In a speech on the Senate floor I praised this year’s school finance act as a return to the good old ways of the past, where school funding increased and various items of spending were included in the bill to assist school districts with current challenges. Colorado hasn’t seen a school finance act like this for several years, as austerity demanded moribund legislation and a billion dollar “negative factor” to reduce overall spending. As I said on numerous ocassions this year, we’ve turned a corner and are now working to get school funding back on track.
The State of Colorado has been sued by a group of parents and students who claim our system of school funding is so inadequate it violates the state constitution. A Denver District Court judge agreed with them, and her ruling is now on appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court. A decision in the Lobato case may come sometime early next year.
A few quick points about school finance in Colorado may be helpful. Voters amended our state constitution in 2000 to mandate that funding keep pace with inflation and growth in student enrollment. “Amendment 23,” as the measure appeared on the ballot, also required an extra 1% increase for the first ten years of its implementation to catch up for how far we had fallen behind in years in which the legislature failed to provide inflation increases. That ten-year period of “plus 1%” has now expired. To implement the inflation increase the legislature must pass a bill each year, a bill we refer to as the “school finance act” but technically this bill amends the School Finance Act of 1994.
The inflation increase required by Amendment 23 is applied to a base amount of per pupil funding. That figure is set in statute and gets augmented each year. But the base per pupil amount is then multiplied by a series of “factors’ in a complex formula that is also set in statute. These factors vary for each school district and take into account regional differences in cost of living, student demographics and populations. A “size factor” helps districts with small populations scrape together enough money on a per pupil basis, while it does little for large, urban districts with thousands of students. The product of this formula is each school district’s “total program,” which equals the per pupil revenue times the number of students.
To avoid the required inflation increases of Amendment 23 during the recent recession and resulting budget shortfalls a new factor was inserted in the school finance formula. Known as the “negative factor” the sole purpose of this adjustment was to work a reduction in funding. There was no other way to balance the state budget without cuts to K-12 education. Over the course of three years of shortfall the negative factor has now grown to approximately $1 billion. To comply with Amendment 23 the per pupil base amount was dutifully inflated each year, and then the negative factor was applied to frustrate the purpose of the required increase. I describe this unfortunate reality as complying with the letter of the law while eviscerating the intent of voters when they placed the mandate of Amendment 23 in the state constitution.
With that background in mind, let’s now focus on HB 12-1345 and why I see it as a good, old fashioned school finance act:
The most important feature of HB 1345 is the $57.2 million general fund appropriation it carries. This is the first time in three years that total state spending on school finance has increased, rather than decrease. This $57.2 million pays for the projected growth in student enrollment this fall. With this funding, the average per pupil revenue that most school districts receive will remain flat, but because enrollment is growing this per pupil amount is multiplied by more students, so most districts will see increased funding. Stated differently, without this $57.2 million state funding would have stayed flat, but increased enrollment would have spread this amount more thinly over a larger student population, so per pupil funding would have declined.
As you can probably tell, school finance is a complex system and I’m something of a school finance geek. I’ve worked with the formula and this system since just after its adoption in 1994. I’ve seen a lot of annual school finance acts and I can fairly assess how HB 1345 compares. While it does not appropriate the increases our schools need and deserve, it does move in a positive direction. And it also has a variety of small provisions that address different programs, making modest adjustments and adding funds here and there. Here’s a quick list:
- $1 million increase to state support for charter school facilities. Unless they were given a building by their district, charter schools often struggle to afford suitable facilities. Even in district buildings, capital maintenance and renovation costs are difficult because charter schools don’t have a property tax base. This line item in the education budget provides a per pupil stipend to qualifying charter schools, but it hasn’t been increased in years. Because charter school enrollment continues to grow, the state funds were getting spread thinner and thinner. This $1 million increase helps combat the dilution of these funds.
- $1.3 million for Regional Service Cooperatives administered by Boards of Cooperative Educational Services. These funds will primarily help small, rural school districts that band together for regional administration of various functions and programs. This program was created a few years ago but only funded in its initial year. It lost funding due to the budget crisis, but that funding has now been restored.
- $480,000 for the School Counselor Corps Grant Program. This amount restores a budget cut the program was facing. This grant program puts licensed school counselors in middle and high schools across the state in districts that otherwise could not afford them. It’s unfortunate that school counselors are sometimes viewed as expendable, but in tough budgetary situations they often are the first to go, right before the art teacher and the music teacher and… You can see how this works. This grant program puts counselors where they are needed most and is collecting data to show the impact on drop-out rates, graduation rates and college admission rates.
- $3.8 million to reimburse school districts and charter schools for serving at-risk students. At-risk funding is a factor in the school finance formula. But once it is embedded in the formula’s product per pupil amount, it gets lost and doesn’t always follow at-risk students to the schools where they are actually served. Attempts to remedy this situation in the past have failed because of the complicated set of “winners and losers” that would be created. By adding this $3.8 million we avoid creating losers and the real winners are the at-risk students that will now see additional resources for the schools they attend.
- $3 million for literacy assessment equipment and training for students in grades K to 3. This funding compliments HB 12-1238, the early literacy bill. Funds will be made available to school districts to purchase and support new technology solutions for assessing a student’s literacy deficiencies and remedial programs. Handheld devices for teachers and the software and support that goes with them will be prioritized for schools in poor neighborhood with greater percentages of at-risk students.
The inclusion of all these extra appropriations for various and sundry things is a refreshing change to the school finance acts we’ve seen in recent years. Traditionally, the sponsors of the school finance act have been able to choose a program to champion and negotiations between the House and Senate determined how many and how much could be afforded. HB 1345 continues in this tradition, and it felt good to vote for and co-sponsor this bill.