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Lawmakers eyeing ways to bring school funding into the 21st century

Finance committee will evaluate current funding formula and propose changes over next two years
Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, consults with La Plata County real estate agent John Gillam, Durango 9-R Superintendent Dan Snowberger and Bayfield school Superintendent Troy Zabel during a hearing on Johnston’s plan for school finance in 2013, at the state Capitol in Denver. A legislative committee will begin the process next week of evaluating the formula used to distribute money to K-12 public schools in Colorado.

DENVER – Next week, Colorado lawmakers will kick off a two-year evaluation of the formula used to distribute billions of dollars to K-12 schools across the state.

In 2017, the Legislature allocated $5.7 billion to K-12 schools.

The last time the school financing formula was substantially rewritten was in 1994, when it was introduced in its current form. The formula provides a per-pupil funding amount to all districts that is then modified by a number of factors, ranging from the cost of living in a district to the number of at-risk pupils it serves.

“It is due for a group of legislators to take a hard look at it to determine if it is ‘distributing the funds to the needed areas to meet the needs of education in Colorado in the 21st century,’” said Rep. Alec Garnett, D-Denver and chairman of the Interim Committee on School Finance.

Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs and vice chairman of the committee, said the current formula does not address the “transient lifestyle” of many Coloradans.

“People move a lot. They change jobs every couple of years and we don’t have a funding formula that acknowledges that reality,” Hill said. “We are funding a district and they are building big schools with a 50-year timeline, and maybe that worked 50 years ago, but it’s not working today.”

Also not working, Hill said, is the increase in alternative teaching and learning styles that don’t match a conveyor-belt model where students enter kindergarten and are expected to cram in a certain amount of knowledge at each grade level before graduating from high school.

“That’s the exact wrong model of what it means to meet every child’s unique individual gifts, talents, fears, weakness, abilities, and so now it’s about taking it to the next level,” Hill said.

Taking it to the next level includes expanding the options open to students, he said.

“It’s not ‘all of these programs for everybody.’ It’s about having a huge catalog of highly effective courses and options for these kids and then working with them to pick the options that are best for them.”

The committee, which includes five Democrats and five Republicans, will meet up to five times during the current Legislature recess and the 2019 recess. Meetings will focus on breaking down the funding structure used by the state to distribute the combination of state, local and federal funding to ensure it is meeting the needs of Colorado’s students.

The state will contract with an educational research and analysis company to gather information and to help legislators on the school financing committee to sort through data. The committee must select the analysis company by Sept. 1. Members of the Colorado Department of Education will provide technical advice but will not have a say on the five bills the committee can propose each of the next two sessions, Garnett said.

“That doesn’t mean you don’t listen to and work with everyone at the table, but in the end, it’s gonna have to be a bipartisan group of folks who can go before their individual caucuses and say, ‘These are the changes we are proposing and why,’” Garnett said.


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