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New School-Finance Formula Approved in Colorado

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By Debra Viadero

The Colorado legislature has approved a complex--and unconventional--school-finance formula that seeks to correct disparities in education spending among the state's 176 school districts.

Under the new formula--which received final approval by wide margins in both houses on May 18--school districts across the state will be divided into eight "setting'' categories. Those range from "urban'' areas such as Denver to "recreational'' areas such as the well-known ski resorts of Aspen and Vail. (See Education Week, May 4, 1988.)

The categories are further subdivided to provide allotments of state aid on the basis of such variables as classroom expenditures and administrative costs.

In addition, high-spending districts will be required to gradually "buy out'' the state's share of some categorically funded programs, such as transportation.

"This was an attempt to recognize the different economies, the different costs, and different levels of spending'' by districts, said Charles S. Brown, executive director of the state legislative council's staff, who crafted the plan.

The plan was vigorously opposed by well-to-do districts, which stand to receive less state aid under the new formula, as well as by fiscal conservatives, who argued that the financially strapped state could not afford the cost of the change.

The ensuing controversy forced the lawmakers to meet during a week when they were scheduled to be in recess. The legislature adjourned on May 24.

At a cost of approximately $935 million for the 1989 calendar year, the new formula is expected to boost total state aid to schools by 6.8 percent.

'Equity-Based' System

"It really is an equity-based formula, the way it has worked out,'' said Becky Brooks, a lobbyist for the Colorado Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union.

For example, under the formula, affluent areas such as Cherry Creek--a district with a high tax base and high taxes--would get less state aid than an area classified as "rural,'' where education costs may be greater for a small population spread over a wide geographic area.

The state's old school-funding formula, in effect since 1973, had sparked two bitter legal battles during the past 10 years over the question of whether students in poorer districts were receiving an adequate education. By approving the new formula, lawmakers may have put an end to the most recent of those battles--a class action that was expected to come to trial in the fall.

Another aim of the measure is to reduce districts' reliance on property taxes to fund education. Currently, the state pays 45.5 percent of the average cost of education in a district, according to one estimate, and property taxes fund the remaining cost.

"In my opinion,'' said Senator Al Meiklejohn, the Arvada Republican who chairs the Senate education committee, "that's too much reliance on property taxes.''

The version of the bill that was finally approved contains compromise language authorizing partial funding for the new formula from a percentage of the state's reserve fund. It also includes "hold harmless'' provisions for some high-spending districts, and sets aside $1 million for a new pilot preschool program for 2,000 disadvantaged children who are handicapped or "linguistically different.''

"The school-finance formula created quite a firestorm but, when all the dust was settled, the vote was lopsided in favor of it,'' said Mr. Brown.

Among other measures approved by Colorado lawmakers during the session was a controversial bill that will relax state standards for home schooling.

Under that measure, sponsored by Senator Meiklejohn, parents who wish to teach their children at home must notify their local districts. Pupils schooled at home must also take nationally normed achievement tests in grades 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11. The results must be submitted to the local district.

"But there's no recourse for the school district if the tests show that a child is several grade levels below his peers on the test,'' said Ms. Brooks of the CEA, which fought against the bill.

The measure became law on May 10 without the governor's signature.

Lawmakers also approved a bill that would allow anyone with a baccalaureate degree to bypass traditional routes to teacher certification--particularly in districts experiencing shortages of teachers in specific subject areas. Such "alternate route'' measures have been adopted by a growing number of states to cope with teacher shortages.

That measure, which is awaiting the governor's signature, was opposed by the CEA and other education groups.

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