Who Is In Charge

School funding headed for collapse?

Colorado’s school funding system could hit a constitutional dead end in less than five years, a veteran analyst told the Joint Budget Committee Wednesday.

Photo illustration of piggy bankA discussion of the tough prospects facing school funding was the centerpiece of Carolyn Kampman’s briefing to the committee on the proposed K-12 budget for the 2012-13 school year. She also updated the committee – and more than a dozen other lawmakers who sat in – on funding for online students and the status of the Lobato v. State school funding lawsuit.

Every fall committee staff analysts such as Kampman brief the panel on each state agency, reviewing current spending, policy issues and making initial spending recommendations for the upcoming budget year.

Wednesday’s K-12 funding briefing departed from the usual script in taking a longer-term view of the dilemma facing the state.

Kampman walked lawmakers through an explanation of the two constitutional requirements that drive school funding:

• Amendment 23 requires that base per-pupil funding increase annually by the rate of inflation.

• State school finance law, which is designed to implement the constitution’s “thorough and uniform” education requirement, allocates different per-pupil amounts to individual districts based on what are called the “factors.” The primary factors are cost of living for staff, district size and the percentage of at-risk students. The system is intended to provide a “thorough and uniform” education to students in districts where it may be more expensive to educate students than it is elsewhere.

The legislature, faced two years ago with having to balance the state budget while revenues were dropping, introduced a new element called the “negative factor” into the equation. It’s used to reduce the total amount determined by Amendment 23 and the other factors to a dollar amount for school funding needed to balance the state budget.

School funding chart
Starred line shows projected increase in per pupil base funding. Black portion indicates flat K- funding. Green area shows impact of fulling funding enrollment growth. Red area shows cost of fully covering inflation increases, White area shows cost of funding to full Amendment 23 levels. CLICK TO ENLARGE

What Kampman basically told lawmakers was that Amendment 23, school finance law and the negative factor are on a collision course that will make the whole system unconstitutional by 2015-16.

“If total program funding remains flat, the portion devoted to base per pupil funding will continue to crowd out the portion available to differentiate districts’ per pupil funding amounts. Absent a funding increase, there would be no funding available for differentiation by FY 2015-16 and funding would be insufficient to increase base per pupil funding as required by Amendment 23,” Kampman wrote in her briefing paper. (She used “differentiation” to refer to the factors.)

The briefing paper said that Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed 2012-13 cut of $88 million to current school funding of $5.2 billion would reduce the amount of money available for the factors to 7.5 percent of total spending. Kampman said that would accelerate the trend she’s warning about.

She recommended that the JBC work with legislative leaders, the House and Senate education committees and the governor’s office to discuss a school funding amount for 2012-13. Also recommended was discussion of whether new laws, constitutional changes and/or additional funding are needed “to ensure that the General Assembly can continue to comply with the constitutional mandate to provide for the maintenance of a thorough and uniform public school system,” in the words of the briefing paper.

School finance snapshots
  • Current total program funding – $5.2 billion
  • Average per-pupil funding – $6,468
  • Funded enrollment – 805,891
  • Governor’s proposed 2012-13 cut – 1.7 percent
  • Cut in per-pupil funding – $162
  • Historic school funding high was $5.6 million in 2009-10 for 789,497 students

“I think this is one of the most important issues we’re going to be dealing with,” said Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen. She said she’d work to set up a meeting of the JBC and the two education committees as early as possible in the 2012 legislative session, which kicks off Jan. 11. The two committee chairs, Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, and Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, sat through Wednesday’s briefing.

Gerou, noting other pressures on the state budget like steeply rising Medicaid costs, quipped, “This is why I wake up at night screaming.”

Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver and a JBC member, said K-12 and Medicaid funding make it “conceivable that we could not fund higher education at all.”

Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver and also a committee member, commented, “We just keep digging a deeper hole in the school finance act.”

Funding for online schools

The briefing paper also included a section about online schools, an issue of increasing concern and a problem examined in a recent investigation by Education News Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network (read stories here).

The Legislative Audit Committee recently deadlocked on a request by Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, for a state audit of online schools (see story).

Kampman recommended lawmakers take a look at online education because of budgetary implications. Her briefing paper noted “existing systems for funding students and holding school districts accountable have proven to be an awkward fit as on-line learning has developed and expanded in Colorado.”

Briefing paper
  • Discussion of school finance dilemma starts on page 15
  • Online education section begins on page 33

Her recommendation is that “the General Assembly continues to evaluate whether the existing framework for funding and evaluating on-line programs can and should be improved. Staff recommends further study and consideration of policy issues related to per-pupil funding levels and counting methods for on-line programs, limiting the amount of per-pupil funding that may be retained by an authorizer, and ensuring that financial reporting requirements are consistent and transparent.”

Among the key questions around online programs are high attrition rates rates of students and lagging achievement levels.

Some of the lawmakers at Wednesday’s hearing raised questions about the real meaning of attrition rates, suggesting deeper analysis of that problem is needed.

What’s next

The JBC will be briefed Dec. 1 on other parts of CDE’s budget, including the department’s request for $25.9 million in startup funds for a new testing system. Hickenlooper has recommended that money not be included in the 2012-13 budget, but CDE hopes to persuade lawmakers otherwise.

Department executives will have a chance at a Dec. 16 hearing to make their spending case and to answer questions raised at the two briefings.

Budget woes

In budget address, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker proposes modest education increases

J.B. Pritzker speaks during a round table discussion with high school students at a creative workspace for women on October 1, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

Even while calling his proposed budget “austere” and speaking plainly about the yawning deficit he inherited, Illinois’ new governor, J.B. Pritzker, struck an optimistic chord when describing how he plans to plow more money into schools.

His fiscal year 2020 budget would allocate a total of $7.2 billion for K-12 funding, including an extra $25 million in addition to the mandated $350 million annual minimum increase under the state’s funding formula.

“There’s a focus here on trying to not only rebuild from the damage that was done over the last four years but also to set us up for growing the economy, which happens in part because of our investments in education,” Pritzker said, nodding to a nearly two-year budget stalemate under his predecessor, Republican Bruce Rauner, that left the state with billions in unpaid bills.

During Wednesday’s speech, the governor said the long-term solution to the state’s budget deficits  was a progressive income tax that would take more money from Illinois’ wealthiest residents.

In the shorter term, though, Pritzker’s budget proposal includes an additional $25 million for Illinois schools, an increase of $21 million in special education grants, and a $5 million boost for career and technical education programs for high school students.

Also in the proposal: $50 million in need-based college grants, another $35 million in university scholarships, and $2 million to cover waived fees for low-income students taking Advanced Placement tests.

Pritzker’s budget would allocate an additional $100 million to the Early Childhood Block Grant. That would bring the state investment in early childhood education to $594 million next year.

The governor Wednesday also proposed freezing a tax credit for businesses and individuals who contributed scholarships for private schools. Critics argued the program cut into state income taxes that would otherwise help fund public schools. Supporters, including Rauner, said it was one of the few ways struggling families could afford private schools.

Pritzker noted that given Illinois’ economic reality, there is a limit to how much cost-cutting alone could do. Instead, he promised to pass a budget that would include an increase in funding across the board as a way to invest in the state’s future, with a particular focus on education.

“We must stop slashing programs that build future prosperity,” Pritzker said in his budget address. “Over the long term, we must make investments in education, livable wages, innovative human service programs and job training.”

In unveiling his budget, the governor spoke plainly about the state’s dire fiscal situation: a $3.2 billion budget deficit and $15 billion in debt from unpaid bills — an amount that is equal to funding “free four-year university tuition for more than 12,000 students,” he said.

Nearly two years without a state budget under the previous governor prompted a massive backlog of funding in the K-12 education budget that the state is still struggling to fill, on top of an $8.1 billion backlog of unpaid bills across state agencies.

A 2017 overhaul in the formula Illinois uses to fund schools put the state on a 10-year path to closing the more than $6.8 billion gap between what it spends on K-12 public schools and the projected cost of adequate school funding. In January, the state board of education asked for $15 billion in public schools funding.

“It’s a very teensy step and better an increase than not,” Wendy Katten with Raise Your Hand Action, a parent group advocating for public education, said of the increased funding for K-12 schools. “But that’s nowhere near the $7 billion that’s needed for basic adequacy, let alone the $2 billion needed for [Chicago Public Schools].”   

Pritzker’s proposed additions are modest, to be sure, but unions representing teachers in Chicago and statewide, as well as disability advocates, said any additional investment in education is most welcome.

“It’s clear that he understands the importance of great public schools and higher education and is committed to fulfilling the state’s responsibility to invest in them,” the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Dan Montgomery, said.

And the Chicago Teachers Union asked that Chicago Public Schools to use any extra state funding to lower class sizes and increase special education staffing.

“The increase in evidence-based funding over the statutory minimum recognizes that Illinois’ challenges with education funding equity are fundamentally rooted in the need to drive more resources to students, like those in CPS, who have suffered from decades of insufficient and unequal school funding,” Jesse Sharkey, president of the union, said.

Chris Yun, the education policy analyst with Access Living, which advocates for people with disabilities, said she was heartened to see a bump for special education funding, noting: “Students with disabilities are often forgotten because the number is much less than general education students. We have a long way to go, but this is just step one.”

Pritzker told Chalkbeat in October that contributing more money to education would require solving the state’s longstanding budget woes. At that time, Illinois was expected to enter fiscal year 2019 with a budget deficit of more than $1 billion. That figure has now more than tripled.

Its problems are compounded significantly by its pension responsibilities, making it increasingly difficult to allocate money to other needs, said Ralph Martire, director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

“The payments are jumping at levels our system can’t afford,” Martire said.

Pritzker on Wednesday said he would “smooth the pension ramp by modestly extending it,” which hints at a plan to push payments off further.

While Pritzker’s progressive taxation plan has a steady thrum of support from Democratic lawmakers, the measure has not yet passed the state legislature.

Pritzker acknowledged that his 2020 budget was built on a tax structure that he still considered regressive and said he hoped to change that going forward.  

“Not only is our tax system unfair, it’s also inadequate to solve our long-term financial challenges,” he said. “Make no bones about it, I choose to stand up for working families and will lead the charge to finally enact a fair tax system in Illinois.”

Cassie Creswell, a board member of public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Action, said the budget address was a positive indicator of Pritzker’s support for revamping taxation, but feared “the rates that will be proposed to make it politically palatable won’t make it the rate we need to fund stuff in the state.”

interview time

Four candidates left make their case before commission for open Shelby County Schools board seat

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Interim school board candidate Aubrey Howard presents before the Shelby County Commission.

Four remaining candidates for a vacated Memphis school board seat had their chance to tell the Shelby County Commission why they are the right person for the job on Wednesday afternoon.

They were the remaining viable candidates after six applicants were disqualified for living outside of District 2, the area the interim board member will represent in Shelby County Schools. Chalkbeat reported on Monday that six of the candidates live outside of the district. The appointee will fill the seat Teresa Jones vacated following her recent appointment as a municipal court judge, and will serve until the term expires in August 2020.

The four applicants are (We’ve linked to their full applications.):

  • Erskine Gillespie, an account manager at the Lifeblood Mid-South Regional Blood Bank.
  • Althea Greene, a retired Memphis educator and pastor of Real Life Ministries.
  • Aubrey Howard, the executive director of governmental and legislative affairs in the Shelby County Trustee’s Office.
  • Charles McKinney, the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

The interim member will join the school board at a crucial time, amid the search for a new superintendent to replace Dorsey Hopson, who left the district in December. Currently, Joris Ray is serving as interim superintendent.

Commissioners peppered the candidates with questions on big issues facing the district, including school choice, the budget process, managing the district’s aging buildings and underenrollment, and how they could improve the relationship between the district and the county commission, the funding body for schools.

In their pitches to commissioners, applicants touted their previous experiences with K-12 education, such as work with nonprofits and curriculum development, and their ties to Memphis schools. “I’m a product of Memphis schools,” was a phrase said again and again.

Most applicants expressed general support for charter schools, which have grown significantly in recent years in Memphis, but Gillespie said he believed “the influx of our charter school program is an issue that must be addressed.” McKinney sits on the board of a charter high school, and Greene and Howard said they had no issues with charter schools as a way to serve individual needs of students.

On the relationship with the county commission, Greene said: “I think it’s important that as a school board member, I’m at county commission meetings. And work as a bridge to educate children and give them the best education we can, and we know that costs money.”

Gillespie was asked by Commissioner Willie Brooks what he thinks of alternative schools, which serve students who have been expelled or suspended from traditional schools for behavioral reasons. There are several alternative schools in District 2.

“I think alternative schools are truly something necessary,” Gillespie said. “They can provide a trauma-informed response for our students.”

The questionnaire given to each candidate asked about TNReady, the state’s embattled testing system. Commissioner Michael Whaley, who chairs the education committee, asked Howard to expand on his answer that the test “didn’t work.”

“Those decisions about testing and teacher evaluations would be better met if they were local and not state controlled,” Howard replied. “For sure, the state wasted a huge amount of money with the companies they hired that failed us.”

Gillespie and McKinney described aging and often near-empty school buildings as a large issue facing the district. The interim board member would help analyze a massive district plan left by former superintendent Hopson that would consolidate 28 Memphis schools into 10 new buildings.

McKinney said the school board should be having regular conversations with the commission and the neighborhoods it serves on how demographic shifts have impacted the county, creating underenrollment in some schools.

“For the school board, those conversations need to be ongoing, so when it comes time to make a decision about whether or not to close a school, it’s not coming as a surprise,” McKinney said.

Three people from Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group, spoke in support of McKinney. The group’s leader, Sarah Carpenter, said he’s been a consistent figure in her neighborhood of North Memphis.

Shelby County Commission
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Commissioner Willie Brooks (left) asked candidates about how they would work with the county commission.

“I’m tired of people coming to our community when they want a seat and we don’t see them anymore,” Carpenter said. “Our children’s lives are on the line.”

Commissioner Edmund Ford, himself a former teacher, said after the interviews he would like to see an educator on the board.

“There were a lot of things I saw as a teacher, when I would go to the school board to ask for their assistance, that I would not receive,” Ford said. “Personally, I would like to see someone who has been there and done that.”

After hearing from the candidates, the commission voted to move the item to its Monday meeting, where commissioners will vote on a successor.

For more details, see our Twitter thread from the hearing.