Guess No "Vouchers" in SB 213, Really Not Much Backpack Funding, Choice at All

Update, 5:10 PM Extra audio added.

So some of you may have been missing me since a couple days ago when I asked a dozen questions regarding the major school finance bill, SB 213. Many of my questions remain unanswered, and the first committee vote on the bill itself isn’t slated until this afternoon. But a couple interesting conversations sprung up around the first question I asked:

To what extent does the legislation provide for true course-level choice?

Especially since it won’t go into effect unless voters approve a billion-dollar tax hike this November. That’s when I saw a document handed out by state senator Michael Johnston‘s office to explain the bill. On page 3 in the left-hand column it lists “High School Voucher for 9-12” as a component of base funding in the newly proposed formula.

Well, you can guess that perked up my hopes, the idea that a new school finance system might offer students breakthrough opportunities to take a portion of their funding and choose courses from private schools or other providers. At Tuesday’s nine-hour marathon hearing, dozens of witnesses came before the Senate Education Committee. Senator Scott Renfroe (R-Greeley) surprised one of them, CEA executive director Tony Salazar, by asking about the concept of “high school vouchers.”

Johnston chimed in to point out that was not the intention of the bill, which culminated in a “you said-you said” disagreement between Johnston and Renfroe and the teachers union leader reiterating his organization’s opposition to the idea of private school choice. (Listen to the 5-minute audio clip here.)

So yes, I was a little crestfallen. But then the topic came up in the next day’s hearing on the same bill. Another Republican state senator, Mark Scheffel from Douglas County, sought further clarification about the item described as a high school voucher. “I’m discouraged if you’re backing away from it now. I’d encourage you not to do that,” Scheffel said. “Stick to your guns on this one. This is a great issue, this is a great opportunity. And I encourage you not to shy away from it.”

Unfortunately, Johnston’s response affirmed even more strongly his longstanding opposition to vouchers and his decision not to include them on the bill. He said he hadn’t seen the document before. While suggesting his staff might have made a misstep, he took responsibility for the “miscommunication.” (Listen here for the 3-minute audio of their exchange.)

Like Senator Scheffel, I had some hopeful enthusiasm. But alas, it wasn’t to be. I get that some education officials and leaders are uncomfortable breaking down the public-private barrier in funding students. But even more disappointing was Johnston’s subsequent description of this part of SB 213. The bill sponsor acknowledged the language was “fairly vague” on the matter, but that the full FTE funds going to high school students would remain in district control and not in the student backpack.

That’s one question answered anyway.

The change to the student count remains in the bill (just one of the needed reforms), but there is no true backpack funding beyond small amounts of money tied to poor and English language learner students. Amendments to expand backpack funding and to provide more equitable funding to charter school students were defeated in yesterday’s hearing. Which makes me wonder how the writers of this Denver Post op-ed can praise SB 213, saying it “ensures that money follows the student” and “supports Colorado’s robust system of public school choice”?

Stick with me this afternoon for more Tweeting to see what happens to the bill. I’ve posted some additional samples of the last couple days’ exciting 140-character updates below.