DENVER – An experiment to reward the best school districts with money got its first nod Wednesday by lawmakers.
Senate Bill 200, which would pull 1 percent of total state funding for school districts to fund a reward program that would disperse the money to top-performing schools, was passed by the Colorado Senate Education Committee on a 4-3 party-line vote, with the GOP in favor of the achievement-based funding tactic.
Testimony on the bill occurred last week, but the vote was laid over until Wednesday so the entire committee could be present. SB 200 heads to the full Senate, where approval is expected. But it likely will fail to move forward in the Democrat-held House.
The bill would appropriate an estimated $66.3 million for the 2017-18 fiscal year to be distributed to the six top-performing small rural school districts and the six top non-rural districts. The decision of which districts fell into the two categories would be made by the Colorado Department of Education and would be based upon such criteria as the size of student population and the demographic makeup of that population.
Districts would be grouped based on similarities and evaluated as groups to see who qualified for the incentive funding
The $66.3 million appropriated by the bill would be shared, based on a formula of giving a base amount of 15 percent of the fund and then distributing the rest on a per-pupil basis to the top districts.
Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, said SB 200 is both a way to reward excellence and close the achievement gap, while also responding to the funding woes of school districts caused by state shortfalls and unfunded mandates. “I tried to figure out a way using existing money, which the state will allocate year-in and year-out, to help drive achievement, to help encourage districts,” Priola said.
But opponents of the bill, which included two senators with teaching experience, saw it as somewhat more insidious despite comparison to other incentive grant programs that are in place. Sen. Michael Merrifield, D-Manitou Springs, said there was one big difference between existing grant programs and what SB 200 proposed: the source of the funding.
Existing grants mentioned during the committee hearing, such as the Colorado Race to the Top program, are funded from money that is not designated for school districts. “Nobody suffered or lost because of those particular competitions,” Merrifield said. “This bill, however, will siphon money away from other districts to create this reward. There’s a big difference in my opinion.”