Interim school finance panel goes another year without formula fix, finds other improvements | Education

Let’s go back to 2017: that’s when the General Assembly passed House Bill 1340, which set up an interim committee charged with coming up with a new school finance funding formula.

That committee has now met five years in a row, but over time the enabling legislation has changed, most recently in 2021. While the committee has made legislation recommendations, none have addressed the original charge.

To be sure, the committee’s charge wasn’t only to come up with a new formula: over time, that charge has evolved to allow the committee to tackle all manner of school finance issues, including items not even included in the formula, such as categoricals (that’s special education, ESL programs and gifted & talented programs, for example) and how the state counts at-risk students.

That’s the committee’s focus for the bills they intend to introduce in the 2022 session.

The committee’s Democrats issued a statement Thursday, lauding those pending bills. The bills were passed unanimously on bipartisan votes. A proposed bill on a state match for mill levy overrides (that’s additional property taxes voters approve for school districts, mostly to deal with public school needs), failed on a tie vote in the committee, which is made up of four Democrats and four Republicans .

The bills the committee will sponsor:

  • A bill to change how students who are at-risk of falling behind are identified, by expanding the definition to include students who are enrolled in programs like Medicaid. The new formula will create a more accurate picture of how many students are at-risk and where they attend school, which will allow the state to better direct resources where they are needed most. Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, told Colorado Politics that the at-risk factor, which had been based on the number of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches (FRL), was waived by the federal government during the pandemic, a waiver that would grant everyone free and/or reduced price lunches. “If you’re waiving the requirements, it’s hard to calculate who is eligible” for a free lunch and hence for the programs intended to help at-risk students. Medicaid eligibility would stand in as a proxy for FRL, she explained. The bill also calls for identifying neighborhood socio-economic factors that could help identify at-risk students. Going forward, the commissioner of education would convene a working group to put those new at-risk factors into place for the 2023-24 school year.
  • The second bill intends to “dramatically increase funding for more than 100,000 Colorado special education students,” increasing the amount from $1,250 per student to $1,750 and adjusting for inflation thereafter, with a goal of eventually reaching $6,000 per student, which is already in state law but never funded at that level. The statement said the funding increase “will bring down student-teacher ratios, decrease class sizes, and help schools provide the tailored assistance and support special education students need to learn and receive the quality education they deserve.”

A third bill will address how revenue from school trust lands are deposited in the Public School Fund.

“Every Colorado student deserves a quality, public education, but the current level of state support for schools just isn’t getting the job done,” Zenzinger said in the statement. “We’ve been working to fix that, and this legislation will help us get critical resources to the classrooms that need them most while making sure every student, regardless of ability, has what they need to succeed.”

Sen. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, who like Zenzinger, has been on the interim committee since its inception in 2017, told Colorado Politics that there’s nothing more complicated than the financing of public entities, but the most complicated formulas are those on public education. Those formulas are “Byzantine and antique,” he said.

Lundeen said he’s been frustrated with the progress on making the school finance formula more about students than about systems. But “hope springs eternal,” he said.

The bills the committee advanced Thursday do accomplish some of that, Lundeen said, pointing to the bill on at-risk students. There’s more that can be included, he added, such as looking at trends on whether a student is performing negatively, which would put that student more at risk. The same is true for special needs students. “We’ve provided additional dollars for special education, but we need to look at the characteristics and categories in which students find themselves. We’re so slow in making the formula more about students, but we are beginning to bend it that way, slightly.”

Lundeen noted he’s been nibbling away at the edges of changes to the formula for 11 years, including his time on the state board of education prior to election to the General Assembly. “We have to change the way money flows; finance drives policy, and policy drivers performance,” he said. But the system, Lundeen said, is failing 50% of the students, and that’s not acceptable. “It starts with how the money flows.”

Zenzinger told Colorado Politics that the creating a new school finance funding formula is at a stalemate for now, but she believes that it will happen at some point, given that the committee’s current charge extends for another year. The charge in HB 21-1325 specifically called for action on at-risk funding and on the mill levy override match, although the latter failed to gain enough votes for committee support.

With regard to the original charge on creating a new school finance formula, Zenzinger said previous committees (the 2021 group had six new members, out of eight), could not come to agreement. Thursday’s bills are a byproduct of prior conversations, things the committee could find agreement on. “When you can find agreement on things with tremendous positive consequences, take the win!”

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