DENVER – After struggling with budget cuts during the recession, Colorado’s public schools are hungry for a bigger slice of the state general fund. The education system would ideally like an extra $1 billion to recover their estimated budget cuts over the past five years.
Two school funding bills, passed by the House Education Committee on Wednesday, would offer some relief – more than $200 million worth. But the measures will have to clear the House Appropriations Committee, the House and the Senate to have a chance of being signed by the governor.
The allocations, if passed, would be pin money compared to the roughly $10 billion education funding package that would be included in the “long bill” – the state budget measure now being crafted by the Joint Budget Committee.
House Bill 1298, the House School Finance Act, would increase per pupil funding to $6,121, reflecting a 2.6 percent inflation rate. It would also transfer 75 percent of any state revenue surplus to the State Education Fund at the end of the 2014 fiscal year.
The measure also proposed spending $17 million to subsidize full-day kindergarten and part-time or full-time preschool for 5,000 children.
The Department of Human Resources would charge a $77 licensing fee for each of the estimated 167 preschool and kindergarten classes and be responsible for conducting site inspections.
Republican committee members opposed the bill because the funds would not be distributed equitably. The small number of classes would likely be located in Denver and a few rural school districts.
“No one can argue about the value and validity of preschool,” said Rep. Jim Wilson (R-Salida). “But I think there’s a gaping hole in our educational funding that we really need to address.”
“It doesn’t make sense for the state to fund preschool when it doesn’t fully fund kindergarten,” said Wilson, who estimated that would cost $167 million.
A former school superintendent, Wilson offered an amendment that would direct the $17 million to all school districts to offset the past budget cuts, known as the “negative factor.”
Bill sponsor Rep. Millie Hamner (D-Dillon), who is also a retired school superintendent, adamantly disagreed. Funding preschool and kindergarten, she said, is a good investment because these children won’t need intervention and support services in the future.
Wilson’s amendment failed and the bill passed 7-5 on a split party vote.
House Bill 1292, The Student Success Act, would provide $100 million to offset the negative factor of past funding cuts and more than $200 million for implementation of education reforms, English language instruction, charter school construction, school finance transparency and enrollment counts.
The measure, sponsored by Hamner and Rep. Carole Murray (R-Castle Rock), was amended Wednesday to appease concerns voiced during a contentious and lengthy committee hearing on March 3. The bill will likely be amended again in the House or Senate to resolve issues such as the tedious enrollment count reporting process.
Colorado Education Association President Kerrie Dallman complained that the majority of funds come with mandates on how to use it, and some are one-time money.
“Fix the funding first, no more mandates – that’s our message to lawmakers,” said Dallman on behalf of CEA union members. “We acknowledge the effort to allocate more money than what was initially proposed for public education, and know that these conversations will continue as the budget process unfolds.”
Hamner said the bill is a bipartisan effort and the sponsors “have been listening very carefully to our school boards, our superintendents and teachers, parents, taxpayers and a wide variety of education advocacy groups.”
“Education is the best investment we can make and I am pleased to see my Democrat colleagues agree to support funding to restore these cuts,” Murray said.
The House Education Committee passed the bill with one no vote cast by Rep. Chris Holbert (R-Parker).
Voters soundly rejected a ballot initiative for a $1 billion statewide income tax hike to fund public education in November.