Lawmakers rebuke party leaders, reject charter school funding compromise in Senate

Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Todd Engdahl on May 6, 2016

Lawmaker differences over charter schools and unhappiness with K-12 funding came to a boil late Thursday when senators finally took up the state’s annual school funding bill after a number of false starts.

In a startling rebuke to the Senate’s leaders, lawmakers rejected a plan that sought to break a looming deadlock over charter school revenue sharing by inserting compromise language on the charter issue into the main funding bill.

Like each year’s school finance act, the purpose of House Bill 16-1422 is simple – it sets K-12 funding for the next school year.

This bill proposes $6.4 billion total school funding, a $156.3 million increase. Average per-pupil funding would be $7,425, up $112.

The negative factor — a controversial calculation the legislature has used for years to reduce school funding to balance the state budget —would be held steady at $831 million.

But this year’s bill has become complicated by divisions over two controversial charter bills — and by concerns about 10 small rural districts facing a financial squeeze.

Bill sponsors Sen. Pat Steadman, a Denver Democrat, and Sen. Kent Lambert, a Colorado Springs Republican, pushed an amendment that would have inserted into the bill watered-down provisions about sharing district tax override revenues with charters. Senate President Bill Cadman and Majority Leader Mark Scheffel backed the compromise.

Lambert argued that the two charter bills won’t pass the Democratic-controlled House, and that the amendment was the only way charters are going to get any money.

The most significant of the two bills would require school districts to share local tax overrides with their charter schools. The Republican-controlled Senate approved the measure Tuesday, and its fate will be decided by the House in the session’s final three days next week.

The plan to tackle the charter issue as part of the annual school finance bill debate was sprung on the Senate without notice, angering many members. After much wrangling, the rank and file from both parties and both sides of the charter debate defeated the leadership’s amendment on a standing vote, meaning the vote tallies weren’t recorded.

An unrelated amendment did pass. It would provide a more generous safety net for 10 small rural districts facing budget cuts because they are losing local revenue that won’t be fully replaced by state aid. A similar amendment was defeated in the House.

Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Commerce City, proposed another amendment that would have shifted funding from nine big districts – like Boulder, Denver, Douglas County and Jefferson County  – and redistributed it mostly to poorer districts.

While inequity of state school funding is a growing policy concern, the proposal came late in deliberations and was rejected.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

Photo credit: Jacqui Brown, Creative Commons, Flickr