Sausage, Sausage Everywhere: Charter Funding Bill Survives the Legislature… Sort of

Well, my friends, we made it. As of last week, Colorado’s 2017 legislative session is a done deal. The session produced a couple of notable wins, including the elimination of PARCC in Colorado high schools and the bipartisan death of  Senator Mike “Special-Place-in-Hell” Merrifield’s perennial effort to blow up teacher tenure reform, performance compensation, and accountability in Colorado. But the main show of this year’s session was Senate Bill 061’s long and tortured journey toward finally providing funding equity for Colorado’s public charter school students. Unfortunately, that journey was rather messy and didn’t end quite the way I had hoped it would.

Despite some major controversy, SB 061 cleared the Colorado Senate on a bipartisan 22-13 vote back in March. Five brave Democrats joined most Senate Republicans in pushing the funding bill forward, though they did add an amendment offering districts the opportunity to “clarify” voter intent with regard to mill levy override revenues—an addition I find rather disconcerting given the near-total lack of MLOs that explicitly exclude public charters. But hey, at least it got through.

Then stuff got weird. Apparently vexed about whether to side with public school kids or the teachers union, Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran stuck the bill into her desk drawer for about two months, refusing to offer solid timelines or assign it to a committee. She offered only vague talking points and excuses for the delay. I guess outright saying that “politics trumps kids” wouldn’t have been a very popular move.

To pressure Democratic leadership to do something, Senate Republicans added the language of SB 061 to the yearly School Finance Act that funds public education in Colorado. Democrats cannot kill the School Finance Act like they can other bills, so the idea was to force them to debate the amendment and strip it out if that was their true intent. Needless to say, they and the teachers union were not happy. Thanks to some… erm… less than stalwart Republicans, however, the amendment language was stripped from the School Finance Act on the senate floor before being sent along to the house.

Throughout all of this, a number of “compromise” rewrites of SB 061 emerged from the house. Most of these rewrites ranged from bad to really bad, and they received significant pushback from certain quarters (including this one). As a result, the “diverse group of stakeholders” working in backrooms on the compromise became rather less diverse rather quickly. Eventually, this select group of insiders arrived at language that they apparently found acceptable enough to move forward—with less than a week of session left.

SB 061 was set to be heard by the House Education Committee as the session drew to a close, presumably to debate the newer language. But to the surprise of many observers (myself included), that bill’s hearing was scrapped. Instead, the new “compromise” language was dropped into the School Finance Act as an amendment. The bill passed out of committee on an 11-2 vote, with only Republicans Jim Wilson and Justin Everett voting against it.

Then stuff got really complicated. Chalkbeat ran a pretty good story on the shenanigans that followed the House Education Committee hearing, so I’ll let them explain:

House Bill 1375’s apparent passage Tuesday comes after a chaotic 36 hours.

On Monday, the state Senate gave its final approval to the larger school funding bill.

Pettersen and members of the House Education Committee then amended that bill to include the compromise language.

But some Democrats in both chambers objected, so House Democrats quickly introduced a stand lone bill that contained the compromise language, but had not yet removed the language from the larger bill.

A standoff between House leadership and some Democrats over the order in which the bills would be discussed followed.

After hours of behind the scenes conversations Monday night, the House stripped away Pettersen’s compromise from the school finance bill and gave it initial approval. Then the House gave its first thumbs up to the stand alone compromise bill, House Bill 1375.

From there, everything became something of a legislative sausage-making blur. The house rammed the new HB 1375 through, and the senate followed suit. There was little time to attend, let alone participate in, the ad hoc hearings set up to move the bill through. Meanwhile, House Education Committee members huddled up on the house floor and apparently murdered the original SB 061 right there with no actual hearing, no debate, and no way for those of us who were watching the bill even to figure out what the hell happened.

The House Education Committee’s particularly opaque move earned them a well-deserved slap from 9News. I suppose these legislators would argue that there simply wasn’t time to give the bill a proper hearing. And I would respond that perhaps Democratic leadership should have done their jobs and had a real conversation in March or April instead of waiting until almost the literal last minute.

Maybe these backroom dealings steered by a handful of political insiders would have been alright if they had culminated in a huge win for Colorado’s public charter school students. And that has certainly been how HB 1375’s passage has been framed by some of its supporters and those who worked closely on it. Unfortunately, I find myself struggling to muster that kind of enthusiasm for the final product. I hope to have full analysis of what’s in the bill—and what it means and doesn’t mean for Colorado charter schools—early next week.

For now, you’ll just have to bask in the glory of the late-session legislative sausage-making process. Feel free to take a shower afterward.