Good News: Charter Funding Bill Looks Set to Pass Senate

The weekend is fast approaching, but it doesn’t look like charter advocates and legislators will be getting much rest. Further debate on Senate Bill 17-061 has been postponed until Monday, giving both sides some additional time to continue working the levers of influence.

For those who haven’t been watching the Colorado Capitol closely this year, SB 061 would address the problem on inequitable local funding for public charter school students by requiring school districts to share mill levy override revenue, or extra voter-approved property taxes for education, with charters. Many of you probably remember that we saw similar legislation last year (in the form of SB 16-188), and that I was strongly supportive of that legislation. Ross Izard, my favorite policy nerd, also supported the bill.

Here’s a quick refresher on the issue at hand:

Public charter schools get the same amount of funding as traditional public schools under Colorado’s school finance formula (minus some chargebacks for district overhead). But money that flows to schools under the School Finance Act is only part of the education funding equation. In 2014-15, the last year for which we have complete revenue data, the School Finance Formula calculated about $5.9 billion for education. But the actual amount of revenue that flowed into the system from all sources was roughly $10.5 billion. That means more than 40 percent of the money that rolled into Colorado education came from outside the formula. That, my friends, is a lot of money.

Buried somewhere in that mountainous stack of cash is money derived from local mill levy overrides, or MLOs. Don’t worry, you don’t have to walk around saying “MLO” like a nerd. You can just say “property tax increase.” Basically, a school district asks folks to pay more in taxes to run certain programs, buy new stuff, or do something else entirely. Roughly two-thirds of Colorado school districts have some type of MLO on the books in 2016-17, all of which combined add up to about $937 million. That’s about $100 million more than the big, scary negative factor. And, in fact, 62 districts have raised enough in extra local tax money (see page 8) to totally pay off their share of the negative factor and then have quite a bit left over. Just sayin’.

Here’s the trick, though: School districts don’t have to share the extra money they get from these property tax increases with charter schools. And while some districts have chosen to share—Boulder Valley, Denver Public Schools, Douglas County, Eagle County, Falcon 49, Jefferson County, Moffat 2, Roaring Fork, 27J (Brighton), St. Vrain, Weld County, and Widefield—many others don’t. As a result, a 2014 study found that charter schools in Colorado receive, on average, about $2,000 less per student than traditional public schools. That works out to about 80 cents on the dollar.

All of these kids are public school kids. But some of them are being dramatically underfunded. Does that seem right to you?

If you answered no, you’re not alone. As Ross argued in an op-ed supporting last year’s effort to equitably fund charter students:

Every one of these [charter school] students is undeniably a public school student under the law … There is a word for treating people who should have equal standing under the law differently:  discrimination. Public education has made enormously important progress toward eliminating discrimination in a variety of areas. Indeed, public schools, including charter public schools, may not discriminate against students on the basis of race, religion, or income. Why, then, do we tolerate discrimination against students solely because of the public schools in which they are enrolled?

Opponents of educational choice decry [fair funding] as an attack on local control, and argue that charter schools siphon money away from other public schools. These complaints are but the public tip of a larger iceberg, and beneath their carefully considered rhetorical surfaces lurk far darker themes. They are thinly veiled specters of a philosophy that regards parental choice, individuality, and freedom as threats to public education.

In truth, charter schools do not siphon money away from public schools. Charter schools are public schools, and the current system siphons money away from them. The requirement that every school district treat every student fairly is not an affront to local control, it is the purist reflection of the Colorado Constitution’s mandate that we provide a “thorough and uniform” system of public education—a provision that every locally elected school board member swears to uphold before taking office.

In other words, we should not be allowing situations to exist that penalize parents or students for their educational choices. Instead, our state legislature should be living up to its responsibility to ensure fairness for all public school students.

Fortunately, SB 061 faces much better chances politically than last year’s SB 188, which was ultimately defeated. The bill looks set to clear the senate with broad bipartisan support, and a similar bipartisan path is beginning to take shape in the house. Should the bill make it through both chambers, the governor’s signature is all but assured.

It’s beginning to look like 2017 might be the year that we finally see the end of funding discrimination against charter school students—assuming, of course, that no one manages to strap any ugly amendments to the bill. The senate got through debate on a number of amendments today, and at least a couple were adopted. More amendments await debate on Monday, and you can bet that opposition groups like the Colorado Education Association will be spending their weekend putting together additions designed to poison the bill.

Once the senate navigates all the amendments and takes a voice vote to move the bill to third reading (where votes officially count), we’ll get to see where legislators on both sides of the aisle stand. That will likely happen on Tuesday or Wednesday. Then, we’ll go do it all again in the Democrat-controlled house. I’ll be watching intently as always, with fingers tightly crossed.

See you next week!