Senate casts aside amendments supporting local control of schools as it forges ahead with another unfunded mandate

For a second year, some Colorado legislators are attempting to directly assault the ability of elected school boards to control local education money. The Senate is closer to passing Senate Bill 61, a mandate from the state which would force districts to funnel funds raised in local mill levy elections to charter schools, even if those schools did not exist when the election was held.

Before the bill passed on second reading, March 13, Sens. Moreno and Fields added an amendment to the bill that would force cash-strapped districts to run an election this fall to ask voters whether or not they want current mill levy revenue to go to charters. Regardless of the outcome of that election, districts would be forced to share any new revenue approved by voters with charter schools whether they need it or not.

“We’re setting our voters up for an election this fall in which they could overwhelmingly ‘vote no’ on giving charters current local money, but then on the very same ballot, ask voters to approve a separate question that gives additional mill levy revenue to charter schools in a fixed amount. It’s not right to give voters a clear choice on one piece of school revenue, but deny their voice on the next funding question,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, vice president of the Colorado Education Association. “This bill is fundamentally unnecessary and sends a message that the state does not value local control in K-12 education decisions.”

Some senators brought forward helpful amendments to ensure taxpayers would be protected if additional money were to go to charter schools, such as charters following laws on competitive bidding and open meetings. One amendment would have eliminated language that solely benefits Denver Public Schools. Other amendments included prohibiting charter schools from receiving funds if they used automatic waivers from law, or if a district was forced to authorize a charter school by the State Board of Education.

“School choice does not mean a school can choose to spend taxpayer funds however it pleases and conduct its business in secret meetings out of the public eye,” said Baca-Oehlert. “Senate Democrats introduced several amendments to SB-61 that should have motivated all senators to raise the bar on accountability and transparency for all schools, including charters, but all were voted down. Senators beholden to the charter industry simply aren’t willing to ask charters to do more, though they certainly are willing to give charters more money for nothing in return.”

Baca-Oehlert contends charters need to play by the same rules of transparency and accountability as traditional public schools before receiving any more taxpayer money. Charters typically waive dozens of state laws, and sometimes more than a hundred district policies, while keeping parents and taxpayers in the dark on how they operate.

All students will get shortchanged on school funding this year, Baca-Oehlert maintained, not just those attending charters. The ‘negative factor’ deficit in education funding for all public schools, already totaling $828 million, is expected to rise when property taxes are lowered through a rate adjustment required by the Gallagher Amendment.

“SB-61 is an insult to the work of every underfunded school district that is squeezing value out of every hard-earned mill levy dollar. The state has a responsibility to keep funding stable for all students in all schools. We should not be talking about legislation that benefits one set of schools at the expense of many more at a time when all schools are facing budget cuts,” Baca-Oehlert concluded.