Legislature OKs controversial charter school funding bill

Opponents argue it strips local control from school districts

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Durango Herald file

DENVER – The controversial topic of equitable funding for Colorado charter schools was put to rest for the 2017 Legislative session Wednesday with the passage of a bill on the distribution of local mill levy dollars.

House Bill 1375, which requires school districts to allocate to charter schools at least 95 percent of the per pupil funding from mill levies, was introduced Monday in the House and passed Wednesday by the Senate on a 31-4 vote.

As an alternative, districts are allowed to design a plan for the equitable distribution of their mill levy funding with all schools, including charters. The plan must to be completed by 2019-20 fiscal year, and applies to mill levies approved in 2016 and going forward.

The inclusion of past levies drew the ire of opponents, who saw it as an attempt to undermine the will of voters who approved overrides in November.

“That to me is disingenuous to the public,” said Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora.

Proponents of the bill, including Dan Snowberger, superintendent of Durango School District 9-R, argue that HB 1375 is an important step in solving shortcomings of a financing program that favors some students over others based on which classrooms they sit in.

“We believe strongly in equity of all children – regardless of the school or type of school they attend. If we are to rally Colorado to address the overall school finance issues, I personally believe the state must see us value all children equally,” Snowberger said in an email.

He added that the bill does not effect 9-R as it shares the funding from its most recent ballot issue, 3A, with charter schools.

But lawmakers in opposition to HB 1375, such as Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, do not believe the bill is constitutional because it dictates how districts must spend their locally-raised funds.

Kerr said he thinks the bill can and will be challenged in court.

While HB 1375 spent less than 48 hours in the Legislature, similar bills have been the topic of controversy since early in the session and led to a dust up during the passage of the School Finance Act, SB 296, which establishes the per pupil funding for K-12 schools.

The School Finance Act is a must-pass piece of legislation because without an established funding structure the Department of Education does not have the authority to distribute the more than $5.5 billion dedicated to it by lawmakers.

During its consideration, the charter school funding wording was amended into the finance act by Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, to force the subject after his attempts to equalize funding had languished in the House.

Using the finance act for politics drew the ire of a group former educators in the Senate, including Todd and Kerr, who gathered support to strip it and move SB 296 forward.

But they didn’t stop the conversation on how local funds are distributed and who was getting left out.

In the House, another amendment mirroring the requirements of HB 1375 was added to the finance act, once again drawing ire of pro-local control lawmakers.

That led to the drafting of HB 1375 as a way to disentangle the school finance act and allow for the consideration of a “clean” bill by the House.

The School Finance Act, without reference to charter school funding, was approved by the House upon third reading Wednesday and changes made to it were approved by the Senate.

It heads to the governor to be signed into law.