DENVER (AP) – A mammoth bill to overhaul Colorado’s complicated school-finance formula won initial approval in the state Senate Monday, despite worries the changes won’t mean a thing if voters don’t approve more than $1 billion in new taxes this fall.
The school finance bill aims to revise years of inequitable school funding and backfill schools damaged by years of deep budget cuts. The bill advanced after hours of debate on the Senate floor, where minority Republicans argued unsuccessfully that the bill aims to stuff schools with more cash but not make education better.
The bill ultimately passed on a party-line 20-15 vote. Democratic sponsors insisted the measure would do more than rectify funding shortfalls in Colorado schools.
The bill aims to level funding in district across the state, with more money for districts with high numbers of needy students or English language learners. The bill would also lead to full-day kindergarten across the state.
It’s the biggest revision in decades to how Colorado funds K-12 public schools, and aims to make school funding more equitable after years of deep budget cuts.
“It has been a challenge to work under a formula that was not built for the 21st century,” said the bill’s sponsor, Democratic Sen. Mike Johnston, a former public school principal.
Johnston and other Democrats have been working for years to line up support for the school funding overhaul. Sponsors say it gives incentives to local governments to raise local taxes and reverse a sharp veer toward the state covering education costs, not local taxpayers.
To make the change more palatable, the bill guarantees districts they won’t lose money, at least at first.
“This does not require any district in the state to raise their local mill levies,” Johnston said.
All Republicans oppose the bill, arguing that the overhaul looks good but won’t do anything unless voters OK a big income tax hike, the details of which aren’t clear.
Some two dozen ballot measures to hike income taxes are looming, but sponsors of the overhaul haven’t publicly backed a single plan.
“How can we be asked to vote on this bill without knowing what specific tax measure will be used to support this bill?” asked Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs.
Republicans also faulted the overhaul for not going far enough to track results of the increased funding. The overhaul sets up student outcome reviews every four years, but some Republicans argued there wouldn’t be enough accountability of how the funding overhaul affects average students.
“The bill, I think, really falls short on real reform,” said Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker.
One more formal vote is required in the Senate before the school overhaul heads to the House.
By KRISTEN WYATT, Associated Press
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