Colorado legislature comes through for students with last-minute deal to increase school funding

Senate Bill 296 benefits students, educators with inflationary budget increase, holds funding shortfall constant

Colorado legislators passed the School Finance Act (SB-296), May 10, to increase public school funding by $262 million for about 1,800 public schools and 905,000 students. Staring down the final day of the 2017 General Assembly, both the Senate and House approved the funding level to meet the higher costs of inflation and added student growth in the 2017-18 school year.

“Educators were pleased to see legislators rally around the needs of Colorado's students and put our schools on stable financial footing for the year ahead,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association. “We’re far from realizing the promise of school support that Colorado citizens want to see for their children, but relieved not to be taking a giant step backward with more state budget cuts.”

However, the ongoing cut to schools in the state’s education budget, known for years in Colorado political and education circles as the ‘Negative Factor’, will remain at $828 million. The cut even gets a name change to ‘budget stabilization factor’ in SB-296.

“Colorado is thriving economically but that economic growth is not translating to our classrooms. We must resource all schools so students have caring, qualified educators, more one-on-one attention, inviting classrooms, and a well-rounded curriculum regardless of their ZIP code,” Dallman added.

Prospects for the state budget and public education improved from when the legislative session began in January. The act contains an additional $242 per pupil to bring average revenue for a Colorado student to $7,662 for the coming school year. Dallman notes that’s a significant bump to the $185 average per pupil increase projected only weeks ago, a figure that would have tacked on $50 million to the budget stabilization factor.

“I personally credit the modest budget increase to our dedicated members, who visited, called and emailed their legislators and told stories that resonated,” Dallman observed. “Educator voice and action drives our advocacy for school funding, and Colorado’s teachers and education support professionals made a tremendous effort during this session to communicate to legislators on both sides of the aisle. I believe our senators and representatives have heard our voice, they realize how past education cuts have hurt our classrooms, and they responded with added school funding wherever they could find it.”

Though Colorado students and educators dodged a massive cut this year, many budget stressors remain that threaten the livelihood of school communities in future years and weigh heavily on a state experiencing a well-documented teacher shortage (Denver Post, April 13). The constitutional amendment Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) only allows a public vote to increase taxes, taking this power away from the legislature. An older constitutional amendment, Gallagher, periodically reduces the taxation rate of residential property and cuts into public school funding, as happened this year. Revenue from legalized marijuana, even under a newly-approved higher tax rate, will continue to support many programs outside of public education and the remainder will not come anywhere close to shoring up the $828M funding gap.

“The numbers speak for themselves — without adequate funding, teachers cannot do their job, and the next generation of Coloradans suffer,” Dallman concluded. “If we’re serious about every child’s future, let’s get serious about investing so that as a state, we are equipping our teachers with the tools needed for success. Our Association won't be satisfied until the budget stabilization factor is completely wiped out of the state education budget.”

SB-296 heads to Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), who is expected to sign the School Finance Act into law.