The House Education Committee Monday added some symbolic funding for at-risk students to the proposed 2015-16 school finance bill.

The measure, SB 15-267, is a disappointment to districts and many legislators because it does little to reduce Colorado’s school funding shortfall.

The bill would increase K-12 funding by $306 million to about $6.23 billion next school year. But most of that is driven by constitutionally required hikes to cover enrollment growth and inflation.

The only significant discretionary increase in the bill is $25 million that would be applied to the funding shortfall, the so-called negative factor. That shortfall currently is about $880 million. Average per-pupil funding would rise to $7,295 from this year’s $7,026.

Democrats fought unsuccessfully in the Senate to add more money to the bill, particularly for at-risk students, by tapping the State Education Fund, a dedicated K-12 account. Those efforts failed in the face of arguments that taking money from the education fund would put unacceptable pressure on the state General Fund in future years.

“What you see in front of you is about the best we can do this year,” sponsor Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, told the committee.

But Hamner and other lawmakers have managed to find a little more money. An amendment approved by House Education added $5 million to the bill for at-risk students, taken from the interest earned on yet-another dedicated state account. The money would be distributed to districts on a per-student basis. With about 370,000 at-risk students in Colorado, that works out to about $13.50 per kid.

Another amendment added to the bill’s “legislative declaration,” or introduction, states that the 2016 legislature will retroactively increase funding if local district revenues rise more than expected. (K-12 funding is a combination of local and state revenues used to add up to the total minimum annual amount required by the constitution. Typically, when local revenues rise the state contribution is reduced.)

Some projections estimate that local revenues will be $70 million higher in 2015-16 than previously forecast. The amendment is a promise – not necessarily ironclad – that the 2016 legislature won’t reduce the state share if the $70 million comes in, giving districts a net increase.

The bill was passed 10-1 and sent to the House Appropriations Committee.

Testing issues rehashed in opt-out bill testimony

House Education’s main act Monday was supposed to be Senate Bill 15-223, the measure intended to codify parents’ rights to opt their children out of state standardized tests.

The panel took more than three hours of testimony on the bill, much of it a rehash of opinions offered during hearings on other testing bills.

There were a few high-profile witness, including Democratic former House Speaker Terrance Carroll, who opposed the bill. Democratic former Rep. Judy Solano, a critic of testing before that became fashionable, and Democratic State Board of Education member Val Flores supported the bill.

As originally introduced, the bill would have required districts to allow parents to opt out of any standardized tests required by the state or local districts and banned imposing any “penalties” on students, teachers, principals or schools for low test participation.

How to define “penalty” emerged as a key question during Senate consideration, and amendments in that chamber narrowed the definition. One change clarified that the bill doesn’t apply to local tests. A second change specified that school and district accreditation ratings and educator evaluation levels aren’t defined as penalties. This means that test scores and student growth data derived from scores could continue to be used for accreditation and evaluation. (Get more information in this story and in this legislative summary on Senate changes in the bill.)

The amended bill passed the Senate 28-7, but Monday’s House education discussion suggested that even the amended bill may have problems in the House. Both Democratic and Republican members raised questions about possible loss of federal funds, erosion of the state’s accountability system and weakening of teacher evaluations.

Some committee members also noted the U.S. Department of Education’s stand on opting out (see this Chalkbeat Colorado story for the background).

Bill sponsor Rep. Steve Lebsock, D-Thornton, asked that House Education delay a vote on the bill. That may not be a good sign for the measure, given that lawmakers have to adjourn by May 6.

Last gasp for tuition tax credits bill

The committee finished up its nearly seven-hour meeting by voting 6-5 to kill Senate Bill 15-045, this session’s version of the perennial proposal to provide state income tax credits for the cost of private school tuition or private school scholarship contributions.

Over to you, senators

Both houses worked through long floor calendars Monday morning as they raced the clock toward adjournment on May 6. These education-related measures were passed by the House and are headed to Senate committees.

House Bill 15-1201 – Provides $10 million in grants to boards of cooperative educational services to help districts consolidate administrative services. Passed 48-16

House Bill 15-1324 – Creates a grant program to help districts to develop student learning objectives that can be used to track pupils’ progress and to evaluate teachers. 34-30

House Bill 15-1350 – Calls for a review of the standards for accreditation of alternative education campuses, which generally serve high school students who’ve previously dropped out or who lack large numbers of credits. 64-1

House Bill 15-1339 – Eases some of financial transparency requirements imposed on school districts by a 2014 law. 38-26

The House also voted 64-0 to pass Senate Bill 15-173, the bill that would impose a variety of security and privacy requirements on data companies that work with school districts. Some bill supporters think House amendments weakened the bill, so this one may end up in a House-Senate conference committee.