Call to action

Hickenlooper calls for “common sense” plan to fund Colorado schools

PHOTO: Andy Cross, Denver Post
Gov. John Hickenlooper delivered his State of the State speech on Jan. 11.

Gov. John Hickenlooper called on leaders from both parties Thursday to find a “common sense” plan to fund the state’s schools.

Hickenlooper, in his second-to-last State of the State address, described it as the only way the state can close the gap between its low-performing students and its high achievers.

“Closing the gap means giving students a solid foundation for success at every step of their education, as they move from preschool through K-12, toward college, certificate, or apprenticeship and onto a good job,” Hickenlooper said. “Part of that work includes a common sense plan to fund education.”

Although Hickenlooper did not describe possible solutions, his call for lawmakers to take on the issue is significant, lawmakers and advocates said.

“Calling it out, on his part, is raising the issue and challenge,” said Rep. Millie Hamner, a Democrat from Frisco and a member of the state’s Joint Budget Committee, which writes the state budget.

Hamner said she especially appreciated Hickenlooper spotlighting that the share of local property taxes that fund public schools is expected to shrink by about $170 million this year.

The amendment, approved by voters in 1982, maintains a constant ratio between the residential property taxes and from business property taxes. When revenue from personal property taxes surpasses a threshold, the state must reduced the rate at which property is taxed to reset the ratio. That’s expected to happen this year.

School funding advocates received Hickenlooper’s speech tempered optimism.

“We’re gratified when the importance of adequately funding education is elevated,” said Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for better school funding. “Now we need bold and visionary action by our elected leaders.”  

Before the session started, Weil’s group called on lawmakers and the governor to send more money to schools. Great Education Colorado is also leading a diverse group of education officials and other civic leaders considering a push to get a school funding measure on the 2018 ballot.

Following Hickenlooper’s speech, Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican, said he agreed that the Gallagher Amendment was damaging the way the state funds schools.

But Grantham was skeptical about asking voters to reset a statewide tax on personal property — an idea being explored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers.

“That’s going to be a lightning rod,” he said. “I don’t know if it will happen this year, or next year, or at all to be honest.”

How to fund the state’s public schools has been a long-running debate at the legislature and intensified after the Great Recession drove millions of dollars in cuts. A complex combination of constitutional amendments, such as Gallagher, and statutes largely has tied lawmakers’ hands in changing the system.

Changing the way the state funds its schools has been broached in the past, but changes have not materialized.

Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat, said Wednesday her party is interested in exploring all options to increase school funding.

Both Duran and Hickenlooper have asked Republicans to rethink their position on changing how the state classifies state tax revenue from hospital visits. That, in turn, could allow the state to avoid constitutionally mandated taxpayer refunds, providing for more spending flexibility.

But like last year, Republicans are not interested.

“If they want to keep beating a dead horse, they’re welcome to,” Grantham said.

Grantham said he hopes next year’s budget can stave off increasing the state’s funding shortfall for schools. He praised his colleagues’ work in keeping cuts away from schools the last two years.  

“We’re looking at every single thing that is considered a core function of this government,” he said, adding that he believes lawmakers have lost sight of what taxpayers want. “I think the voters were clear with Amendment 23. But after 2009, our state priorities have gone down a different path.”

Amendment 23, passed in 2000, requires the state to fund its schools to keep up with population growth and inflation.

Hickenlooper in his speech also called on the state to find away to provide high speed broadband to all the state’s schools.

“Tonight, somewhere in one of these (rural) communities, a high school student will sit in a parked car outside her town library,” he said. “She’ll huddle over her laptop, face glowing from the screen as she tries to finish her paper, because it’s the only place she can get wifi. That isn’t right.”

hold up wait a minute

Colorado Latina lawmakers to Trump: Back off pledge to end protections for young undocumented immigrants

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Colorado's Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran

Colorado’s two highest ranking Latina lawmakers are asking President-elect Donald Trump to back off his promise to revoke temporary protection from deportation to undocumented immigrants who arrived here as children.

Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran and Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman wrote in a letter that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive order allowed undocumented young adults access to a better education and job opportunities — including teaching.

The letter was cosigned by seven other Latino lawmakers.

“We are simply asking that the president-elect put an end to the fear and uncertainty of the 742,000 men, women and children, and the millions of our fellow Americans that know them as our friends, neighbors, family members and coworkers,” Duran, a Denver Democrat, said in a statement. “We are talking about keeping families — children and mothers and fathers — together. This is their home and they are a part of us.”

Duran is Colorado’s first Latina Speaker of the House. She co-sponsored state legislation in 2013 that provided in-state tuition at Colorado colleges for undocumented high school graduates.

Obama’s executive order provided an opportunity to aspiring teachers to enter the classroom, including those in Denver.

Denver Public Schools was the first school district in the nation to hire undocumented teachers.

In a statement released Thursday by the nonprofit education advocacy group Stand for Children, Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg also called on Trump to abandon his campaign promise.

“To deport talented teachers and students in whom we have invested so much, who have so much to give back to our community, and who are so much a part of our community would be a catastrophic loss,” he said.

Here’s the complete letter from lawmakers to Trump, who is to be sworn in on Friday:

money matters

Proposal to ask voters to overhaul property tax rate to fund schools still alive — for now

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students move about a classroom at the Denver Green School.

Despite skepticism from Republican lawmakers who help write the state’s budget, a proposal to ask voters to set a uniform tax on personal property to increase school funding is still alive.

The legislature’s Joint Budget Committee, made up of three Republicans and three Democrats, agreed Tuesday to keep the proposal on its list of possible legislation for this session. For a bill to be sponsored by the committee, it must have unanimous support.

Currently, school districts have little power over how much local tax revenue they can collect. Some districts are fully funded by their local property taxes, while others heavily depend on the state. If voters went along with the request, schools could see by one estimate a $300 million increase in revenue.

Sen. Kent Lambert, a Manitou Springs Republican and chairman of the committee, said he didn’t believe there would be enough votes in either chamber to put the proposal on a future ballot. For lawmakers to refer a question to voters, two-thirds of both chambers must support it.

Lambert said he believed, at the least, the committee and its staff could produce more information to inform the broader school funding debate.

“It’s an important element of it,” he said, referring to rethinking how local tax dollars are used to fund the state’s schools. “But it isn’t the whole solution.”

Supporters of the idea, especially Reps. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican, and Millie Hamner, a Frisco Democrat, believe the state’s current formula to fund schools is unfair.

“We’re funding some kids at $25,000 and some at $7,000,” Rankin said. “That’s just not right.”

Sen. Kevin Lundberg, a Berthoud Republican, said he worries low-income families in wealthier parts of the state could see their property taxes jump under the proposed change.

“I have a deep concern that as we set a system to address one inequity over here, we’ll create another one over there,” he said.

Colorado’s tax and school funding policies are complicated. A mix of constitutional amendments approved by voters and other legislation leaves lawmakers with few options to change how much money schools receive.

The state is often criticized for ranking near the bottom in state funding for students. This year, many observers forecast the state’s education funding shortfall, which sits about about $830 million, will jump to about $1 billion.

Rethinking the way the state funds its schools emerged as a central issue in speeches from leaders of both political parties and Gov. John Hickenlooper in the session’s opening week.