(Photo: Courtesy of Emma Brown)After weeks of intense negotiations, on the final day of the legislative session, a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers approved a school finance package that supporters say gives some much-needed relief to public schools.
The funding bills, which pushed total K-12 funding to more than $6 billion, sparked weeks of intense negotiations over how and where to spend the state’s surplus dollars. Educators waged a fierce battle to have as many dollars as possible without strings attached in order to fill a billion dollar shortfall that accumulated during the recession.
On the other side, a group of legislators and several education reform groups lobbied to target the dollars into specific reform areas. Many of those were from last year’s complex school reform funding package that never went into effect because voters didn’t approve a tax measure needed to fund it. In the end, lawmakers signed off on compromise legislation putting $110 million towards the budget shortfall and targeting millions elsewhere.
By law, legislators had to increase per student funding by $187 to cover inflation. The extra boost in funding means schools next year will get an extra $369 dollars per student, bringing per pupil funding to $7,021 per student.
“There is a balance between simply giving money to school districts and asking for some kind of expectations and results in return,” Rep. Millie Hamner (D-Frisco) says.
Hamner is referring to the weeks-long tussle over how and where the money should be spent.
Education leaders applauded the effort but say the fight for more funding is far from over.
“This budget is a step in the right direction for Colorado communities but we’re far from crossing the finishing line at this time,” Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, says. “We are nowhere close to making a proper investment in our public schools.”
Other groups say schools are still suffering from a billion dollar shortfall that has forced them to cut programs and teachers.
“With 178 school districts in Colorado, there are 178 unique stories describing the impact the $1 billion in cuts have had on the more than 870,000 Colorado students,” Bruce Caughey, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, says. “We have much to do in the coming years to create a productive and collaborative conversation with the education community and lawmakers.”
Lobbying by educators forced some victories for their side, though. Initially, $80 million was dedicated to filling the budget shortfall; they pushed it to $110 million.
Education groups also beat back attempts to change the method for counting students, arguing it would cost them too much. They also fought specifically targeting more dollars for kindergarten students, who are now funded at 58 percent of the rate of other students. They argued the money should instead go to school districts to determine how it should be best spent.
“We began by talking about increasing funding for kindergarten but we heard very clearly from the districts that they weren’t interested in having the legislature tell them how to spend new dollars that might be coming to schools this year,” Hamner says.
Also dropped off in the long and winding debates was millions of dollars to help schools implement laws passed by lawmakers in previous years such as new standards, testing and evaluations.
Among the items in the school funding bills:
- $110 million towards the “negative factor” (a legislative maneuver that created the billion dollar shortfall)
- $27.5 million for English language learner instruction
- $18 million to help schools with implementation of the READ Act (requires diagnosis and intervention for struggling readers)
- $17 million for at-risk preschool and kindergarten students (enough for 5,000 more slots)
- $13 million for charter school facilities funding
- $3 million for a centralized website where the public can drill down on schools’ financial information
- $2 million for smaller and rural districts to implement reforms