Equitable trade for schools

State Senator Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican and chair of the Senate Education Committee, served up an expected pledge in December to bring back a bill that would require equalized funding for charter schools for this upcoming legislative session.

If it were to pass, then it would mean that all charter schools would receive the same per pupil funding as the district-run schools in their community.

Several school districts already equitably fund their charter schools — including Eagle County Schools, which has always provided equalized funding for the one charter school it authorizes, the Eagle County Charter Academy. Like all of the schools in our district, Eagle County Charter Academy provides a quality educational experience for its students and is a school choice option available to all families.

It’s important to understand that not all charter schools are a part of a public school district. The state authorizes a group of charter schools through a bureaucracy called the Colorado Charter School Institute. The state legislature has habitually failed to equitably fund its own Colorado Charter School Institute charter schools. The Stone Creek Charter School in Eagle County is a school authorized by Colorado Charter School Institute and funded by the state.

Hill’s equalization bill died last year in the Democratically controlled Colorado House, where many school districts and education lobby groups opposed it. Opponents argued that the bill walked all over the idea of “local control” for educational decisions and charter contracts with school districts already included determinations on how funds would be allocated.

A major issue is that school funding is not “one-size-fits-all.” Schools serve all sorts of different populations and offer diverse programs. Those factors require different funding levels to ensure equity.

Hill’s pledge to bring back his equalization bill comes at an awkward time, as it was also announced in December that Hill was joining former Reagan Secretary of Education Bill Bennett’s education reform group, Conservative Leaders for Education.

CL4E, as the group calls itself, has “local control” as the first of its foundational principles. As Hill’s charter equalization bill would seemingly fly in the face of the notion of local control for educational decisions, his equalization pledge and membership in this group create some dissonance.

Hill’s bill also comes at a tough time as the state of Colorado is expected to have a challenging fiscal year starting in 2017. While preliminary budgets do have some increases to education spending, funding is not expected to keep up with student population growth and inflation. In many communities (Eagle County excluded, thanks to the passage of ballot question 3A), cuts to educational staff and services in the next fiscal year are widely anticipated.

POTENTIAL SOLUTION

Passing a charter school equalization bill at a time when many Colorado school districts will be coming up short is a tough sell. What is needed is a good old-fashioned political trade that could satisfy both sides.

A potential solution lies in something called the Hospital Provider Fee. At the risk of over-simplifying a complex issue, Colorado has a special fund called the Hospital Provider Fee, which is a state program requiring hospitals to pay money depending on how many patients stayed overnight and outpatient procedures.

The problem is that the Hospital Provider Fee counts toward the Taxpayer Bill of Rights formulaic cap on state revenue before tax refunds kick in, effectively limiting available state resources for things like education. Attempts have been made in the past to reclassify the Hospital Provider Fee as an “enterprise fund” so it would not count toward that Taxpayer Bill of Rights cap. Reclassifying the Hospital Provider Fee would free up around $200 million in the state’s general fund.

The grand bargain would be for the Colorado legislature to pass the charter school equalization bill with the caveat that the Hospital Provider Fee be reclassified as an enterprise fund and made available for education funding.

Districts with charter schools would be required to equalize funding with the charter schools they authorize before receiving the funds. Also, resources from the Hospital Provider Fee would be used to allow the state to equalize funding for the CSI charter schools it authorizes.

This move wouldn’t raise taxes a penny, but it would mean that pending TABOR refund checks for taxpayers would be reduced by a marginal amount. It would also mean that schools in Colorado would stand a good chance of having their funding keep up with inflation and student growth.

In such a trade, everyone gets something they want and the doctrine of local control is preserved. Democrats and the education lobby get more funding for education. Republicans and education reform groups get equalized funding for charter schools. Local control comes into play as school districts would not be required to equalize and take the newly available funds, though there would certainly be a sweet and just-in-time incentive for doing so.

Hardline ideological stances from both parties might prevent this exchange from taking place. However, the legislature and the governor might also put aside partisanship and ego in exchange for getting something done.

For all of Colorado’s schools, let’s hold out hope that pragmatism wins in this upcoming legislative session.