Closing system

Colorado lawmakers want to craft a new school funding formula. They are still figuring out how.

Colorado lawmakers could make fundamental changes this year to how the state funds its schools, targeting more money to serve poor students, English learners and gifted students. They could also better fund programs that help high school students earn college credits and industry credentials.

But many details still need to be worked out, and the proposal will have to overcome the political hurdles that have doomed past efforts.

On Tuesday, members of a special committee on school funding unanimously backed a call for a new school funding formula.

Colorado’s current system places far more emphasis on district factors such as size and cost of living and far less consideration on the number of students living in poverty or learning English, with the effect that sometimes school districts serving more affluent students get more money than those serving more needy students. Many education advocacy groups consider the status quo unacceptable.

The new formula, proposed by committee chair Julie McCluskie, the new Colorado House Speaker, would be:

  • Use a “student-centered” approach to meet the needs of students experiencing poverty, English language learners, and gifted learners.
  • Meet the needs of rural, remote and small school districts.
  • Use a more targeted approach to support neighborhoods with high cost of living
  • Address issues related to declining enrollment.
  • Examine charter school funding.
  • Consider programs that allow high school students to stay in fifth or sixth grade while earning college credits or workforce certificates.
  • Be staggered over time to avoid shocks to the system.

But almost all the details have yet to be ironed out. McCluskie said lawmakers will work with education groups and use a sophisticated modeling tool to examine the impact and trade-offs of giving various factors more or less weight.

The goal is to have a more specific proposal for the committee to vote on in January, a proposal that can win the support of five Democrats and five Republicans who can then argue before the entire Legislature that it’s time to make a big change.

“We need to modernize an outdated school funding system,” said McCluskie, a Democrat from Dillon.

Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican who has long been active in school funding debates, said doing nothing is not an option.

“The pandemic has shown parents, teachers, policy makers the weaknesses in our system, and the foundation of it all lies in how we spend our money,” he said.

The school’s finance committee has been meeting during the legislative off-season for five years, and members nearly voted on a new formula three years ago. The proposal hasn’t moved forward largely because Colorado doesn’t have an additional $1 billion to invest in its K-12 schools.

Without more funding, the formula changes would have meant some districts got less so others could get more. No school administrator in Colorado wanted to settle for less, even though most agree that the current system is unfair.

“Should we steal a group of districts and students and give it 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 funding for education statewide. The most recent effort didn’t even make it onto the ballot.

Meanwhile, Colorado lawmakers have made a number of incremental changes to school funding. They added English learners to the weighted formula, ensuring districts would get more money as the student population grew. They changed the way they count poor students, moving away from unreliable free lunch apps. They increased funding for special education. And they demanded that some school districts gradually increase local property taxes to levels that voters had previously accepted.

McCluskie sees these steps as important precursors to a larger overhaul of the formula.

The call for a new formula comes as Democrats have expanded their majority in both chambers and lawmakers deeply involved in the school funding debate move into new leadership positions.

Will this year be different? McCluskie said Colorado schools are underfunded, period, and she doesn’t want any school district to receive less. She promised to work closely with education interest groups to understand the impact of the changes and to take a careful and incremental approach so that no district is harmed.

The modeling tool is not available to the general public, but McCluskie said she was working on ways to create a transparent process with input from the public, including parents.

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, Democrat of Arvada and new chair of the Joint Budget Committee, said there may be ways to find money that doesn’t rely on new taxes.

Recent changes to local tax policy, along with rising property values, mean school districts are raising more money locally, easing pressure on the state’s share of K-12 funding. year. High inflation coupled with declining enrollment means Colorado is spending more on fewer students. This opens up room to reallocate dollars.

The state could also change how it counts registrations, Zenzinger said. Districts that lose students can use their five-year average enrollment to soften the budget hit. Moving from a five-year average of students to a three-year average would reduce the amount the state spends on students who no longer exist, for example.

But some changes might not move forward, Zenzinger said, if the state can’t afford to make them without hurting some districts.

Lundeen said everyone in education needs to find the will to make big changes.

“You can’t tinker marginally and achieve fundamental change,” Lundeen said.

Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at [email protected]