Capitol Roundup

The four other (non-testing) education bills that are on the move at the Capitol this week

While the focus so far this week at the Capitol has been on the budget and on testing, other education bills of interest are on the move. Here are the details.

Chartering authority bill heads to House

The Senate Tuesday gave 21-14 final approval to Senate Bill 15-216, which would affect the exclusive chartering authority of districts that are on the state’s accountability watch list for more than three years.

The bill would require that such districts lose that authority if they are in year three of priority improvement or turnaround and do not have an agreement with the State Charter School Institute governing placement of institute charters in the district.

The goal of the bill, according to prime sponsor Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, is to give students in struggling districts more choices of high-quality schools. Under current law, the state can intervene in districts that have had low ratings for five consecutive years. Hill argues that students should have more choices after three years. (Get more information in this legislative staff summary.)

School finance study passed by House Education

A bipartisan bill that would create a legislative school finance oversight committee passed the House Education Committee in a 9-2 vote Monday.


House Bill 15-1334 would set up a 10-member panel to study Colorado’s K-12 funding system and recommend changes to both state law and the constitution.

The group would be advised by a nine-member technical advisory committee of district administrators and school finance experts.

The two groups would work together this year and next and would make specific recommendations on both statutory and constitutional changes to the 2016 and 2017 legislative sessions.

“It’s not a question in anybody’s mind that we have to do this. The question is doing it right,” said prime sponsor Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale.

The other prime sponsor, Democratic Rep. Millie Hamner of Dillon, said the current 20-year-old system is outdated, and “the original intent of equity has been skewed. … Our primary responsibility should be ensuring every child has equal access and opportunity.”

During the last decade there have been two state studies and one outside review of the school finance system. The outside study helped lead to approval of a comprehensive school-funding rewrite by the 2013 legislature. But that plan never went into effect because voters rejected the $1 billion tax increase needed to pay for the new system.

The bill has a $520,000 price tag over two years. Its next stop is the House Appropriations Committee.

Student learning objectives bill gets first committee approval

The House Education Committee on Monday also voted 6-5 in favor of House Bill 15-1324, a measure intended to encourage schools to use “student learning objectives.”

Student learning objectives are customized learning goals for classrooms and individual students that are used to track academic progress.

The bill is strongly backed by the Colorado Education Association, which wants to expand use of such learning objectives in teacher evaluations.

Specifically, the bill would create a $1 million grant program for districts that want to work on developing such programs. Some Colorado districts already are experimenting with the concept. The bill will be considered next by House Appropriations.

School discipline bill moves to Senate floor

The Senate State Affairs Committee on Tuesday approved House Bill 15-1240, which would encourage school districts to reach formal agreements with local law enforcement on how to handle student-police contacts. The goal is reduce the number of school problems that get referred to police.

The measure is an effort by sponsors Sen. David Balmer, R-Centennial, and Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, to divert more disciplinary matters to school administrators and thereby keep more students in school.

Balmer told the committee that one arrest doubles a student’s odds of dropping out of school and that “the impact of being ticketed or arrested can follow a student for the rest of their lives.”

The vote was 3-2.


Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

What's fair

Colorado’s state-authorized charter schools could get more money next year

Students at The New America School in Thornton during an English class. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Charter schools authorized at the state level by the Charter School Institute are likely to get more money in the 2018-19 budget year. That’s one year before most other charter schools will see benefits from last year’s charter school funding equity bill.

That bill was a major compromise out of the 2017 session, and it requires school districts to share money from voter-approved tax increases with the charter schools they’ve authorized, starting in 2019-20. The bill also created the mill levy equalization fund to distribute state money to the Charter School Institute’s 41 schools. Because no local school board approved these schools, they wouldn’t otherwise be eligible for revenue from these increases, known as mill levy overrides.

Charter School Institute administrators came calling for their money this year, though, with a request for $5.5 million from the general fund. They arrived at this number by identifying institute schools within the geographic boundaries of districts that already share some extra revenue with their local charters and assuming institute schools got a similar share.

Institute Executive Director Terry Croy Lewis called it a “first step” toward parity that would bring institute and district-authorized charter schools to the same level in advance of the new law going fully into effect in 2019. Lewis said it seemed like a fair approach because the parents at institute-authorized schools often live within the geographic boundary and pay taxes at the same rates as parents whose children go to traditional schools or district-authorized charters.

However, the charter equity bill says that extra money for institute schools has to be distributed on an equal per-pupil basis. The original approach, which created more equity among schools in the same geographic boundary, created more disparities among institute schools in different regions – and the law might not have allowed it.

“I don’t think you can define equity in this conversation because equity cuts a lot of different ways,” said state Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat and member of the Joint Budget Committee.

Budget analyst Craig Harper suggested to the Joint Budget Committee that separate legislation might be necessary to allow the distribution proposed by the Charter School Institute, something no lawmakers wanted to see after the bruising fight over the charter school equity bill.

Instead, the Charter School Institute revised its proposal to distribute the money among its schools on a per-pupil basis, regardless of geography and whether the local district already shares money.

What sort of difference does this make?

In the first distribution scenario, Early College of Arvada, located in the Westminster district, would have gotten nothing – because Westminster doesn’t currently share money with its own charters. Under the new proposal, the school would get $131,233 based on its pupil count. Meanwhile, Colorado Early College – Fort Collins, which would have gotten $621,357 because the Poudre district already shares money, would instead get just $374,952

Lingering confusion over the distribution question led JBC members to postpone a decision several times before they voted 4-2 this week to include the $5.5 million request in the 2018-19 budget.

It still has to survive the extended battle over the budget that takes place in the full House and Senate each year.