Sponsor pulls bill that would change how Colorado distributes money to schools

BY ERICA MELTZER
Chalkbeat

There won’t be a change to Colorado’s school funding formula this year, at least not at the Capitol.

State Rep. Dave Young, a Greeley Democrat, killed his own bill Wednesday by asking that it be postponed indefinitely. The House Education Committee complied, though some Democrats were reluctant.

Young said he didn’t think the bill, which had already been postponed twice, could garner bipartisan support in a form that the superintendents who conceived of the proposal could accept, but he said lawmakers need to come back to the issue.

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“There is a sense of urgency that is greater right now and will continue to escalate if we don’t show that we are doing something,” he said of the eve of massive teacher rallies calling for more school funding.

The proposal called 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 having a disability. A working group of Colorado superintendents came up with the new formula, and eventually 171 of the state’s 178 district leaders signed onto it.

The new formula would have gone into effect only if voters passed a $1.6 billion tax increase. Without the additional money, the change would have cost some districts millions.

Superintendents felt so strongly about this formula that they held a rally to unveil it.

After the committee vote, Cheyenne Mountain Superintendent Walt Cooper, who led the effort to change the formula, said his group would keep working on the idea until they could find bipartisan support.

I think I speak for all of my colleagues that we understood the political realities going in,” Cooper said, describing himself as “disappointed but not discouraged.”

“It’s very seldom is a bill’s first attempt its last attempt.”

However, an interim school finance committee that expects to propose legislation for the 2019 session will not be taking up the superintendents’ proposal.

Republicans and Democrats both raised concerns about the bill. While proponents of the formula change argued it’s much more equitable, Republicans said it seemed to them that the tax increase was the real change, with its potential for a big cash infusion to schools. Democrats wondered about the wisdom of tackling the distribution formula in isolation from other problems related to how Colorado funds its schools.

The effort to put that tax increase on the ballot continues, and the initiative itself would compel changes to the funding formula if it passes.

“Great Schools, Thriving Communities is moving forward full speed ahead,” said Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, an advocacy group. “Our ballot measure has a more equitable distribution embedded in it, and it also shows the voter intent that our school finance system be very equitable and student-focused. The legislature will have another chance to pick up this issue.”

Colorado voters have twice before rejected tax increases for education, but Weil said she believes this time will be different.

“There has been cut after cut, year after year, a few more kids in each classroom, pay freezes, shave away some extracurricular activities, or more fees appear,” she said. “People are getting it. Our current school funding levels are not the path forward we want for Colorado.”