ABCs of the new school finance act

The issue will be tested at the polls
The Colorado Statesman

On Tuesday, May 21, Gov. John Hickenlooper is scheduled to sign Senate Bill 13-213, the new public school finance act passed by the General Assembly earlier this month. And then the real work begins: getting Colorado voters to approve a $1 billion income tax hike that will restore much of the funding cut over the last few years.

As introduced, the new school finance act changes the formula for financing public education. All kindergarten students who meet the eligibility requirements would be funded for all day school; pre-school students would be funded as half-day pupils. Enrollment funding would be calculated on an average daily membership (ADM) rather than based on attendance on one day each year, beginning in 2015-16.

The bill changes the funding for at-risk and English language learners (ELL) students, by allowing those who qualify under both definitions to be funded twice, to allow for a longer school year for those students.

Under SB 213, the Colorado Department of Education must prepare a report every four years that analyzes the increases in academic growth and achievement in districts that have received increased funding, and to include cost studies that identify funding deficits and the amounts needed to correct those deficits. The bill also envisions a more transparent public finance reporting system, to add reporting of expenditures, including salary and benefits, at each school. The department of education is then required to create a website that will translate that data into a format that can be understood by the “layperson.” The new school finance act must have its new funding approved by voters through a ballot initiative this November.

The bill went through dozens of hours of committee hearings and floor debate as it moved through the process, but its major premise — to provide equitable funding for all Colorado public schools — remains largely intact, according to Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver.

Johnston predicted a “kumbaya” moment when the bill gets signed next week. “I couldn’t be more thrilled” with the final version, Johnston told The Colorado Statesman this week. Johnston said supporters took stock of how the bill looked after the session was over, and he said there were significant improvements. The final version included funding for capital construction, a reserve fund and equitable funding for charter schools, something Johnston said “we thought we’d never get. It’s one of those rare instances when the bill that came out was stronger than the one introduced.”

Not that it was easy. When SB 213 went through the House Education Committee in April, several supporters threatened to back out, including Kelly Brough, president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. Brough told the committee the Chamber would not support the bill without its original language on charter school funding. That language was amended on the House floor to satisfy Brough and other business leaders. “It didn’t do everything we wanted it to do in terms of putting charter schools in parity with public schools,” Brough told The Statesman this week. What’s still missing is that charter schools still do not get equal funding on mill levies collected by school districts. “We’re not quite there,” she said, and the Chamber will continue to work to solve that problem.

So concerned was Brough and others about how SB 213 was going that she and Tamra Ward, president of the Downtown Denver Partnership, filed a ballot initiative on school finance that Brough dubbed a backup to SB 213. However, Brough said this week that she will not pursue that ballot measure any further. “We believe 213 has the right reforms,” she said.

While Brough is now in the support column, the League of Charter Schools isn’t quite there yet. Vincent Badolato, the League’s Vice President of Public Affairs, testified in both the House and Senate committee hearings. The League was neutral on the original version of SB 213, but once it got out of the Senate they moved to a position of opposition. The League’s board is scheduled to look at the final bill on Monday.

Badolato said the League is most likely going to issue a statement that says what they like about SB 213 and where their questions and concerns remain. One of those is about the sharing of mill levies. While he said that the House amendments “moved the needle dramatically” in giving charter schools more power in the process, it didn’t go far enough. Badolato said the bill as introduced had a “hammer” that said districts that didn’t share mill levies would lose their charter authority. That got watered down to a negotiation, and if the charter schools are unhappy they can leave the district and become institute schools under the statewide Charter School Institute.

The League still has some concerns over how at-risk and ELL students are funded differently depending on whether the student is in a charter school or in a traditional public school. “It’s not an equal distribution for at-risk and ELL,” Badolato said.

A second major issue in SB 213 was its language on principal autonomy. As amended by the Senate, principals would have had final say over how monies would be spend on at-risk and English Language Learner (ELL) students. That drew strong opposition from the Colorado Association of School Boards. Jane Urschel of CASB told the The Statesman last month that negotiations had broken down but were set to resume. The issue, according to Urschel, is that school boards, and through their hiring, superintendents, are accountable to the voters and taxpayers.

The House amended 213 to deal with that issue, too. Under the bill’s final version, principals can draw up a budget for ELL and at-risk students, but it must meet the district’s goals and be approved by the superintendent.

SB 213 doesn’t go into effect until the 2015-16 school year, and one of the late amendments addressed the revenue that could come in through a ballot initiative in the intervening time. The amendment states that revenue from the ballot measure, if approved by voters, would be split into four pots.

The first pot is a reserve to protect funding against another downturn in the economy. Next is a portion for capital construction through the Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) program. That money could also go to charter schools, which are eligible for BEST funding. The last two pots would go to recruit, retain and reward effective teachers; and to technology. All of those funding mechanisms will have to be sorted out next year, according to sources.

As to the ballot initiatives: 25 were filed in March by two different entities: former Greeley School Board president Bruce Broderius, and a group backed by the Colorado Forum.

Kate Pettersen, who worked with Broderius, said they had gotten concerned because the March 22 deadline was approaching and no one had yet stepped forward with a ballot measure to fund SB 213. So their intent was “to get something out there” before the deadline, she said this week. Four of the eight ballot measures filed by Pettersen and Broderius moved forward after review and consent hearings and had their titles set by the title board. However, Pettersen said they have no money for a ballot campaign and will not move forward with their remaining ballot measures.

That leaves the 17 filed by the Colorado Forum. Those ballot measures vary in the amount they are intended to raise, ranging from $927 million to $1.16 billion. They also vary by how the income tax would be modified; some with a tiered approach based on income levels and some just a flat hike. Forum representatives were unavailable for comment.

Lisa Weil of Great Education Colorado said this week that her organization is very supportive of efforts to increase funding for public schools. Great Ed’s board has not taken a position on any of the ballot titles, Weil said. “We’ll make that decision when we know which ballot title is picked” and the organization is hopeful that the initiative picked has “a great chance of winning and will make sure students are provided with better resources and opportunities.”

“We’ll be part of the campaign,” said CASB’s Urschel, and that will include resolutions for boards to pass if they choose.