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.


Aurora’s superintendent will get a contract extension

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school board is offering superintendent Rico Munn a contract extension.

Marques Ivey, the school board president, made the announcement during Tuesday’s regular board meeting.

“The board of education believes we are headed in the right direction,” Ivey said. Munn can keep the district going in the right direction, he added.

The contract extension has not been approved yet. Munn said Tuesday night that it had been sent to his lawyer, but he had not had time to review it.

Munn took the leadership position in Aurora Public Schools in 2013. His current contract is set to expire at the end of June.

Munn indicated he intends to sign the new contract after he has time to review it. If he does so, district leaders expect the contract to be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, April 3, for a first review, and then for a vote at the following meeting.

Details about the new offer, including the length of the extension or any salary increases, have not been made public.

Four of the seven members currently on the board were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate. Many voiced disapproval of some of the superintendent’s reform strategies such as his invitation to charter school network DSST to open in Aurora.

In their first major vote as a new board, the board also voted against the superintendent’s recommendation for the turnaround of an elementary school, signaling a disagreement with the district’s turnaround strategies.

But while several Aurora schools remain low performing, last year the district earned a high enough rating from the state to avoid a path toward state action.

cooling off

New York City charter leader Eva Moskowitz says Betsy DeVos is not ‘ready for prime time’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz seemed to be cooling her support for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has been a lone voice of support for the controversial U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But even Moskowitz appears to be cooling on the secretary following an embarrassing interview.

“I believe her heart is in the right place,” Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, said of DeVos at an unrelated press conference. “But as the recent interviews indicate, I don’t believe she’s ready for primetime in terms of answering all of the complex questions that need to be answered on the topic of public education and choice.”

That is an apparent reference to DeVos’s roundly criticized appearance on 60 Minutes, which recently aired a 30-minute segment in which the secretary admits she hasn’t visited struggling schools in her tenure. Even advocates of school choice, DeVos’s signature issue, called her performance an “embarrassment,” and “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at her.  

Moskowitz’s comments are an about-face from when the education secretary was first appointed. While the rest of the New York City charter school community was mostly quiet after DeVos was tapped for the position, Moskowitz was the exception, tweeting that she was “thrilled.” She doubled-down on her support months later in an interview with Chalkbeat.

“I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue,” she said.

During Monday’s press conference, which Success Academy officials called to push the city for more space for its growing network, Moskowitz also denied rumors, fueled by a tweet from AFT President Randi Weingarten, that Success officials had recently met with members of the Trump administration.

Shortly after the election, Moskowitz met with Trump amid speculation she was being considered for the education secretary position. This time around, she said it was “untrue” that any visits had taken place.

“You all know that a while back, I was asked to meet with the president-elect. I thought it was important to take his call,” she said. “I was troubled at the time by the Trump administration. I’m even more troubled now. And so, there has been no such meeting.”