Education

Overall school funding grows under new law

Two measures affect range of services, facilities

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As school starts, lawmakers are touting an education law passed this year that many believe will help students achieve greater success.

Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a pair of school funding measures that Gov. John Hickenlooper later signed into law to increase spending within the state's school finance system by $500 million.

The money provides more funding for several areas of K-12 education, including school construction, preschool, kindergarten and English language learner programs.

The measures increase per-pupil spending by about 5 percent and allow schools across the state to open up 5,000 more seats for preschool and full-day kindergarten.

An additional $3 million will fund financial transparency efforts that are aimed at allowing taxpayers to see how the new money is being reported and spent.

“It's important to make sure we know where the money is going to these schools, and not seeing it go into a black hole somewhere,” said Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch.

About $20 million goes into a program that helps third-graders read, while $53 million will be set aside for school construction — most of that coming in the form of Amendment 64-based retail marijuana revenue, which will help in the construction of schools in rural areas.

“These investments will not only pay dividends in individual lives, but will also help build a stronger economic foundation for Colorado,” said Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, who is the chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

Lawmakers also restored $110 million in education funding that had been stripped as a result of recession-era budget cuts. Those “negative factor” cuts had slashed about $1 billion from the state's K-12 budget.

Schools will also see an increase in the number of counselors at middle and high schools, in an effort to lower the current student-to-counselor ratio, which Senate Democrats say was at 400-1 prior to the legislation being passed.

“When students are focused on their studies and have a graduation plan, they excel,” said Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, who sponsored legislation to increase the number of guidance counselors.

The school funding pieces received the support of all Democrats and some Republicans, including outgoing Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, who co-sponsored the Student Success Act, a major component of the school finance measures.

“It's a tribute to the importance of education to the legislators in this state that we maximized our increase to (education) this year,” Murray said. “As we're coming out of the recession, we had some tough decisions to make.”

Among those tough decisions was factoring in how much say local school boards have in determining how they allocate monies for their own districts.

Many Republicans wanted to see school districts have more autonomy in determining how the cash infusion is being spent, rather than an across-the-board system that the state controls.

Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, said the school funding measures could have done more to respect school districts' abilities to spend the money as they see fit.

“The vast majority of the 178 school boards in the state wanted us to restore the negative factor with no strings attached,” said Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker. “But the Student Success Act was a Christmas tree of new mandates for school districts.”

“School districts said to us, `No, you give us as much of the negative factor funding as you owe us and do not give us any new mandates.'”​