School funding overhaul gets first review in Colorado
Aspen, CO Colorado
DENVER – Sweeping revisions to how Colorado funds public schools – accompanied by up to $1 billion in higher taxes across the state – came under consideration Tuesday in the state Legislature after years of discussion.
The proposal seeks to undo a complicated funding scheme that has left the state shouldering more and more of the fiscal burden for funding education. Because the existing school-funding plan gives local taxpayers an incentive not to fund education through higher property taxes, they’ve often left state government holding the bag.
Colorado’s complex school-funding regulations have prompted complaints that education is poorly funded and too susceptible to cuts when the economy sours. Colorado is awaiting a decision from the state Supreme Court on a lawsuit that says Colorado’s school funding is so bad, it violates the state constitution.
“We obviously have a system that is not working for everybody,” said Sen. Rollie Heath, a Boulder Democrat and one of the overhaul’s sponsors.
The measure under discussion Tuesday in the Senate Education Committee checked in at 174 pages and was by far the most complicated proposal of the legislative term. Some supporters say the overhaul could repair years of inequitable school financing. Much of the bill sets up incentives to local governments to seek local tax hikes to fund schools, taking some load off the state.
The overhaul also sets up full-day kindergarten across the state and an updated funding scheme to help students learning English.
“What should the school-financing formula look like for the next 20 years?” asked Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver. “We’ll build an act that we think represents the best chance for all Colorado kids to be successful.”
Lawmakers have long agreed that Colorado’s school-funding process needs an update. But the elaborate proposal outlined Tuesday came with a big question mark. The whole thing hinges on voter approval of a tax hike, the details of which haven’t been released.
Lawmakers have been given district-by-district breakdowns of how their home districts would fare under approval of a statewide hike in the income tax, plus a series of local votes to hike property taxes or other taxes to fund schools. The projected tab comes to about $950 million, though specifics are sketchy.
Democrats in the Legislature won’t propose any tax hikes – a curious omission but an understandable one considering how unpopular tax increases are. A proposal two years ago to raise taxes for schools from Heath failed badly.
Johnston has predicted an income-tax hike will be petitioned onto ballots by a private educational advocacy group.
“There are a number of outside groups who have been working on the idea of a ballot initiative for a year or more,” Johnston said.
Republicans on the Education Committee asked whether Colorado’s school funding scheme can be updated without higher taxes.
Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, pointed out that the state on Monday upped its projected tax receipts for the year by more than $200 million.
“It seems we’ve got lots of opportunity” to give schools more money without higher taxes, Hill said.
School officials who packed the hearing room didn’t agree on the funding overhaul. Many said they wanted to know more about how the new scheme would work.
“We’re not even sure what this bill is yet,” said Walt Cooper, superintendent of the Cheyenne Mountain School District.
Schools are watching closely, though, he said.
“This is the only game in town, and we need to make sure we get this right,” Cooper said.
A preliminary vote on the school-funding bill wasn’t planned until Wednesday. If the Legislature approves the measure, and voters approve the tax hikes, the new funding formula would take effect for the 2014-15 school year.
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