Colorado lawmakers could make fundamental changes to the way the state funds its schools this year, allocating more money to students in poverty, English learners and gifted students. They could also better fund programs that help high school students earn college credit and industry credentials.
But many details remain to be worked out, and the proposal must overcome political hurdles that have doomed previous efforts.
On Tuesday, members of a special school funding committee unanimously backed a call for a new school funding formula.
Colorado’s current system takes far more into account district factors like size and how expensive it is to live there, and far less regard for how many students live in poverty or learn English, with the effect that school districts that serve better-off students sometimes more get money than those who serve more needy students. Many educational organizations consider the status quo to be unacceptable.
The new formula, proposed by committee chair Julie McCluskie, the new Speaker of the Colorado House, would:
- Use a “student-centred” approach to address the needs of students living in poverty, English language learners and gifted learners.
- Address the needs of rural, remote and small school districts.
- Use a more targeted approach to support high-cost-of-living districts
- Address issues related to enrollment rejection.
- Check charter school funding.
- Consider programs that allow high school students to stay on a fifth or sixth year while earning college credit or work certificates.
- Be phased in over time to avoid system shocks.
But almost all the details have yet to be worked out. McCluskie said lawmakers will work with education groups and use a sophisticated modeling tool to study the implications and trade-offs of giving more or less weight to different factors.
The goal is to have a more concrete proposal for the committee to vote on in January, one that can win the support of five Democrats and five Republicans, who can then argue before the entire legislature that it’s time for a big change .
“We need to modernize an antiquated school finance system,” said McCluskie, a Democrat from Dillon.
Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican who has long been active in debates about school funding, said doing nothing is not an option.
“The pandemic has shown parents, teachers and politicians the weaknesses of our system and the basis of everything is how we spend our money,” he said.
The school finance committee has met in the legislative off-season for five years, and members came close to voting on a new formula three years ago. The proposal was not advanced in large part because Colorado does not have an additional billion dollars to pour into its K-12 schools.
Without more funding, formula changes would have resulted in some districts getting less so others could get more. No Colorado school administrator would want to do less, although most agree that the current system is unfair.
“Should we rob one group of districts and students to give to another group of districts and students?” That’s how Bret Miles, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, described the debate in a recent interview.
Colorado taxpayers have repeatedly rejected efforts to increase statewide funding for education. The most recent attempt didn’t even make it onto the ballot.
Meanwhile, Colorado lawmakers made a series of incremental changes to school funding. They added English learners to the weighted formula and guaranteed that districts would receive more money as the student population grew. They changed the way they counted students in poverty and moved away from unreliable claims for free lunches. They increased funding for special education. And they called on certain school districts to gradually raise local property taxes to levels previously approved by voters.
McCluskie sees these moves as important precursors to a major formula overhaul.
The call for a new formula comes as Democrats have expanded their majorities in both houses and lawmakers deeply involved in the school funding debate are rising to new leadership positions.
Will it be different this year? McCluskie said Colorado schools are underfunded, period, and she doesn’t want any school district to get less. She pledged to work closely with education stakeholders to understand the impact of any changes and take a careful, step-by-step approach so no district is harmed.
The modeling tool isn’t open to the general public, but McCluskie said she’s working on ways to create a transparent process with public participation, including parents.
State Senator Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat and future chair of the joint budget committee, said there may be ways to find money that doesn’t depend on new taxes.
Recent changes in local tax policies and rising property values mean school districts are raising more money locally and easing pressure on the state portion of K-12 funding. High inflation coupled with falling enrollment means Colorado is spending more on fewer students. That opens up scope for reallocating dollars.
The state could also change how it counts enrollment, Zenzinger said. Districts that are losing students can use their five-year average enrollment to mitigate the budget hit. For example, moving from a five-year average to a three-year average would reduce state spending on students who are no longer there.
But some changes may not move forward, Zenzinger said, unless the state can afford to make them without hurting some counties.
Lundeen said that everyone in education needs to find the will to make big changes.
“You can’t tinker around on the edge and make a fundamental change,” Lundeen said.
Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer oversees education policy and policy and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education reporting. Contact Erica at firstname.lastname@example.org.