Education funding in Colorado could look very different next year |

Education funding in Colorado could look very different next year

Tommy Wood

Everywhere you look, it seems, Colorado's public K-12 schools are struggling. There's a teacher shortage. Buildings are aging. Programs lack funding to operate. Bus routes are being cut back. Curriculum is outdated.

Colorado's school district superintendents, a group with diverse and sometimes competing interests, have come together with a plan that would radically change the state's funding formula. And, they hope, it will force the hands of legislators and voters to put more money into public education.

The first step in that process was completed Wednesday, when state Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley, introduced the superintendents' new funding formula as a bill in the Colorado House of Representatives.

"It's about equity and adequacy, not in the sense of dollar-for-dollar, but similar opportunities for every student," said Glenn McClain, superintendent of Platte Valley Re-7 School District in Kersey and one of the drivers behind the plan.

The plan would "modernize" the per-pupil funding formula, in the superintendents' words, to increase the amount of per-pupil money for four higher-need groups of students: those in poverty, gifted-and-talented students, English-language learners and special-needs students.

Colorado's current per-pupil funding formula sets a base amount, $6,546. Each district receives a certain amount of money on top of that based on size, cost of living and the number of students who receive free lunches. The formula as it is now only funds a half-day of kindergarten, even in districts that offer a full day. And under the current system, those other higher-need students — gifted and talented, ELL and special-needs — are funded outside of the formula by what's called "categoricals." Basically, the state disperses a set dollar amount for those students regardless of how many of them there are or how much it would actually cost to educate them.

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Under this system, "it's hard to plan long-term," McClain said. "Even when resources come in from the state, they could be tied to certain requirements (that don't fit what your district needs)."

The superintendents' "modernized" formula makes several drastic changes. It would bring gifted-and-talented, ELL and special-needs students into the formula, rather than funding them through categoricals. It would expand funding for impoverished students to include students on reduced-price lunches, not just free ones. It would fund a full-day of kindergarten.

The "modernized" formula would do this by setting a new base per-pupil funding amount, including kindergarten, and then adding each of those groups of students on top of it. Those groups are weighted, so that impoverished, gifted-and-talented, ELL and special-needs students equate to a certain percentage more per student. Those weights vary by district size; smaller districts with up to 456 students will get the highest weight and larger districts with more than 1,700 students the smallest, with an algorithm determining the weights for districts in the middle.

After that, the formula would adjust for cost of living and district size and add more funding for online and concurrent enrollment students before arriving at the final dollar amount. Platte Valley, for example, would receive more than $2 million more per year than under the current formula.

"It's not perfect," McClain said. "But if we wait for that, it'll never happen."

Indeed, the group that started with McClain and other superintendents such as Rob Sanders in Merino, Walt Cooper in Cheyenne Mountain and Wendy Rubin in Englewood has attracted the support of 165 out of Colorado's 178 superintendents.

"In the past," said Greeley-Evans District 6 Superintendent Deirdre Pilch, who's also a proponent, "our legislators would say, 'If this is such a big problem, why aren't my superintendents talking to me about it?' "

Now they are. That's what attracted Young, the state representative who introduced the new formula as a bill.

"When you see this kind of grassroots action, elected officials take notice," Young said.

But introducing the bill is only the first step. The superintendents behind it are cautiously optimistic about its chances, though they're aware that bills like this sometimes need to go through multiple legislative sessions to pass.

And even if the bill does pass as is, it contains "triggers" that would prevent it from taking effect without a massive surge in education funding — somewhere around $1.5 billion. In that way, the bill would force the hands of legislators and voters to inject more money into public education. That's not simple at all, though.

"You can't just move money around," Young said. "You can go down the list of places that have been slashed," referencing the nearly $10 billion shortfall the Colorado Department of Transportation is facing.

Because of Colorado's Taxpayers' Bill of Rights, the state Legislature can't pass any tax increases without putting them on the ballot for voter approval. Since it was implemented in 1992, Colorado voters have passed a tax increase once, when they voted to legalize recreational marijuana and use some of the tax revenue from that to fund schools.

Numerous ballot initiatives are working their way through the Legislature now that would put the question to Colorado voters again. One would decrease property tax rates, increase income tax on households making $150,000 or more and increase the corporate income tax rate, then put that revenue in a public education fund. It would increase public education funding by about $1.1 billion per year and would be a radical departure from the current funding system, in which schools can only receive property tax revenue.

Another ballot initiative would exempt education from TABOR altogether and allow the state legislature to fund education as it sees fit. It would fund schools by an estimated $2.4 billion per year more than they are now.

Neither of those are a sure thing to make it onto the ballot, or to be approved by voters. The superintendents' plan isn't guaranteed to become law, either. But they represent, at least, the start of an effort to fix what some say has been for decades Colorado's biggest problem.

"We have a massive crisis in our public education system," Young said. "We must pay attention to it now."

— Tommy Wood covers education and Evans city government for The Tribune. You can reach him at (970) 392-4470, or on Twitter @woodstein72.

The “BS factor”

In 2009, the state Legislature introduced what it called the “negative factor” as a response to the Great Recession. It essentially reduced the amount of funding the state gave for cost-of-living adjustments and impoverished students as a way for the state to save money. Because of the negative factor, Colorado schools have lost a total of nearly $6.7 billion since 2009. Weld County schools alone have lost $316.8 million. The legislature has since renamed the negative factor the “budget stabilization factor.” Superintendents have a different “BS” acronym for it.