Big shots face off

Higher ed funding bill sparks high-level differences

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia makes points on higher education bill as sponsor Mark, Ferrandino, speaker of the House at right, listens.

It’s rare to see vigorous public debate between the speaker of the House and the lieutenant governor, especially when they’re from the same party. But a proposed higher education funding bill brought out just that at a House Education Committee hearing Monday.

At issue is House Bill 14-1319, a proposal by House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver. In broad terms, it would shift funding to “access” institutions, such as the community colleges and Metropolitan State University, and target some funding to state colleges and universities based on such performance indicators as graduation rates.

In addition to highlighting differences between Ferrandino and Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who’s also executive director of the Department of Higher Education, the hearing also revealed divisions between research universities and smaller rural colleges on one side and Metro and the community colleges on the other.

Although Ferrandino has been working on the idea for a long time, the bill surfaced publically only on March 13 and immediately raised big questions in the higher education establishment (see story).

Some observers questioned the timing of the bill so late in the legislative session and speculated that Ferrandino was pushing for a “legacy” measure, given that he’s term-limited so will leave the legislature after this session.

In response to criticism and questions, Ferrandino wrote a whole new version of the bill even before Monday’s three-hour hearing. Further changes are expected, given continued concerns. The panel didn’t discuss possible amendments nor vote on Monday and may consider the bill again on Wednesday.

Ferrandino’s amendment would give the Colorado Commission on Higher Ediucation a greater role in fleshing out the new funding system, but Monday’s hearing made clear that he hasn’t eliminated all concerns about the bill.

A key element of the bill is the proposed requirement that 52.5 percent of higher education funding be funneled through the College Opportunity Fund, a mechanism that provides tuition discounts to resident undergraduate students. The actual per-student amount has fluctuated up and down (mostly down) in recent years as state revenue declines have forced lawmakers to cut higher education funding. While 52.5 percent is about what has been allocated to stipends in recent years, many college leaders oppose locking that percentage into state law.

In his testimony Garcia made it clear that the department doesn’t feel the bill makes a significant change in the current system. “This funding model is based primarily on enrollment and includes some outcome-based factors,” he said.

Garcia said the bill “will inevitably shift resources” from research universities and rural colleges to large open-access institutions like Metropolitan State University and community colleges. “It’s a zero-sum game.”

He said later, “I think the bill makes a valiant effort to address really important issues” like college completion and closing ethnic completion. Bit, he added, “The current system’s that in place can work and is working.” Under terms of a recent higher education master plan, the DHE has negotiated performance contracts with all institutions, and an existing state law requires a portion of college funding be based on performance later in this decade, after certain base levels of state support for higher education are achieved.

The lieutenant governor said Ferrandino’s bill is “a too-complex way to get to where we’ve already decided we want to go.”

Ferrandino wasn’t convinced, saying, “I have to disagree. The current system isn’t working” because it’s based on an old model of allocations to institutions that penalizes schools like Metro.

The discussion was very polite, with Garcia and other witnesses all praising Ferrandino for listening to their concerns and being willing to make tweaks in his proposal. Officially, DHE is neutral on the bill.

Metro President Steve Jordan testified strongly in favor of the bill, as did Mark Superka, vice president of finance and administration for the community college system.

Representatives of Fort Lewis College, Western State Colorado University and Adams State University raised concerns about the bill, as did Todd Saliman, chief financial officer of the University of Colorado System.

“It will drive our tuition up. Students will pay more at the University of Colorado if this bill becomes law,” he said. “We think there should be access and affordability not just for the students of community colleges but also for the students of the University of Colorado.” Rich Schweigert, Colorado State University chief financial officer, echoed Saliman’s concerns.

Dick Kaufman, chair of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, echoed the concerns of others when he said, “The basic problem here, I think everybody knows, is that we don’t have enough money in the system.”

Ferrandino said he would work on additional amendments to the bill, although he’s not willing to compromise the 52.5 percent earmark for tuition stipends. “I would leave it up to the committee on that issue.”

Read the current version of Ferrandino’s bill here.

listening tour

We asked six Colorado school board members what they want from the state’s next governor. Here’s what they said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Late last week, nine candidates for Colorado governor came together to talk education, addressing an annual fall conference of school board members.

Now, we’re giving some of those audience members a chance to speak up.

Before the gubernatorial hopefuls took the stage, Chalkbeat recorded interviews with a half-dozen school board members who represent districts across the state. Our question to them: What are the big education questions you hope the next governor will take on?

Not surprisingly, funding challenges came up time and again.

One school board member asked for a more predictable budget. Another asked for schools to get their fair share of annual increases in new tax dollars. One went so far as to say the next governor would be a chicken if he or she didn’t take on reforming the state’s tax code.

We also heard a desire for leadership on solving teacher shortages, expanding vocational training and rethinking the state’s school accountability system.

Here are the six gubernatorial wishes we heard from Colorado’s school board members:

Reform TABOR to send more money to schools

Wendy Pottorff, Limon Public Schools

Since the Great Recession, Colorado schools have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while the state legislature has tried to close its education funding shortfall, lawmakers haven’t been able to keep up. Getting in the way, Pottorff says, is the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

Change the conversation about public schools


Paul Reich, Telluride School District

Reich says public schools are under attack under the false premise that they’re failing — and that isn’t helping the state recruit bright young teachers. He said the next governor must change the conversation about schools to make teaching a more desirable profession.

Provide a clear budget forecast

Anne Guettler, Garfield School District

Approving a school district’s budget is one of the many responsibilities of a Colorado school board. That’s a tall challenge when the state’s budget is constantly in flux, Guettler says. She hopes the next governor can help provide a clearer economic forecast for schools.

Rethink school accountability to include students and parents

Greg Piotraschke, Brighton 27J

Colorado schools are subject to annual quality reviews by the state’s education department. And it’s time for the state to rethink what defines a high-quality school, Piotraschke said. He suggested the governor could help rethink everything from how the state uses standardized tests to how to incorporate parents and students into the review process.

Give schools more resources to train the state’s high-tech workforce

Nora Brown, Colorado Springs District 11

In light of Colorado growing tech sector, several gubernatorial candidates have come out in support of more technical training for Colorado students. But that costs money, Brown says. The Colorado Springs school board member said promising better job training for high school students without more resources is empty.

Remember there’s a difference between urban and rural schools

Mark Hillman, Burlington School District

Crafting statewide policy is an onerous task in Colorado, given the diversity of the state’s 178 school districts. Hillman said the next governor must remember that any legislation he or she signs will play out 178 different ways, so they must be careful to not put more undue pressure on the state’s smallest school districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Five things we learned when Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates got on the same stage to talk about education

Colorado Republicans running for governor addressed some of the state's school board members at a forum hosted by the state's association of school boards. From left are George Brauchler, Steve Barlock, Greg Lopez, Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Nine Republicans and Democrats hoping to become Colorado’s next governor offered contrasting views Friday of the state’s public schools to an audience of more than 100 local school board members.

Most of the five Republicans told the crowd of locally elected officials — who are charged by the state’s constitution with governing Colorado’s public schools — that their programs were in need of improvement and innovation, and that they were there to help.

The four Democrats hoping to succeed fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, pledged to reform the state’s tax code to send more money to schools.

The candidates spoke at the annual fall delegation conference of the state’s association of school boards.It was the first forum of its kind to address education issues exclusively this election election cycle.

Unlike previous elections, Colorado’s public education system has been a key policy debate early in the campaign. Several candidates, especially Democrats, have worked on education issues before.

Here are our five takeaways from the forum:

The Republican candidates didn’t pull any punches when they said the state’s public schools were in need of improvement — and several said that they were the ones to do it.

From District Attorney George Brauchler to businessman Doug Robinson, every Republican candidate said one part or another of the state’s school system needed to do better.

“Education is life itself,” said former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell. “And there is no greater challenge facing our state than 50 percent of our at-risk kids who graduate can’t complete college-level course work.”

Both Mitchell and Robinson pointed to their experience as entrepreneurs as evidence that they could help set the state’s schools free of what they consider unnecessary red tape. Brauchler called for empowering teachers and parents.

Every Democrat and several Republicans agreed that the state’s schools were in a “funding crisis.” But they offered very different paths forward.

It was an easy question for Democrats. Businessman Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne were in lock-step that the state’s schools are in need of more money.

“If we don’t fundamentally solve this crisis, the rest of the issues don’t matter,” Johnston said.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne talk after a forum for gubernatorial candidates. Both are Democrats. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Johnston and Kennedy forcefully pledged to take on the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which limits how much tax revenue the state can collect and requires voter approval to raise taxes.

Lynne was more tempered. While she acknowledged tax reform was needed, she said wanted a legislative committee working on school finance to complete its work before suggesting any overhauls.

Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker and a small business owner, was the only GOP candidate who said he would take on the state’s complicated tax laws. If elected, he promised to establish a committee to send a reform proposal to voters.

Robinson and Brauchler acknowledged that schools were in a funding crunch. But they stopped short of saying they’d send more money to schools.

Mitchell said “he wasn’t sure” if there was a funding crisis, but added, “The system should be reformed before it’s fully funded.”

PERA, the state’s employee retirement program, could play a prominent issue in the election — especially for Republicans.

Earlier at the conference, school board members received a briefing on a proposed overhaul to the state’s retirement program, which includes school district employees.

While the situation is not as dire as it was a decade ago, the program’s governing board has become so increasingly worried about unfunded liabilities that it’s asking state lawmakers to pass a reform package to provide more financial stability.

Two Republicans, Brauchler and Steve Barlock, who co-chaired President Trump’s campaign in Colorado, said PERA was in crisis. Barlock warned school board members that their budgets were in jeopardy as lawmakers fiddle with the system.

Neither went into any detail about how they hoped to see the retirement program made more fiscally stable. But watch for this issue to gain greater traction on the campaign trail, especially as Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton ramps up his gubernatorial campaign, and as lawmakers begin to wrestle with PERA reforms next year. (Stapleton did not attend the forum.)

Some candidates offered careful responses to a question about school choice. Others, not so much.

Every Democrat and one Republican, Brauchler, said they respected a family’s right to choose the best school for their children. But that choice, they said, should not come at the expense of traditional, district-run schools.

“I’m concerned that we’d build a system where the success of some schools is coming at the expense of other schools,” Kennedy said.

Republicans strongly supported charter schools, and in some cases, vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools. Robinson called on creating new ways to authorize charter schools. Mitchell said he wanted to repeal a provision in the state’s constitution that has been used to rebuff private school vouchers.

There’s no party line over rural schools.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the state needed to step up to help its rural schools, which are typically underfunded compared to schools along the Front Range. They need more teachers, better infrastructure and fewer regulations, the candidates said.

“We need to get rural areas into the modern age,” Robinson said.