Advisory panel frets over school finance

School finance challenges were top of mind when the Education Leadership Council convened this week.

Image of school desk atop a dollar bill.The council, set up two years ago to advise Gov. John Hickenlooper on education issues, is fairly low profile but includes some individually high-profile education and business leaders.

The council met Wednesday for the first time since February, and key topics for discussion were the pending overhaul of the state’s school finance system (Senate Bill 13-213) and the tax increase that will be needed to pay for it.

The civic group Colorado Forum has filed 16 variations of a ballot measure to fund SB 13-213 but hasn’t yet announced which version it will propose to voters. Putting a measure on the November ballot will require gathering 86,105 signatures by Aug. 5. (See this story for more about the debate on the proposals and this summary of the various plans.)

“I’m hearing the business community is waffling” on the ballot measure, said council member Barbara Grogan, former CEO of Western Industrial Contractors and now a member of several foundation boards, including the Denver Scholarship Foundation. “It gives me a real pain in my belly.”

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, said, “There’s now near-major universal agreement on the policy” contained in SB 13-213. But he acknowledged that two major business groups, the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and Colorado Concern, prefer a flat percentage increase in the income tax for all taxpayers. Several other groups lean toward a two-step plan that would impose a higher percentage increased on people who earn more than $75,000 a year.

“The [polling] data suggests it’s much harder to pass a flat tax,” Johnston said, raising the question of whether it’s better to appeal to voters or appease parts of the business community.

Members chew on Lobato ruling

The council met a day after the Colorado Supreme Court ruled the state’s current finance system is constitutional, and members had varying views on how that might impact the ballot measure. (Read this EdNews story on court ruling.)

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia
Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia / File photo

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who chairs the group, said he’s concerned the public might interpret that ruling as meaning the present system is sound.

Metro State University President Steve Jordan said the court ruling “makes a more difficult starting point.”

Johnston said, “I think it adds urgency to the ballot issue. … It dramatically increases the urgency to build a coalition.”

Others were more optimistic.

Council member Mark DeVoti, superintendent of the small Archuleta School District, said, “I don’t think yesterday’s decision was a game stopper.”

Mike Martin, chancellor of the Colorado State University System, said the ballot measure “is about as good a shot as you’re ever going to get” to increase school funding.

Amendment 23 tinkering debated

One variation of the proposed ballot measures would make significant changes in Amendment 23, the 2000 constitutional provision that requires K-12 spending to increase annually by enrollment and inflation and that funnels a portion of income tax revenues into a dedicated education fund.

That variation would eliminate the inflation/enrollment escalator and instead dedicate about 43 percent of the state’s general fund to K-12 every year.

Johnston and Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster and chair of the Senate Education Committee, was concerned about losing the inflation factor, and she and Johnston sparred a bit over that.

Tony Salazar, with UNC President Kay Norton at left
Tony Salazar / File photo

Tony Salazar, executive director of the Colorado Education Association, weighed in on Johnston’s side, saying, “Amendment 23 has outlived its useful life, and it’s time to move on.”

Salazar also called the A23 change “a way to help higher education” because it could free up more funding for programs other than K-12.

Jordan sounded skeptical. “Maybe, maybe,” he said.

Building public support

Other issues worried council members beyond ballot measure language.

Ken DeLay, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, warned that SB 13-213 itself “remains controversial in the K-12 community.”

Garcia said, “I’m worried” about ambivalent people in business, K-12 and higher education. “They have to really be onboard.”

“I think they’re going to be there,” DeLay said, noting that people who pinned their hopes on a different decision in Lobato v. State should get behind the ballot measure.

“Neutral is against,” said Grogan. “We need to get this moving. … We don’t have time to study. The time is right now.”

“There is an urgency to building the coalition, and that is happening,” Johnston said.

Ballot measure variations

The Colorado Forum proposals come in four flavors: A two-step increase, a flat increase of .72 percent and two sets of five-tier increases.

The two-step tax would raise the least amount of revenue at 950.1 million. The across-the-board .72 percent increase would raise an estimated $927.7 million, while the variations of five-step increases would raise $1.07 billion and $1.16 billion.

In addition to the four different tax increases, the Forum proposals also include four variations of tax policy changes. Those include:

  • A combination proposal that includes repeal of the current constitutional requirement for automatic increases in base school funding (Amendment 23) and replacing it with a provision earmarking about 43 percent of annual state general fund spending for schools. The combination plan also changes the Gallagher Amendment, which governs local property taxes, to set a floor on the valuation of residential property for the assessment of school taxes.
  • A version that includes just the Amendment 23 changes.
  • A version that includes only the Gallagher changes.
  • No change in either constitutional provision.

Colorado Forum director Gail Klapper told EdNews recently that opinion seems to swinging toward a two-step increase combined with changes in A23, but that there’s been more debate over including the Gallagher changes in the final version.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”