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Big Retrofit for Colorado K-12 Finance Passes Senate

I've written to some extent about the way that education funding is being significantly overhauled in various ways and in various states. Now you can now add Colorado to the list of states on track for significant K-12 finance changes.

A bill that centers on creating financial parity for school districts and relies on voters approving a significant tax increase passed the Colorado Senate on April 2, and now heads to the House. To outline the politics quickly: Democrats authored and steered the bill through the Senate, which along with the House of Representatives is controlled by Democrats. And since Gov. John Hickenlooper is also a Democrat, the bill seems to have a decent chance of crossing home plate standing up. (Senate Bill 213 passed the Senate without a single GOP vote in favor.)

The proposal is the brainchild of Sen. Mike Johnston, a Democrat and Teach For America alumnus, with support from Sen. Rollie Heath (D), along with Democratic Rep. Millie Hamner. You can read the "concept paper" wherein the ideas behind the finance overhaul are laid out, although it doesn't contain every nut and bolt that was in the bill passed by senators, or a two-page fact sheet that presents the changes in easy-to-chew nuggets. Johnston lays out the case that the state's current K-12 funding system is broken, and proposes the following fixes:

• Improving the system by which the state calculates attendance, in order to create a more accurate pictures of student enrollments.

• Including in the state's basic per-pupil funding new money for full-day kindergarten and half-day preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, instead of funding just half-day kindergarten, as the state does now.

• Creating a new weighted formula that adds funding for small districts, as well as funding based on "at-risk" students and English-language-learners. Right now, the state gives weight to cost-of-living (helping districts with more property wealth) and size, in addition to a district's share of at-risk students. The first two weights would be eliminated in Johnston's plan.

• Implementing a dramatic change to the way the state/district funding ratio is set up. The percentage of districts' funding coming from the state would be averaged out across the state to about 64 percent, but individual districts could see dramatically different levels of state funding as a share of their budgets. The basis for determining a district's level of state funding would be the concentration of students eligible for free and reduced-price meals, as well as property tax base. The idea is to help relatively property-poor districts with high concentrations of low-income students, rather than helping districts with high cost-of-living figures, as Johnston says the current system does.

• Introducing a new system that would allow the public to track every dollar that flows through the state K-12 system, and providing matching state funds for districts that pass certain levies to support school budgets. Additional money would be set aside for help implementing recently passed Colorado K-12 reforms.

• And perhaps the most controversial element from a general public opinion perspective, requiring voters to approve a state tax hike amounting to $1 billion. If voters don't approve the tax hike in vote set to take place this November, the whole plan goes to pot. The plan itself wouldn't start taking effect until the 2015-16 school year.

Why is the last part necessary? Colorado is a Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) state. As a general rule any increase in state taxes that legislators agree to must then be passed by popular vote. Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, in their unsuccessful bid to stop the bill, kept hammering away at the idea that Democrats just want to raise taxes.

GOP lawmakers also said Johnston's bill did not treat charters fairly—an amendment tacked onto the approved version of the bill removed a provision in the original legislation that would have revoked districts' power to authorize charter schools if they did not share certain locally raised dollars equally with charters. That change is at least in part what appears to have Republican legislators annoyed.

I'm hoping to hear from Johnston to add comments from him to this post. On his site, you can also see amendments to the original Senate bill dealing with special education, along with the charter authorizing provision I mentioned, among other tweaks.

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