Voters wrote clearly on the wall in November when they walloped Amendment 66, which would have provided nearly $1 billion in additional funding for K-12 education in Colorado through a two-tiered income-tax increase. The 2-1 defeat meant that school finance – its structure as well as its volume – remains inadequate, though, and school districts as well as charter schools are facing significant cuts. Without an infusion of cash, schools will have no choice but to cut resources critical to effective education. Absent a wholesale fix – which is neither politically nor pragmatically realistic right now – the Colorado Legislature has available some tools to address the shortfall. It should use them.
Colorado school finance is both complex and politically fraught. While the Legislature is constitutionally beholden to increase per-pupil funding by the rate of inflation each year, the economic downturn prompted some fancy-funding footwork that resulted in the Legislature redefining exactly what that funding meant. In so doing, it lowered its obligation to just the “base” per-pupil rate, omitting district-specific factors that comprise the total per-pupil rate – a number that varies according to a district’s size, cost of living, personnel cost and number of at-risk students, among other factors. This so-called “negative factor” adjusts the per-pupil calculation downward to the base rate only, disproportionately affecting smaller school districts with fewer resources.
By eliminating these district-specific components from the inflation increase requirements dictated by Amendment 23, the Legislature since 2009 has diverted more than $1 billion from what would have been school funding to backfill other areas of the state budget that were compromised by the recession. This was, of course, the result of an extremely difficult fiscal circumstance in which the entire state budget took significant hits. Now, though, as revenues are increasing, it is time for the Legislature to reconsider this formula and restore funding to schools by eliminating the negative factor.
The vast majority of Colorado’s school superintendents have banded together to ask the Legislature to restore the funding cuts spurred by the negative factor, citing the fact that the state now has a $1 billion surplus, and the State Education Fund – an account funneled to K-12 education – has a $1.2 billion balance. Additionally, the 168 superintendents – of 178 in the state – remind the Legislature and Gov. John Hickenlooper that many painful cuts other departments saw during the recession have been at least partially restored, including higher education. They are asking for an additional $275 million each year for five years, and the Legislature should honor that request. It is time for K-12 schools to see the revenues intended for them. When the next round of revenue projections come in this month, lawmakers would do well to address school funding first.