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The long and winding road to school finance reform in Colorado: five key lessons

Originally Posted by Democrats for Education Reform on June 27, 2013. Copyright © Written by Van Schoales. Read here.

Colorado is on the brink of having one of the most carefully devised and unique school finance systems in the country. After a perilous journey, Senate Bill 213, CO’s recently passed school finance bill, was finally signed into law by Governor Hickenlooper several weeks ago. Yet, the bill—authored by Senator and CO DFER advisory Board member Mike Johnston and Representative Millie Hamner—still faces one more tough hurdle: voter approval. Putting the funding system into action will require a statewide referendum that voters will see on the ballot this November. The price tag for passage of this school finance reform referendum? Almost $1 billion in new state revenues.


The last rewrite of Colorado’s school finance law was more than 20 years ago when there was no such thing as public charters, online schools, or a growing stream of data on school effectiveness. At that time, Colorado was at the national average in terms of education spending; we are now ranked somewhere between 40th and 49th depending on which method is used to measure the rate of funding. Colorado, like most states, sends most of its education funding directly to school districts and allows districts a great deal of flexibility when making decisions on how to spend the money.

Two years ago, education leaders in Colorado began to meet and discuss strategies for raising the level of funding available for K-12 and changes that should (or should not) be made to the state’s finance system to ensure our students were prepared for college, careers and citizenship.

Some of the leaders involved in the discussions, including the teacher union (CEA), administrators (CASE) and school boards (CASB), advocated for more funding, but did not believe changes to the system were necessary. The big Cs, as they are called, claimed the system was sound but just lacked the necessary funds to operate effectively. Opponents of the big Cs’ plan pointed out that there was no evidence in Colorado or elsewhere that more funding by itself would raise student achievement, and that the best funded states in the country (like New Jersey [Note: NJ is actually a high-achieving state] or D.C.) often showed the worst student achievement.

Fortunately, the coalition also included groups like the Colorado Children’s Campaign, Colorado Succeeds, DFER Colorado and business groups such as the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. These groups understood the need for real reform of the system and advocated for major changes in addition to increased funding.

In the end, despite conflicting viewpoints, the school finance partnership developed a set of principles informed by constituencies throughout the state and leading school finance experts that influenced the writing of SB 213. The principles, however, still did not address details like the treatment of public charter schools or weighted student funding. These, and a long list of other issues, would be fought over during the legislative session.

While the fights over all of the details of the bill were less emotional than the fights over changing educator evaluations and tenure with Senate Bill 191, they were just as intense, often with unusual coalitions fighting over hard to understand topics. Who would have thought such a pro-charter district like Douglas County would be aligned with the school board association on wanting more money going to districts and less being attached to students?


SB 213 ultimately changed the current funding formula by requiring a portion of total student funding to be “backpack funding” following low-income students and English Language Learners to the schools where they were actually enrolled. It also added funding for full day kindergarten and brought public charter school funding to levels in line with district-funded schools. Other changes as well as a summary of the bill can be found here.

The process for passage of the bill and overall politics was as complicated as the policies themselves. Sponsors had to stay the course in supporting the bill while they managed the interests of reform groups, school boards, teacher unions, administrators, legislators and the governor.

While the journey has been arduous and is still far from over, there are a number of lessons that other states might consider when trying to redesign their school finance systems. Here are five things that stand out:

    1. Garner bi-partisan support for such a change prior to the start of a legislative process. DFER Colorado, which helped ensure reforms were tied to new money, led a heroic effort to keep reforms in the bill as it moved through the legislative process, but a lack of support from both sides of the aisle made this difficult. Having more Democrats push for more funding and reform while the Republicans did the same would have allowed for this bill to be even more successful.


    1. Start the process well before session and get detailed language and messaging about changes distributed early so that some key fights can be settled before having to make quick decisions during the legislative process. Few legislators or their staffs have a deep understanding of school finance. It is remarkably complicated so the more information and education you can provide, the easier the process will be.


    1. Do not underestimate those that represent the current system. Many teachers, administrators and school boards will fight harder to preserve current practice than they will for more money. Administrators and school boards were willing to walk away from the entire school finance bill when the language included in the legislation indicated that traditional schools must equitably share their funding with public charters in their districts.


    1. Bringing in national experts on school finance to CO to share what’s happened in other states and what has/has not worked can help set the frame for school finance reform work in our state. It will be up to local experts and advocates to decide the details but these experts would be useful to get the ball rolling and act as a sounding board during the development of any legislation.


  1. Last, it is nearly impossible to make changes to school finance without holding districts harmless (i.e., ensuring per pupil funding does not increase) for some time and allowing everyone to be a winner to some degree. Some districts will, in the end, be much bigger winners (low-income and English Language Learners in this case) than say some suburban higher-income districts, but everyone needs to get something in order to have a deep and wide coalition to pass such a sweeping bill.

A sound school finance system is the foundation of an effective public education system. While SB 213 makes a quantum leap in providing greater equity, adequacy and accountability for school funding, it will require our citizens to know enough about school funding (not the most glamorous topic) to make an informed decision at the ballot box. Other education reform advocates should learn from the Colorado case taking in the context of their own political and policy setting so that policy can be drafted and effectively enacted. We will see what our voters think come November. Stay tuned.