(Photo: Courtesty of Rin Johnson)
Any bill that substantially tinkers with almost half the state budget is bound to be complex. Two years in the making, the first draft of the “Future School Finance Act” is out, coming in at a hefty 144 pages. It overhauls Colorado’s way of financing public schools.  Here is the lowdown on one of the most significant education bill in decades.

Here is a transcript of CPR education reporter Jenny Brundin’s story: 

Reporter Jenny Brundin: The people putting this plan for funding schools together have spent countless hours hammering out tons of details. But you and I, we’re going to go through the highlights in about 7 minutes.  And remember, it’s a huge chunk of your tax dollars we’re talking about. And all these ideas you’re going to hear? You get to decide if they go into effect when you vote next November. We’re going to try to break this simply as possible. First, one man you need to know: 

(TV commercial sound: “Mr. Energizer Bunny”)

Senator Mike Johnston: Mike Johnston, state Senator from Northeast Denver.

Reporter: He’s the “energizer” behind what amounts to the first overhaul of the school finance system in nearly two decades. Aides describe him as “indomitable” and “animated” as he’s pushed this bill - crisscrossing the state meeting with more than 2,000 teachers, parents, and superintendents from 125 school districts. But other players are in this game – educators, business people, and advocates like Chris Watney of the Colorado Children’s Campaign. She and Johnston and hundreds of others have met for two years – hashing out - and sometimes clashing over how to do this: boost money for schools, spread it around in a way that’s more equal and get more money to kids who need it most. They asked these questions:

Chris Watney: What are the needs of students in Colorado, what do kids in Colorado look like and how do districts look so different from each other but yet have this funding formula that doesn’t really  address the different needs of the students?

Reporter: First, more money. 

(sound of money)

Reporter: This is Johnston’s argument. Right now, Colorado spends more than $2000 less than the national average for each student here.  That number flies by pretty quick. It spends…

Johnston: …more than 2,000 dollars per student less than just the average state in America. 

Reporter: That’s about $50,000 dollars less per classroom.  It happens to be the amount that’s been cut from each of Colorado classrooms over the past nine years. To make “real” just how little Colorado classrooms are working with, Johnston throw out a challenge.

Johnston: Walk into your kid’s or grandkid’s third grade class room and try to take $50,000 out of that room.

Reporter: So we’re going into class 201. Let’s look around and see if we can find $50,000.

Johnston: You can take the chairs out.

(sound of chairs being dragged out)

Johnston: And the computers out.

Student 1: Maybe the microwave? 

Student 2: Maybe that big closet right there?

Johnston: And the walls out and probably the teacher out.

Student 3: Mr. R?

Reporter: No computers or promethean boards - that’s a fancy electronic chalkboard - or teacher’s aides here. And with starting salaries in this district at just under $38,000….

Johnston: You can’t find $50,000 and yet that’s what we’ve done in this system.

Reporter: Just in the past four years, classrooms have lost a billion dollars - at the same time they’ve been asked to put into place new standards, new tests, and new teacher evaluations.

Johnston: Sort of like building a brand new Ferrari in your garage and that Ferrari may be beautiful but you can’t drive it unless you put fuel into it.

Reporter: That “fuel” is a key part of Johnston’s bill. It would send a measure to voters this November to raise about a billion dollars in new money for schools. It would pay for key changes – like full day Kindergarten instead of half of a day – and pre-school for “at-risk” 4- year-olds – changes that Johnston and others believe will boost achievement, you know,  allow that Ferrari to take off.

(sound of Ferrari taking off)

Reporter: And this brings us to a second major idea of Johnston’s proposal.  He wants to stop what he says is the unequal way the state funds schools,  which leads to poorer districts subsidizing wealthier ones – and -  put a brake on the state’s rising tab for public schools. Twenty-five years ago, local districts paid for 65 percent of schools; the state, the rest. Now that’s reversed. 

(sound of video game "Pac-Man")

Reporter: Like Pac-Man, pubic schools are consuming more and more of the state budget. In fact says Chris Watney, it’s up to…

Watney: …about 43% of our state’s general fund spending.

Reporter : Did you catch that whopping number? 

Watney: About 43% of our state’s general fund spending.

Reporter: And why is that? Well, it’s time to get a lesson in unintended consequences. The state’s constitution is kind of like a bad chemistry project.  Voters passed three constitutional amendments with very different aims: TABOR, to control taxing; Gallagher, to lower property tax rates; and Amendment 23, to raise more money for education. But the three of them together? 

(sound of bubbling and explosion)

Reporter: As property values increased, districts were forced to drop their property tax rates to keep the same amount of tax burden. 

Johnston: And so what we have is a system that through really no fault of anyone’s own is deeply inequitable because you have the poorest districts taxing themselves at the highest rates and then still getting the least amount of state support.

Reporter: The state asks districts how much they raise from local taxes....

Johnston: …and the state backfills whatever they can’t pay.

Reporter: Johnston says it ends up making the state act like a reverse Robin Hood. It means the state pumps more money into wealthier districts per student, districts that have far fewer challenges. And poorer districts may be taxing themselves at up to 14 times the rate of some of the wealthier districts to get the same amount of money. The bill proposes fundamentally changing that equation to make a new formula that is based on a district’s ability to pay, not based on what they’re raising now. 

Johnston: Tell us what you make and what you’re able to pay.

Reporter: ...based on your property values, median income, and concentration of poverty. And then – and only then – would the state backfill. Wealthier areas would pick up more of their own tab.

Bruce Caughey:  That’s going to be the hardest part, I think, of the school finance act that he’s proposing.

Reporter: Bruce Caughey heads up the Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents school leaders from the state’s 178 school districts. He agrees that money needs to be distributed more equitably.

Caughey: But to ask those taxpayers to step up is going to be difficult, and what happens if they don’t?

Reporter: CASE and other education groups are still crunching the numbers to see what the bill means for individual districts. But they are intrigued by a third idea in Johnston’s bill– targeting extra money to help kids with the most educational needs. Senator Johnston:

Johnston: As you get more concentrations of poverty where you really have additional problems really heaping on top of one another, you would have more resources.

Reporter: More money would also go to English language learners, special education and gifted students. And the bill would get that money from the roughly billion dollars the state awards now to high-cost-of-living districts so teachers can afford to live there. Compare that billion dollars in pay incentives to the $200 million the state spends now on extra support for students who are struggling. Johnston says that needs to change. But that’s where school officials really start to worry.  Again, for organizations like CASE, it comes down to how these changes in the formula would shake out in each district.

Caughey: If it comes at the expense of other students, if the pie is only so big and you see middle class students or a student that doesn’t have a special designation receiving fewer funds - that creates a problem.

Reporter: And that brings us back to voters. And money. Johnston has designed this bill so that nothing goes into effect unless voters agree to put more money toward schools. Without it he says none of the ideas will get off the ground. Lawmakers will be reviewing the 144-page tome in the coming months. And if they pass it, you’ll get a chance to have your say on the November ballot.