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Is a Colorado school overhaul planned in 2023?

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This year, Colorado lawmakers could make fundamental changes to how the state funds its schools, directing more money to serve poor students, English language learners and gifted students. They could also better fund programs that help high school students earn college credit and professional credentials.

But many details still need to be worked out, and the proposal will have to overcome political hurdles that have dogged past efforts.

On Tuesday, friends of special committee on school finance unanimously supported the call for a new school funding formula.

Colorado’s current system takes far more into account district factors like size and how expensive it is to live, and far less takes into account the number of students living in poverty or English language learners, which sometimes results in school districts serving more affluent students getting more money than those serving more students in need. Many educational advocacy groups considers the status quo unacceptable.

The new formula proposed by committee chairwoman Julie McCluskey, the new speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, would be:

  • Use a student-centered approach to meet the needs of students living in poverty, English language learners, and gifted learners.
  • To meet the needs of rural, remote and small school districts.
  • Use a more targeted approach to support high cost of living areas
  • Resolve problems related to refusal of registration.
  • Charter School Funding Review.
  • Consider programs that allow high school students to stay in their fifth or sixth year while earning college credits or workforce certifications.
  • Introduce gradually over time to avoid system shock.

But almost all the details still need to be finalized. McCluskey said lawmakers will work with education groups and use a sophisticated modeling tool to study the impact and trade-offs of giving more or less weight to different factors.

The goal is to have a more concrete proposal for a committee vote in January, one that can win the support of five Democrats and five Republicans, who can then convey to the full Legislature that it’s time for big changes.

“We need to modernize our antiquated school finance system,” said McCluskey, D-Dillon.

Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundin, a Republican who has long been involved in the school funding debate, said doing nothing is not an option.

“The pandemic has shown parents, teachers, politicians the weaknesses in our system, and the basis of it all is how we spend money,” he said.

The School Finance Committee has met in the off-season for five years, and the members came close to voting on the new formula three years ago. The proposal did not advance much because of Colorado doesn’t have an extra $1 billion incorporate into their K-12 schools.

Without the additional funding, the formula changes would mean some districts got less so others could get more. No school administrator in Colorado wanted to settle for less, even though most would agree the current system is unfair.

“Should we rob one group of districts and students to give it to another group of districts and students?” is how Brett Miles, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Superintendents, described the debate in a recent interview.

Colorado taxpayers have repeatedly voted against efforts to increase state education funding. The last attempt didn’t even get on the ballot.

Meanwhile, Colorado state lawmakers have made a series of incremental changes to school funding. They are added English language learners to the weighted formula, ensuring districts get more money as student enrollment grows. They changed the way poor students were counted, moving away from unreliable free lunch claims. They are increased funding for special education. And they required some school districts to gradually raise local property taxes to levels previously agreed to by voters.

McCluskey sees these steps as important precursors to a larger overhaul of the formula.

The call for a new formula comes as Democrats have expanded their majorities in both chambers and lawmakers who are heavily involved in the school funding debate are taking new leadership positions.

Will this year be different? McCluskey said Colorado schools are underfunded, period, and she doesn’t want any school district to receive less. She pledged to work closely with education groups to understand the impact of the changes and to take a careful, phased approach so that no district is left behind.

The modeling tool is not available to the general public, but McCluskey said she is working to create a transparent process involving the public, including parents.

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada and the incoming chair of the Joint Budget Committee, said there may be ways to find the money that don’t depend on new taxes.

Recent changes in local tax policy, along with rising property values, means school districts are raising more money locally, easing pressure on the state portion of K-12 funding. High inflation combined with declining student numbers means Colorado spends more on fewer students. This opens up an opportunity to redistribute dollars.

The state could also change how enrollment is calculated, Zenzinger said. Districts that lose students can use the five-year average enrollment to soften the budget blow. Moving from a five-year average to a three-year average would reduce the amount the state spends, for example, on students who are no longer there.

But some changes may not move forward, Zenzinger said, if the state can’t afford to make them without hurting some neighborhoods.

Landin said that everyone in education needs to find the will to make big changes.

“You can’t tinker in a marginal way and get fundamental change,” Lundeen said.

Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at emeltzer@chalkbeat.org.

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