money matters

Colorado’s superintendents want (a lot) more money for schools and a new way to divvy it up

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Patyn Hooper, right, and Rowan LaPiano compare their reporting videos during class at Mammoth Heights Elementary School in Parker, Colorado.

Colorado’s superintendents want to change how the state distributes money to school districts – but only if voters are willing to approve a $1.7 billion tax increase for education.

The new formula would give more money to school districts whose students have more needs, but without more money in the pot, many districts would actually lose funding. Hence, the need for a lot more money.

Voters have twice rejected statewide tax increases to fund education, most recently in 2013, but supporters of this new funding model say this time is different. This November, voters approved local tax increases in districts that had previously struggled to raise money, raising hopes that the political climate is shifting. And unlike previous attempts, people who want more money for schools have the backing of local school leaders who will be able to say exactly how a statewide tax increase would benefit students in their districts.

“We have a unique opportunity in that people who have deep knowledge of our schools, this diverse group of superintendents, have reached a consensus that we haven’t seen before,” said state Rep. Dave Young, a Greeley Democrat who has sponsored a bill to enact the formula change pending voter approval of a tax increase.

Young added: “It would be a real mistake at a time when our economy is doing well and we have this sort of collaboration to miss this opportunity to respond to the needs of our students.”

Lawmakers who oppose tax increases look at the large dollar amount attached to this proposal and don’t see much to talk about.

“We probably have more interest in drinking month-old milk than we do to revisit an issue that voters already said, by a margin of 2 to 1, ‘We don’t want to go down this path,’” said state Sen. Owen Hill, the Colorado Springs Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee.

This proposal lands in a complicated political environment. A bipartisan committee has been meeting to talk about school finance issues, but they’re months away from proposing legislation. Some state officials, including the governor, are more focused on a looming crisis provoked by a constitutional provision that reduces local tax revenue in rural districts. Republicans, meanwhile, have their eye on a transportation bond proposal.

The superintendents who brought this proposal forward have two goals in mind: “equity” and “adequacy.” Equity is how the school funding pie gets divided fairly among districts, and adequacy is the size of the pie.

The proposal calls for a “student-centered” distribution model to replace the state’s school finance formula created in 1994. At its most basic, this approach gives districts and schools more money for students who have more needs, whether that’s learning English or being gifted and talented or both.

This is a national trend in school funding that’s more common at the district level. Denver Public Schools already distributes money within the district using this approach, as does Indianapolis and New York City. The U.S. Department of Education recently invited districts to apply for a “weighted student funding” pilot program that would attach more money to students with more needs and have that money follow students wherever they go. 

Colorado’s current funding model already gives schools more money if they have more students who qualify for free lunch, a proxy for poverty. The state formula also includes factors like cost of living and personnel costs. Money for students with disabilities, students who are gifted and talented, and students who are learning English is in a separate pot and isn’t distributed as part of per-pupil funding.

In examining funding for specific populations, analysts with the Education Commission of the States wrote that so-called “formula funding” – what the superintendents are proposing – provides more equity and predictability for school districts, while keeping money for students with particular needs in a separate fund gives the state more control over how that money is spent but is less stable. In Colorado, that second pot of money for students with additional needs gets larger with inflation, but it doesn’t get larger to account for more students with those needs.

That’s a key difference, superintendents say, between their proposal and the status quo. Their proposal would account for those additional student needs within the per-pupil funding formula. In addition, districts that provide full-day kindergarten would get an entire student’s worth of money for each kindergartner, instead of a little more than half a student’s worth, as they do now. School leaders say this approach is fairer and better reflects the real costs to educate students.

Colorado schools are serving more students and a more diverse student population than they were in 1994, said Walt Cooper, superintendent of the Cheyenne Mountain School District in Colorado Springs, and they’re more accountable for educating those students to the same level as their classmates.

“If you could go back in time and take a snapshot of what students looked like in Colorado in 1994 and what schools looked like and what accountability systems looked like and compare them to now, the world of K-12 is so exponentially different from the world of K-12 in 1994, it’s even hard to draw these direct comparisons,” Cooper said. The School Finance Act has “outlived its usefulness. And it’s not even fully funded.”

In 2000, Colorado voters decreed that per-pupil funding should increase by inflation each year. But the amendment they passed didn’t provide any new money for education. During the Great Recession, lawmakers started applying a “negative factor” or “budget stabilization factor” to reduce the amount by which they funded schools. This year, Colorado schools are getting $6.6 billion in state and local funds – $828 million less than they would if voters’ demands were fully realized. Colorado consistently ranks as one of the lowest states in per-pupil funding.

Cooper said the group working on this proposal started from an assumption that no district should lose money, and if you divide $6.6 billion using the new formula, a lot of districts lose money. To get to a point where no districts are losing money and many are getting more money – in some cases as much as 50 percent more – total annual spending on K-12 education needs be closer to $8.4 billion.

Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires that voters approve any tax increases. Either the legislature or private citizens’ groups can place these requests on the ballot, but a tax increase for schools is very unlikely to come from the General Assembly. Republicans have said that transportation, not education, is their top spending priority, and even a roads bill sponsored by the Republican senate president couldn’t get out of a Republican-controlled committee last session because it involved a tax increase. This year, Republicans want to ask voters to approve new debt for road construction without a tax increase.

That leaves private citizens to get something on the ballot. State elections officials have signed off on language for eight potential tax measures that would raise between $1.4 billion and $1.7 billion, each with a slightly different funding mechanism. Supporters of those measures still need to decide which version they’ll pursue.

“The $64,000 question is what is the tax policy and the mechanism that actually generates the revenue,” Cooper said.

Great Education Colorado, which is consulting with the supporters of the ballot measure, sent out an email praising the superintendents’ proposal and Young’s bill as “step one of what we’re calling ‘the Colorado Two Step.’”

“First we establish how new dollars would be fairly distributed,” Great Education Executive Director Lisa Weil wrote. “Then we give voters a chance to do right by kids.”  

Young said Colorado’s school funding situation is dire, and change can’t wait. He’s found a Republican co-sponsor, state Sen. Don Coram of Montrose. Within his caucus, Coram is a moderate on fiscal issues, and his name alone won’t get this bill through Senate committees hostile to the idea of raising taxes. Young said he hopes to find support among rural Republicans, similar to the support they gave to last year’s compromise on a hospital fee with major implications for their districts. And the bill itself does not ask for a tax increase to be placed on the ballot, only that the funding formula be changed if voters approve more money.

Even sympathetic Democrats aren’t sure this is the right approach, though.

Gov. John Hickenlooper said that when it comes to schools, his top priority is getting closer to full funding under the existing formula and dealing with an impending crisis caused by the Gallagher Amendment. That provision in the state constitution caps the share of property taxes paid by residential property owners. As property values have skyrocketed along the Front Range, residential tax rates have ratcheted down, and that’s led to drastic cuts in rural communities with smaller tax bases.

Some state officials would like to change the Gallagher Amendment, but figuring out which change will be acceptable to voters and then selling it is no easy task. That task doesn’t get any easier if it’s sharing the ballot with a transportation bond measure and a tax increase for schools.

“That’s my first priority: What would the voters be willing to consider in terms of changing the Gallagher Amendment so that it stops squeezing rural communities?” Hickenlooper said. “A billion and a half in revenue, I’m not sure what it would take to generate that.”

A bipartisan group of lawmakers have been meeting to look at changing how the state funds its schools. The interim school finance committee spent the off-season gathering information, and its members hope to propose legislation for the 2019 Colorado General Assembly.

Hill, the Republican senator, is vice-chair of that committee, and he said the superintendents’ proposal – “just to fly in with a magic bullet” – undermines the effort to come up with bipartisan solutions.

State Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat and the committee chair, said that if Young’s proposal made it into law and if voters approved a major tax increase, he’d have to ask the members of the committee if it makes sense to keep meeting.

Cooper said the superintendents started meeting on their own, informally at first, before the interim committee was even conceived, and they confined their efforts to a narrow focus: how money is distributed to districts. There are still plenty of questions for the committee to work on, including how costs are shared between the state and local districts, another major inequity in Colorado.

Cooper said major policy changes take time, and this one is important.

“If we fall short this year, regardless of how far we make it, we’re further ahead than if we had not gone forward, and we’ll be back next time,” he said. “We will not be easily dissuaded.”

not so fast

Worried about enrollment, some Colorado school districts are suing to prevent cross-district busing

Haylen Orgunez, 14, hangs out the window of one of the new compressed natural gas buses as he poses for a group photo at Douglas County High School in Castle Rock, Colorado on November 16, 2016. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post)

Six school districts and the associations that represent them are suing to stop a change to Colorado law that could increase access to school choice but that was approved under questionable circumstances.

The lawsuit filed this week in Denver District Court doesn’t deal with the merits of the policy but with the way it was enacted. In the last days of the 2018 legislative session, state Sen. Owen Hill, a Republican from Colorado Springs, took language from a defeated bill related to school choice and transportation and attached it as an amendment to a bill dealing with educational barriers for foster youth.

In a signing statement, Gov. John Hickenlooper said the maneuver potentially violates the “single-subject rule,” which requires that each bill deal with a one topic clearly expressed in the title of the bill and that any amendments also relate to that subject. He predicted there could be a lawsuit over the issue, and two months later, here we are.

The plaintiffs in the case are the Colorado Association of School Executives, the Colorado Association of School Boards, the small Englewood and Sheridan school districts in south suburban Denver, the Cheyenne Mountain district in Colorado Springs, the Monte Vista district in southwestern Colorado, the Poudre district based in Fort Collins, and the Jefferson County school district, the second largest in the state. Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass and Poudre school board member Cathy Kipp also joined the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims the “operations and finances” of the districts will be affected by legislation that was passed “in a manner and by a process expressly prohibited by the Colorado Constitution and in derogation of these plaintiffs’ constitutionally protected interests as stakeholders in the fairness, integrity, and transparency of the legislative processes employed by the Colorado General Assembly.”

“The bill was originally about foster care children,” said CASE executive director Lisa Escárcega. “And at the very end of the session, they rewrote the last part, and expanded it to all children. Those are the reasons why we’re filing the lawsuit.”

Hill called CASE’s position “a complete lie,” noting that that organization along with the school board association and the Sheridan and Englewood districts also opposed the standalone bill on which his amendment was based.

“Everything we vote on, we vote on the merits of the policy,” Hill said. “That’s what this is about for the unions and the districts. They don’t want kids to have the freedom to go across district lines.”

The foster youth bill seeks to make it easier for these students, who have some of the lowest graduation rates in the state, to finish high school by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. The bill’s title is “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth.”

The tacked-on language says that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also strikes language from existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bussed.  

Similar language appeared in a bill sponsored by Hill called “Improving School Choice in Traditional Schools.” Students in Colorado can enroll in any school that has room for them and can meet their needs, but most students who go somewhere besides their neighborhood school don’t get transportation, something that advocates for school choice have long criticized as a major barrier for students from low-income families, whether they’re moving between districts or within one.

In 2015, Pueblo City Schools blocked the Pueblo 70 district from running buses through its jurisdiction to pick up some of the roughly 150 students who opted into the higher-performing district that primarily serves the surrounding county.

In opposing the original transportation provision, superintendents from Sheridan and Englewood raised the prospect of districts running busses through more affluent neighborhoods, siphoning off those students and the state funding that goes with them, while leaving poorer districts to educate those with the greatest needs.

Jeffco Public Schools is in a different position. In an email, Glass said his district might see net enrollment growth from this change, but he worries about the broader implications.

“We bring in approximately 3,000 more students than we lose to inter-district school choice and that trend would likely grow if this provision in the foster care bill comes to pass,” he wrote. “At issue for us is the violation of the single-subject element of the state constitution. This choice amendment would represent a seismic shift in education policy in the state. Such changes should be considered through open and transparent debate in the legislative process, not tucked in as a last minute amendment under another bill title.”

In an interview, Hill said the transportation provision was a necessary component of the foster youth bill because the state couldn’t simultaneously require that these students be transported back to their home schools while retaining the requirement to get consent from the district in which they now reside.

Hill never made this argument in committee. There was no discussion at all when the amendment was proposed and adopted, and advocates for the foster youth bill didn’t raise it as a concern. School districts already provide transportation to homeless youth who want to remain in their home schools under provisions in federal law, and foster youth are entitled to similar services. The transportation envisioned under the foster youth bill could also occur through rideshare services or by reimbursing foster parents for mileage, and nothing in state law prevents simply driving a student to school in another district.

The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction to prevent the law from taking effect while the matter is litigated.

The lawsuit names Hickenlooper, Education Commissioner Katy Anthes and the State Board of Education as defendants because they oversee implementation of these laws. Representatives of the governor’s office and the state Department of Education declined to comment on the lawsuit. The State Board of Education did not take any position on the legislation in question when it was being debated at the Capitol.

The Attorney General’s Office is charged with defending the state from the lawsuit. A spokesperson for the attorney general declined to comment.

This article has been updated to include comment from Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass and a response from the Attorney General’s Office.

Local control

Change in Colorado law sets up a ‘David and Goliath’ school choice battle no one saw coming

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Paraprofessional Ben Johnson washes of the back window of a bus at the Denver Public Schools Hilltop Terminal November 10, 2017. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Buses from other school districts already pass through the tiny Sheridan school district, picking up homeless students who are entitled by law to transportation to their home districts in nearby Littleton or Denver.

What if those buses could make a few additional stops, picking up perhaps dozens more students who aren’t homeless but prefer to attend higher-performing schools in other districts — and taking with them tens of thousands of dollars in state funding?

That’s the concern of small, relatively poor districts in Colorado after a last-minute provision tacked onto an unrelated bill in the closing days of the legislative session became law. It allows school districts to run buses through other districts’ boundaries without first getting consent, a change from current law.

“Will we start to see the David and Goliath of school choice, where a large district with lots of resources starts to do a marketing campaign and send buses into smaller districts?” Sheridan’s outgoing Superintendent Michael Clough asked in an interview with Chalkbeat.

The Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents superintendents, is exploring the possibility of a lawsuit. The Sheridan district is among the potential plaintiffs, after publicly opposing this change when it was part of a stand-alone bill earlier in the session, though no district has made a formal decision about legal action.

The lawsuit wouldn’t target the substance of the policy, but the way it was enacted. Colorado’s constitution requires that each bill deal with a single subject, clearly expressed in the title of the bill, and that any amendments also relate to that subject.

The transportation provision in question was slipped into a bill on educational stability for youth in foster care that also has a transportation component. In a signing statement attached to the foster youth bill, Gov. John Hickenlooper said it likely represents a violation of the single-subject rule and would be open to a legal challenge.

“We make no judgement today on whether this language is sound policy,” Hickenlooper wrote of the amendment. “However, we have serious concerns about the process in which this amendment was bolted onto such an important bill.”

Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers. The bill seeks to make it easier for these students to graduate by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. The bill’s title is “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth.”

The tacked-on language, added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session, sounds relatively benign. It says that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also strikes language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bussed.  

Where did this come from and why was it added on?

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican and chair of the Senate Education Committee, sponsored a bill earlier in the session with the same transportation provision. It was called “Improving School Choice in Traditional Schools” and also contained requirements to standardize the open enrollment process.

Students in Colorado can enroll in any school that has room for them and can meet their needs, but deadlines and procedures vary from district to district. Most students who go somewhere besides their neighborhood school don’t get transportation, something that advocates for school choice have long criticized as a major barrier for students from low-income families, whether they’re moving between districts or within one.

Hill’s bill was opposed by the Colorado Association of School Executives and by the Colorado Association of School Boards. They said allowing districts to run school buses in neighboring jurisdictions at will would represent a serious erosion of local control and call into question the entire purpose of school district boundaries. 

Wendy Rubin, superintendent of the suburban Englewood district south of Denver, raised the specter of neighboring districts offering bus service to more affluent neighborhoods and siphoning off the funding associated with those students while leaving Englewood to educate those with greater needs.

Like Sheridan, Englewood is a small district surrounded by larger, wealthier neighbors that post better test scores.

“If we lose a class of kids, we lose a teacher or we offer one AP class when we used to offer three,” Rubin said. “We do not have the economies of scale to withstand losses of kids of 30 or 40 in a year. We would be cutting programs left and right. And what does that do to the kids who stay?”

Rubin and Clough also worried that the legislation would allow districts to cherry-pick students – offering transportation to, say, a star athlete but telling a student with disabilities that it was unable to meet her needs.

To be clear, both superintendents said they have no reason to believe their neighboring districts have immediate plans to come after their students, but they fear future school boards might make different decisions, particularly if declining enrollment increases competition for per-student dollars. 

Supporters of expanding transportation options say such possible challenges do not outweigh the importance of students being able to pursue the best education available to them. If districts want students to stay, they should offer a high-quality education, not block buses from entering their borders, they say.

Kelly Caufield of the business-oriented education reform group Colorado Succeeds pointed to a 2015 case from Pueblo. The lower-performing Pueblo 60 district is surrounded by the higher-performing Pueblo 70 district, and roughly 150 students who lived in 60 used their open enrollment rights to go to school in 70. Pueblo 70 had 10 bus routes within the boundaries of Pueblo 60 – until Pueblo 60 said no.

“Why should a superintendent worried about neighborhood lines get in the way of that student having access to a better education?” Caufield asked. “This is the exact example where that kid and their family deserve to be in a better district. And if transportation is a barrier, this bill would address that.”

The Colorado Springs area that Hill represents also has numerous districts in close proximity to each other. None of them have weighed in publicly on this issue. Hill said he brought the bill forward at the request of constituents, but none of them testified before the committee.

Hill’s bill passed the Republican-controlled Senate but died in a Democratic-controlled House committee near the end of the session. The next day, the foster youth bill came up for its first vote in the Senate State Affairs committee. Filling in as chair, Hill amended the bill without explaining what his addition would do. With the 2018 legislative session nearing its close, the committee members had a long agenda in front of them representing hours of testimony and votes, with tight deadlines to move bills to the floor. No one asked any questions or raised any objections, and the amended bill was adopted.

Hill has pushed back repeated interview requests with promises to try to talk soon. He’s involved in a heated three-way primary campaign – the election is Tuesday – to unseat sitting U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn. When his school choice bill was heard in committee, he expressed surprise that the transportation provision was controversial and suggested it could be struck from the bill to save the rest of it.

Caufield said Colorado Succeeds wasn’t involved in the decision to amend the foster youth bill, but said, “we care about what’s good for kids, so we’re excited that it crossed the finish line, even if it’s in a different form.”

Clough said Sheridan is prepared to sign on to a lawsuit. Rubin stressed that she had had only a very preliminary conversation with her school board informing them of the situation and the possibility of a lawsuit.

The law is scheduled to go into effect Aug. 9, but school districts may seek an injunction stopping the transportation provision.