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Colorado school finance bill sends more money to hard-hit students – Chalkbeat Colorado

Colorado school districts will get an additional $77 million to help students whose families are living in poverty or who are learning English under legislation introduced this week.

The one-time money would help some of the students hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic — without the state reworking its complicated school finance formula, a larger and more contentious conversation.

“It’s finally an attempt to invest resources where they can make a big difference to kids,” said Leslie Colwell of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, which has advocated for larger changes to the formula. “We would love to see a full rewrite of the school finance formula, but this is a really challenging year. It’s good to see how we can make a difference with targeted adjustments.”

The School Finance Act, scheduled for its first hearing Thursday in Senate Education Committee, also restores money for a host of grant programs that were cut last year and addresses technical fixes and policy changes on everything from teacher licensure to school governance.

One provision gives the State Board of Education the authority to review changes to what are known as innovation schools, district-run schools with charter-like autonomy, and another puts a moratorium on educational cooperatives opening brick-and-mortar schools without permission of the school district in which the campus is located.

Colorado lawmakers have already passed a $34.1 billion state budget with $7.8 billion in spending on K-12 education, an 8.7% increase from 2020-21. The School Finance Act, a separate piece of legislation, describes how education dollars in the budget will be distributed to schools, among other provisions.

The school finance formula starts with a base of $7,225 per student, a 2% increase from this year, but average per-pupil spending in the 2021-22 budget will be closer to $8,857, a 9.7% increase. That’s because funding for each school district is affected by a number of factors, including how many at-risk students it serves, the cost of living, district size, and remoteness.

Education advocates for years have called for changes to the formula to give more money to districts whose students have greater educational needs. Districts get additional money for students who qualify for free lunches and students who are beginning to learn English, but other factors get more weight, with the effect, in some cases, of sending more money to districts that serve well-off students.

The extra $77 million would be distributed to districts based on how many students qualify for reduced lunch, counting them for the first time, and how many students are early English language learners. Denver Public Schools would get an extra $10 million, Jefferson County schools would get an extra $6 million, while Adams 14 would get an extra $1.3 million, according to a legislative analysis.

“I really made a commitment to the districts that we were not going to make huge dramatic changes to the formula this year because this has been such a difficult year full of change and drama,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, chair of the Senate Education Committee and co-sponsor of the School Finance Act. “There is stability in predictability.”

“However, it has been an extremely difficult year because of the pandemic. Because of that, we are trying to get more resources to the districts to support our most vulnerable students.”

Colorado’s constitution requires that K-12 spending increase by population and inflation each year, but lawmakers withhold funds to pay for other priorities. This amount, known as the budget stabilization factor, ballooned to $1.2 billion last year, but this school finance bill holds back only $572 million, the same amount as in 2019-20.

“The return of the B.S. factor back to the pre-pandemic level is huge, but there is a significant piece that is not being sent to classrooms,” said Matt Cook of the Colorado Association of School Boards.

The School Finance Act also sets aside $2 million to hire more school counselors, $800,000 for dropout prevention programs targeted at ninth graders, $280,000 to cover Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exam fees, and $250,000 to increase enrollment in advanced coursework, all programs that were cut during the pandemic.

Colorado legislation is supposed to cover one subject, described in the title of the bill. The School Finance Act includes other provisions that Zenzinger said were requested by either the Colorado Department of Education or individual legislators and that have some relationship to school funding or budgets. For example, the bill lets schools roll over a portion of the state money they get to help struggling readers and extends the deadline for school boards to adopt their own budgets.

The bill also gives new oversight powers to the State Board of Education. The State Board already signs off on the creation of new innovation schools, district-run schools that are exempt from some rules and regulations and have more discretion over their budgets. The School Finance Act would require the State Board to review and either approve or reject changes to innovation plans made by local school boards.

The change was included at the request of state Sen. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat with close connections to leaders of innovation schools in that district. The Denver school board recently rejected the requests of two schools to join innovation zones because the district is in the midst of a “pause-and-reflect” period that could end in policy changes. Supporters of innovation schools worry about the potential impacts down the road.

Coleman said the change wouldn’t have affected what happened in Denver. Instead, he wanted to address what he saw as a gap. The State Board can review charter renewals but not innovation school renewals.

“Innovation schools are doing transformational work in my district,” he said. “I want to provide governance and accountability assurance to those families.”