The Interim Committee on School Finance Monday recommended a small-bore list of eight proposed bills to legislative leaders, ending five months of work that some observers have criticized for lack of ambition.
And, the committee Monday rejected or watered down some of the more interesting of the 13 bill ideas originally suggested by members.
The committee killed these three proposals:
• At-risk funding allocation (Bill 13) – Would have required at-risk funding for charter schools be allocated based on actual enrollment of at-risk students, provided a three-year cushion for schools that would lose funding and also required a certain percentage of at-risk funding for district schools be allocated to the school at-risk students actually attend. (Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver)
• Use of state funds saved by mill-levy freeze (Bill 7) – Would have required that any state money saved by the 2007 property-tax “freeze” be put in the State Education Fund. That law prevented scheduled reductions of some local property taxes, reducing the amount of school aid the state needed to give local districts. (Suggested by Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs)
• An idea that would have gradually shifted the state to a new way of counting school enrollment was watered down to a study. That was Bill 12, which would have directed the Colorado Department of Education to develop a program for calculating average daily student members as the new basis for state aid to school districts. The program would have been phased in over three years. Enrollment is now determined by a single annual count each Oct. 1, with a small grace period around that date. (Johnston)
And two more bills, both of which seemed to lack majority support, were withdrawn:
• School Improvement Zones (Bill 1) – Would have allowed one or two schools districts to create an “improvement zone” of up to 10 schools to implement innovations that would improve academic performance. A zone would have had to include at least one very low-performing school and one or more high-performing schools. A zone would have had a CEO selected locally but paid by the state. (Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver)
• At-risk funding increase (Bill 9) – Would have committed the legislature to increasing state funding for at-risk students – by an undetermined amount and at an undetermined time when money is available. (Johnston)
It was not a good day for Johnston, a well-regarded Mapleton district principal who was appointed a few months ago to the inner-city seat once held by former Senate President Peter Groff, one of the legislature’s leading Democratic voices on education reform.
The panel did approve these bills for forwarding to the Legislative Council, the General Assembly’s leadership body:
• Small district aid: The committee endorsed a proposed new, optional funding system for small districts, which often are financially stressed by declining enrollment, even though current school law provides some financial cushions for shrinking enrollment and small districts. Both Rep. Karen Middleton, D-Aurora, and Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, each had proposed bills that would have allowed small districts to maintain current funding for a set period of time, even if they were declining. But, such districts would have to engage in cost-sharing projects with other districts.
Middleton and Massey also wanted to create a new method for funding boards of cooperative education services and add some other provisions, but they agreed to drop those after pushback from other committee members. So, the panel basically approved what was Bill 11.
• Continuation of supplemental online program (Bill 2) – Would extend the supplemental online education grant program, which is due to expire. (Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs)
• School Awards Program (Bill 3) – Allows the Department of Education to accept “gifts, grants and donations” to buy banners and trophies for schools that win various state awards programs. (King and Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs)
• Weighted student funding study grants (Bill 4) – Creates a CDE grant program to help districts study how to better weight or allocate student funding to provide greater support for at-risk students. The program would have to be funded by “gift, grants and donations.” (King)
• School district financial transparency (Bill 6) – Would require all school districts and other education agencies to post financial information online. There would be a three-year phase-in period, starting in July 2010. (Rep. Christine Scanlan, D-Dillon, and Romer)
• Speech and language therapy assistants (Bill 5) – Would allow CDE to issue emergency authorizations to such assistant who haven’t otherwise met legal requirements for the job. The goal is ease the shortage of assistants. (Massey)
• Changes in school finance law (Bill 10) – Primarily eliminates various unnecessary school district data reporting requirements. (Committee)
Interim committee-proposed bills are reviewed by Legislature Council before being forwarded to the full legislature at the next session. The council meets on Nov. 10. Individual legislators are free to introduce any bill on their own, under the five-bill-per-legislator limits.
Some lawmakers, lobbyists and members of the State Board of Education have publicly questioned why the interim committee didn’t take a broader look at the assumptions and formulas in school finance funding laws. Middleton and some panel members have said the state’s dire financial situation, which includes the very real possibility of cuts in K-12 funding for 2010-11, meant there was no use in recommending broader changes.
The state board has asked Middleton and Romer, the interim committee chair and vice chair, to meet with them next month to discuss the committee’s work.