support.

The bipartisan nature of the bill should help it move quickly through the Senate.

Romer and Democratic leadership expects the bill to pass out of the Senate and over to the House by the end of the week, making room for the introduction of the Long Bill on Monday.