Senator pushes school finance fix

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State Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, is crafting new legislation that would ask voters statewide to cough up an additional $1 billion to fund it.

Speaking to about 60 members of the South Denver Metro Chamber’s business and legislative groups, Johnston told educators, policy makers and entrepreneurs that in order to drive economic prosperity to the state, Colorado must rethink how it currently funds education.

“I think the last time a school finance act was passed, I didn’t have email, a cell phone or the Internet,” Johnston said. “That was in 1993 and the most significant reform at the time in the state and the nation was Bill Clinton’s crazy idea to make school kids wear uniforms.”

Chamber President John Brackney said Johnston’s bill is one of the most important pieces of legislation to be considered this year.

“The reason we think this is so important is this still remains the swing county of the nation, not only just Colorado,” Brackney said. “Depending on how we view this issue, if it gets to ballot, it will rise or fall on what people like us think.”

Johnston, a former teacher and principal who holds degrees from both Harvard and Yale, said Colorado spends $2,500 less per student than the average state.

“The argument is that we ought build a 21st-century education system in Colorado that is the envy of the world,” he said. “And to do that requires reforming the way we deliver education and know that it will require more revenue to do it effectively.”

Johnston summarized his proposed legislation in “three big buckets” of reform. The

“One is to modernize the way we fund education, the second is to make investments that make a difference and the third is to make funding transparent, accountable and fair,” he explained.

Modernizing funding

Johnston said the state’s current funding methodologies often cut students short.

“It works like this,” he said. “However many butts there are in seats on Oct. 1, you get $6,000 per student. They are worth zero dollars every other day of the year”

Johnston’s bill would create what he calls an average day membership count, valuing students at $30 per day for each of the 200 school days.

High school students would also be offered more flexibility in where they accessed content, such as online courses, without affecting student funding.

Investments that count

Johnson hopes to convince the legislature a “seismic shift” in human capital is in order.

Over a three-year period, Johnston proposes rolling out new standards and assessments for every grade level and content area in the state, as well as new evaluations for every category of professional.

“I believe we are in the middle of one of the most dramatic overhauls in the industry at any moment in history,” he said. “We know the single most important criteria that affects a child from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. is the effectiveness of her teacher and principal.”

Other changes would include funding for full-day kindergarten and half-day funding for early childhood education.

Transparency for taxpayers

Johnston also proposes a transparency measure that would, literally, put school finances at the fingertips of taxpayers.

“What we are proposing in this bill IS something no state has ever done before, which will allow us to track every tax dollar spent on education, in every school, on every day.”

The bill would move school financing from a centralized budget to a student-based budget and enable taxpayers to compare expenditures and performance among individual schools as well as districts.

“It’s really a better way of evaluating feedback on what our system is doing in order to generate the results the voters expect,” Johnston said.

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