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Colorado Schools Finance Bill Clears Senate, Next Stop The House

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A complicated plan to change how Colorado funds its K-12 schools cleared the state Senate on party line vote Tuesday.

At stake is one billion additional dollars for schools.

School-funding reform has been the subject of intense discussions, especially for the bill’s sponsor, Senator Michael Johnston (D- Denver). He’s worked on the issue for nearly two years, talking to several thousand people across the state.

“We tried to build a sense of, over that time, what are the most important needs?” said Johnston. “What are the things we’ve cut? What are the real bars to adequacy and equity?”

In addition to funding the basics, Johnston’s bill aims to give school districts more money for English learners, full day kindergarten, and at risk students among other things. It would also require districts to report school-level costs such as teacher salaries.

“The key is not just the sticker for how many dollars you put into education, the key is what is the amount of dollars that generate the outcomes you want,” he said.

Outcomes are one thing, but SB 213 [.pdf] won’t go into effect unless voters pass a one billion dollar tax increase this fall. So far, 24 proposed ballot initiatives would try to raise the money for the plan. Groups will select one measure to send to voters. Republicans like Senator Scott Renfroe of Greeley say a tax increase won’t improve student learning.

“This is a bill of special interest groups that have gotten together to do what they want to do to pass a billion dollar tax increase. The bill doesn’t require anything different for academic achievement,” said Renfroe.

Other Republicans say they agree with parts of the bill, but think it falls short.

“The reform is really not all that much reform,” said Senator Mark Scheffel (R-Parker). “This is an area that really needs complete overhaul.”

Scheffel also wishes the measure wasn’t tied to a tax increase.

“It seems fairly arbitrary. Why is $1 billion the right number? I don’t understand especially since we’re getting ready to get a Supreme Court opinion,” Scheffel said.

The Colorado Supreme Court is expected to rule later this year on a lawsuit that says the state’s education system is unconstitutional. Parents and several school districts sued the state saying schools don’t have the resources to pay for the education system the state’s created over time.

For instance, updated technology, infrastructure, professional development for teachers, tests that measure student growth, programs to help lower the achievement gap and improve literacy. Even Senator Michael Johnston admits $1 billion dollars may not be enough.

“Some cost studies range from $1 to $4 billion. So even amongst the advocacy community there’s not agreement,” Johnston said.

Johnston says he wanted to air on the conservative side when going before voters with a ballot question. Democrats say a tax increase should occur sooner rather than later.

“We do need more funding in education today,” said Senator Linda Newell (D-Littleton). “I don’t want to see it so poorly funded, this is one way to get there that’s more equal but fair.”

The education community’s reaction to the school finance plan has been mixed. School districts with higher numbers of low income students, such as Denver and Aurora would make out better than suburban and many small districts. The measure has been changed to remove some of the most controversial provisions, but lawmakers still complained about the bill’s complexity.

Now that it is clear of the Senate, SB 213 heads to the house. 

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