School funding was one of the key issues tackled by Colorado lawmakers in the 2017 legislative session. The state’s long-standing funding model has forced public schools to operate at a deficit since the recession. But lawmakers have not only committed to a study of the state’s school funding model, but also gave schools a small per-pupil cash bump for the next fiscal year.
KUNC’s Ann Marie Awad spoke with Chalkbeat Colorado deputy bureau chief Nic Garcia about the changes to school funding.
The School Finance Act sets funding levels for public schools. Legislators are required to pass it each year. With the changes made this year, are we going to see significant changes in funding levels?
“I wouldn’t say significant, but schools are getting more money and that’s really big news because at the beginning of the session everyone was bracing for the worst. We thought that, given Colorado’s unique funding structure, the kind of constraints our constitution puts on spending here in the state, schools were going to have to really, really, tighten their belts. But at the end of the day, schools are going to get about $242 more per student. That’s more money than anyone expected 120 days ago.”
The other big topic of debate was the way charter schools are funded. Right now, school districts that benefit from voter-approved property tax hikes and bond sales have the discretion not to share that money with charter schools. But a compromise bill changes that. What does that mean for charter schools and traditional school districts?
“There’s about $34 million of local taxes across the state that have been withheld from charter schools in the past, according to some estimates. Moving forward, starting in the 2019 - 2020 school year, all school districts that have those local tax increases and have charter schools, will be required to have a plan that spells out in pretty good detail how that money is going to be spent to meet the needs of students."
“For example, if a school district says 'we really need to use this money to boost our third grade reading scores for Latino students or students with special needs' -- any school that has that particular type of student will have to receive some of that funding."
Being a compromise bill, what did lawmakers in both parties need to hear before they approved this funding change?
“There’s something in there for charter school critics. Charter schools are now going to be required to be more transparent with the waivers that they get [and] with the type of fundraising that they’re able to do. Those charter school critics are very happy that they got these provisions they’ve been after for a very long time. Charter schools, very happy -- they believe that this was a historic, historic moment. Not to say that everyone is happy. School districts -- especially some of those around the Denver metro region that have historically withheld this funding -- are not happy. They had a full court press to try to block this compromise from going through, but were unsuccessful."