With Colorado’s K-12 students mired in widening achievement gaps, deepening poverty and lagging school funding, a state coalition believes it has devised a strategy to deliver quality education in an accountable system. The centerpiece is a proposed school finance bill and a partner ballot initiative to ask voters for a tax increase.

The bill, authored by Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, and Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, will be introduced in the Legislature next week. More than 100 people got a preview of the bill, which, if passed, would be the first overhaul to K-12 funding in Colorado since the School Finance Act of 1994, at Friday’s Buechner Breakfast.

Johnston, named a top 40 under 40 rising political star by Time magazine, was joined on the panel by Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, and Chris Watney, president and CEO of the Colorado Children’s Campaign and tri-chair of the School Finance Partnership. The panel was moderated by Mary Wickersham, senior director of policy and innovation at the Piton Foundation.

The School Finance Partnership, a group of about 20 educators, business representatives and public officials, met throughout 2012 to strategize on the equity, efficiency and adequacy of Colorado school finance.

The state’s K-12 system is in “crisis” mode, panelists frequently said. Data from the past 10 years shows a growing disparity in how children are performing, Watney said. “What we’re seeing is that the gap between (high achievement and low achievement) is growing and a large part of that is because it correlates very much with socioeconomic status.”

Johnston said his 144-page finance bill, which incorporates the the partnership group’s work, focuses on three areas: places where strategic and significant funding are most needed; ways to change delivery of education; checks to ensure the system is equitable, transparent and delivers outcomes (students performing at grade-level standards). Triggering the reforms would be a November ballot initiative asking voters to raise taxes to fund the bill.

“If we can do this … it will be the most ambitious reform and revenue package combined that’s ever gone to a statewide ballot in the nation,” Johnston said. “The Colorado way is that we want to know we’re generating (reforms) in a smart way that are going to generate results and they’re going to be transparent and equitable. We think that’s what makes this proposal unique.”

Johnston summarized the lengthy bill. The gist is that the current system — a tangle of overlapping state policies and constitutional measures — promotes success in wealthy school districts by giving them the lowest property tax rates and largest backfills of state funding. Poor districts, meanwhile, have high tax rates and low state subsidies. “We built a finance system that actually exacerbates that inequality,” he said.

Reforms include all-day kindergarten, longer school days and years at the lowest-performing districts, greater support for English language learners and at-risk and special-education students, and mill-levy equalization, which would ensure funding parity for smaller school districts where voters approve a mill-levy override. Measures also include access to non-traditional education, such as online classes for college credit.

“We would be the first state to do a student-based budget that would allow you to follow each dollar to the school level and figure out how my local school district is spending the $6,500 allocated for my daughter,” Johnston said. In addition to giving principals and educators more control over their school’s budget, “it allows (taxpayers) to open up a much more robust conversation on how we spend dollars and how we ought to spend them.”

The percentage of children in poverty in Colorado is accelerating at the nation’s third-fastest rate. The state ranks 49th nationally in funding for education. It has slashed $1.1 billion in K-12 funding in the last few years.

Those combined factors contribute to the state being in a workforce development crisis, according to Brough. “We (as a chamber) fundamentally believe that we can improve this system, not by blaming or pointing fingers but by agreeing together we’re going to change our outcomes and achieve new objectives. We have to — our future depends upon us doing it.”

The coalition will mount a coordinated, statewide effort to communicate the plan’s merits to the electorate, which in 2011 voted down Proposition 103, an education funding bill, by a 2-to-1 margin. The difference with this bill, Watney said, is that it “contains the values of accountability, equity and sufficiency so people will know what they’re investing in.”

Mark Cavanaugh, of the Colorado Department of Higher Education, spoke from the audience, saying, “I like this approach. I can’t say enough how I think this is a responsible way to do it. Lead with the reform, let the money follow.”

Meanwhile, educators have their eyes on the state Supreme Court, which next week is expected to hear arguments in Lobato v. Colorado, a lawsuit challenging the state’s school funding system. A lower court ruled for the plaintiffs, saying Colorado’s structure is so low it violates a constitutional guarantee of uniform and comprehensive education for every child.

No matter how the court rules on Lobato, it won’t solve the state’s school funding crisis, Brough said. “We could talk about (Lobato), but I just don’t believe it advances the work we really have to do.”

To learn more about Johnston’s school finance bill, click here.

The Buechner Institute for Governance tackles some of Colorado’s biggest policy matters on the first Friday of the month at the Buechner Breakfast. The topic of the next breakfast, on April 5, is “Examining the Findings of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce Leadership Foundation’s Community Indicators Project.”

(Photo: In a light moment during a serious discussion, (from right) state Sen. Michael Johnston, Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, and Chris Watney, president and CEO of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, share a laugh during the March 1 Buechner Breakfast in the Terrace Room.)


Contact: christopher.casey@ucdenver.edu

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