Colorado legislature comes through for schools

In spite of recent fireworks at the federal level relating to education, most major policy decisions (and the vast majority of decisions relating to funding) happen at the state level. The 2017 Colorado Legislative session is in the books after meeting for a total of 120 days. Now that the dust is settling, it's time to take stock of the legislature's efforts and what they mean for education in Colorado.

A total of 69 education-related bills were introduced this year, 38 of which ultimately became law. For the sake of brevity, I will focus on the funding bills, as that's where most of the action took place.

The annual bill that garners the greatest debate and attention is always the School Finance Act, which sets per-pupil spending in Colorado. The legislature is to be commended for coming through with some late-additional funding for schools and in holding the "negative factor" flat. The negative factor is an accounting trick used by the state to keep track of how education is underfunded compared to the level set by Amendment 23 to the state Constitution. Basically, money is added in at the top of the ledger and then sucked out further down the page with the negative factor.

Given the revenue constraints imposed upon the state general fund by the combination of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights and Gallagher amendments, keeping the negative factor level and adding funds to education was no small task. In all, kindergarten through 12th-grade funding in Colorado will increase an average of $242 per pupil, a welcome and unanticipated positive amount from where we started the session.

On a related note, and providing a bit of comic relief to educators in the state, the legislature also voted to officially change the name of the negative factor to the "budget stabilization" factor, because some of them disliked the use of the term negative factor to describe how much we annually underfund our schools. Educators in the state have responded by branding this new term with an acronym, as is our way, and now refer to this as the "B.S. factor."

Also related to finance, the legislature came through for small, rural school districts with a one-time $30 million addition that will help address operational and capital issues. The legislature also approved a two-year study of the state finance formula.

My prediction is that, while this may result in some recommended changes that improve equity in the formula (sending money to the students who need it most), it will do little to address our larger problem — adequacy. Due to the aforementioned state Constitutional constraints, Colorado's schools will continue to lag behind other states until this is somehow disentangled.

Another big battle in this session was around how to fund charter schools. Charter schools are public schools but operate under a different governance structure than other community schools. Typically, a school district has a contract (the charter) with some operator who runs the school and is accountable for results. Many school districts already provide equalized funding for their charter schools, as we do for Eagle County Charter Academy, but a proposed law championed by Sen. Owen Hill (R) this session would have required it.

Many within the education community cried foul about an overreach from the state into local decision-making with this bill. The larger issue with Hill's original proposal is that it was based on equalization and not equity. Equalization means the same for everybody. Equity means funding goes where it is needed. It takes more resources and support to educate children in poverty or with special needs, and a quality school funding system must address this issue. Hill's bill did not.

A late-session compromise emerged that allows districts to either pass through 95 percent of funding to charter schools (equalization) or to design a funding system based on student needs (equity) and apply it to all schools. While not perfect, this was an improvement from the original concept.

Still left out in the cold were the state-authorized Charter School Institute schools, which will receive no help through this bill. It is as if the legislature said to local districts they must change the funding for their charter schools but then gave themselves a pass on the schools the state authorizes.

We have thousands of Colorado children in public charter schools around the state, and we should adequately fund them and support them in being successful. At the same time, as recipients of public funds, we must also remain vigilant that charter schools are really open to all students and they deliver quality.

In all, Colorado's legislature came through in some positive ways for schools this year, and I am deeply appreciative of that effort — especially based on what we expected at the start of the session.