Senate approves overhaul of school finance

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A bill that would lead to immense changes in how Colorado schools are financed passed the Democratic-controlled state Senate on April 2, following a party-line vote.

Democrats see the “School Finance Act” as an opportunity to modernize an antiquated school finance formula, and to create a more equitable structure by which districts are funded.

But Republicans argue that the 200-page bill does nothing to put in place the reforms that the state's education system needs. And they cringe at the $1 billion price tag that accompanies it.

Senate Bill 213 would fund full-day kindergarten, provide preschool for at-risk children, and would increase needs-based programs for special education and for students who are learning English.

The bill also expands funding for students who are involved in gifted and talented programs at schools, and it gives school districts the opportunity to have extended school years and school days, if they choose to do so.

In addition, the bill would make changes to per-student funding for school districts across the state.

If the overhaul is implemented, it would result in the most sweeping change to the school finance formula that the state has seen in decades.

“This is a once-in-a-generation chance to rewrite the way we fund the single largest, most complex and most important part of the state government, which is how we fund K-12 education,” said Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, a bill sponsor, during an April 1 debate that preceded the final vote.

Democrats believe the time has come to help school districts that have had to deal with years of budget cuts, ones that have left students and teachers trying to fend with limited resources.

Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, said the five school districts in her legislative district “absolutely will benefit from this new formula.”

“There are schools that are desperately in need,” she said. “I don't want to see education so poorly funded in Colorado, and this is one way to get there that is equal, but fair.”

But Republicans slammed the bill as being loaded with bureaucracy and lacking accountability.

“This falls short of a true reform effort,” said Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker.

And Republicans especially are opposed to the cost of the bill, arguing that legislation hits taxpayers' wallets in a big way.

“If this is being being portrayed as an education reform bill, it is April Fool's Day,” said Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch. “This is a $1 billion tax increase on the people of Colorado.”

If the bill passes the General Assembly, it will be up to voters to decide whether they wish to foot the $1 billion price tag that will come in the form of an income tax hike. Only Colorado voters, and not lawmakers, are allowed to raise taxes, under the state's Constitution.

All 20 Senate Democrats voted for the bill, while all 15 Republicans voted no. The bill now heads to the House.

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