Advocates, lawmakers back efforts to bolster education funding

Littleton Independent
Shanna Fortier

A state House bill and a ballot measure could increase education funding throughout Colorado.

Colorado House Bill 1232, which is currently awaiting hearing by the House Education Committee, seeks to create a new public school funding distribution formula for preschool through secondary education.

The modernized school finance formula, proposed by Colorado superintendents, aspires to provide all 178 Colorado school districts with an increased level of funding for all students, while at the same time establishing a more equitable distribution of funding for students who are underserved and/or face the greatest challenges to being ready for college or a career when they finish high school.

“The bill making its way through Legislature would change how the pie gets sliced,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, who sits on the Senate education committee and the Legislative Interim Committee on School Finance, which is charged with examining how to update the school finance formula.

“The last time the formula was updated was in 1994 through the Public School Finance Act of 1994.

“If coupled with a separate initiative for ballot, we can increase the size of the pie,” Zenzinger explained. “They go hand in hand. Why have a conversation about changing the formula if we don’t have a commitment to fund it?”

The Great Schools, Thriving Communities ballot initiative seeks to increase that pie by creating a quality public education fund financed through higher taxes on incomes above $150,000 and on “C” corporations. Organizers maintain that if passed, the initiative would providing sustainable support for schools by stabilizing property taxes.

The ballot initiative is designed in a way to align with the House bill.

“We are working together, learning together and coming up with a proposal that would meet everyone’s interest,” said Susan Meek, communication director for Great Education Colorado, the organization sponsoring the ballot initiative. “It wasn’t a good idea to just raise revenue when we could lose it to the Gallagher Amendment.”

The Gallagher Amendment is just one factor that makes state education funding in Colorado complex.

The Gallagher Amendment, passed in 1982, says the state must adjust the assessment rate of residential real property to ensure the percentage of the assessed value of taxable residential real property relative to the assessed value of all taxable real property remains the same as in 1985.

The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), passed in 1992, also causes problems by putting pressure on state resources by generally reducing local share and increasing state share.

A third factor is Amendment 23, passed in 2000, which says that the statewide base per pupil funding must annually increase by at least inflation, putting pressure on state resources by increasing the amount of total program funding.

In 2010, nationwide recession resulted in lower state revenues, and Gallagher, TABOR, and Amendment 23 combined resulted in a state share amount that was more than the state could pay and still meet other budgetary demands.

Because of this, the General Assembly created the negative factor to reduce the state’s share of total program proportionately across school districts.

The effect is that the negative factor reduces total program funding for most school districts because of reduced state share.

“It’s a complicated set of factors,” said Dr. Jason Glass, superintendent of Jefferson County Public Schools. “I think the punchline on school funding each year is that the final numbers are determined by the state Legislature. They determine what money is for each school district through a complicated set of factors.”

One thing that Glass said makes state education finding even more difficult is that education is competing against other needs in the state.

“Everything the state funds is underfunded,” Glass said. “Legislature is going through the process of balancing needs to determine right mixture. We don’t know if it’s a year they want to highlight transportation over education.”

Issues in funding that the interim committee is looking at include whether the state is counting students correctly and whether it is adequately defining who is at-risk, cost-of-living adjustments and district sizes.

But Zenzinger said even if all those problems are addressed, there is still the local share problem that the Gallagher Amendment, TABOR and Amendment 23 create.

“We have to make sure that we are doing a better job of having the necessary resources to eliminate that negative factor that comes at the end of the process,” Zenzinger said. “The proposal the superintendents are putting forward will help modernize that formula, but it’s worthless if at the end of the day we end up carving up the same pie.

“We need to have a really honest conversation about whether that base amount is adequate and equitable and whether that base amount is even close to what the national average is. And it’s not.”

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