House hits Senate education bill like locusts

By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

The Senate giveth, and the House taketh away.

Three weeks ago, the Senate Education Committee voted unanimously to approve Senate Bill 256, the most comprehensive reform of K-12 school financing in decades. At the time, Democrats worked with Republicans to craft a bill that was palatable for both parties. The legislation was to set the stage for Colorado to compete for the highly competitive “Race to the Top” funds included in President Barack Obama’s stimulus package and would overhaul the state’s education system by rewarding student and teacher performance.

The bill also ensured that money allocated for at-risk students followed the students from school to school rather than being given directly to districts and charter schools to spend as they see fit. Furthermore, the Senate version ventured so far as to offer a pilot program to establish a Denver boarding school for at-risk students funded, in part, by grants and donations — a concept championed by outgoing Sen. President Peter Groff.

Fast-forward three weeks and one House Education Committee hearing later, and SB 256 is nothing like what passed out of the Senate.

Citing limited resources and a state budget gap that is growing wider by the month, on Monday, all 13 members of the House Education Committee voted to scale back the lofty legislation. As they cut $2.5 million in proposed additional funding for charter schools, casualties included the new “Centers of Excellence” program — which rewards schools based on how well at-risk students perform — dropping its budget from $4.5 million to $250,000, and Groff’s at-risk boarding school pilot program. Instead, they’ll study the concept.

The committee also took $1.75 million from existing achievement gap programs, which dole out funds to low-performing schools, and removed a provision in the funding formula that would have taken $110 million from rural and small school districts.

“Obviously, necessity has created a need that we move forward like this,” said Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs.

Massey noted that the bipartisan nature of the debate was laudable.

“I think we all know that this is a bill where (both parties) had to make sacrifices within our own constituencies ... and I hope that we can continue to move forward like this (with other legislation),” he said.

The bill’s sponsors — who obviously had hoped to do more — remained optimistic.

Sen. Chris Romer, the Senate sponsor of the School Finance Act, said he understood the need for the House to make such sweeping changes and indicated he will support them in the Senate.

The House sponsor, Rep. Christine Scanlon, D-Dillon, said she was pleased the parties were able to forge an agreement.

“This bill is focused, and it really gets at trying to help our local school districts at a time when they really need it,” Scanlon said. “We are giving support in the best way that we can right now, given the financial situation we are in.”

Both said they’re confident that, despite the changes enacted in the House, Colorado will remain in the running for the stimulus package’s Race to Top funds.

That program will distribute $4.35 billion nationwide among 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.

SB 256, as amended, will now go to the House Appropriations Committee before heading to the full body for a vote.

Jason@coloradostatesman.com