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Colorado schools that boost scores could get more state aid

Colleen Slevin
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER ” Schools that boost the test scores of at-risk students could win extra money under a proposed change to the way the state funds education introduced in the Colorado Senate on Monday.

The idea was included as part of an annual measure (Senate Bill 256) laying out how about $5 billion in state school funding will be distributed, normally a fairly routine list of formulas. This year, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the Senate hope some big changes in that plan, including giving schools an incentive to help low-income students, will help the state win an extra $500 million in stimulus money to pay for education reforms.

School districts usually get extra money based on how many of their students qualify for free and reduced-cost lunches. For the first time though, individual schools could earn an extra $250 to $1,000 per student next year if their average scores on the state’s standardized tests are higher than the statewide average. The amount depends on the number of at-risk students they have.

The bill would also require every ninth grader to apply for an online college planning program to make sure they know what classes to take to get ready for college and learn about a state stipend to help them pay for tuition. School districts would also be able to ask voters for additional money to pay for local reforms, such as merit pay for teachers, that could in turn help them win more money from the state.

Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, said another bill still in the works would include even more changes, including creating a new Colorado Regents exam. Students who perform well could earn a break on their college tuition, something that likely couldn’t happen unless the state wins extra stimulus money, said Senate President Peter Groff, D-Denver.

“We have a lead in this race, and we intend to win this race even if we have to drag our stakeholders over the finish line,” Romer said.

One of the other big changes backed by education reformers in the Senate ” creating a system to track teacher and principal performance ” has gotten bogged down by a dispute with the state’s teachers union.

Under the bill introduced Monday, the state would spend a minimum of $5,058 on each student in Colorado during the fiscal year that begins July 1, an increase of $257, or 4.9 percent over this year. School districts could get more funding based on factors such as how many special education students they have or how much money they need for transportation.

Even though the state must cut more than $780 million from next year’s budget because of the recession, funding for kindergarten through 12th grade schools must increase by inflation plus 1 percentage point each year under Amendment 23.

With bipartisan support in the Senate, including the backing of Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, the bill should pass its first hearing before the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday. If it’s backed by the full Senate, it would then have to win approval in the House, where Democrats have been more skeptical of previous reforms pushed in the Senate.

Rep. Michael Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, said he endorsed the concept of giving school districts more money to help at-risk students but wants to find out whether that extra money would come at the expense of another part of the education budget. Romer declined to say where the money was coming from but said it would amount to only an extra $1.5 million, a relatively small part of the overall school budget.

Merrifield said he was “cautiously, hopefully optimistic” the House and Senate could agree on a bill.

“The devil will be in the details. That’s where we’re at now,” Merrifield said.


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