Colorado Leaders Clash Over How To Spend Extra Money
Colorado voters were in a generous mood last November, approving a state constitutional amendment that guaranteed a significant jump in spending on public schools over the next 10 years.
Now, state lawmakers are hashing out the details, and conflicts have emerged between Democratic and Republican priorities.
The Senate, which for the first time in 40 years has a Democratic majority, approved a bill last week for spending the new money that would give a lot of flexibility to school districts.
But Gov. Bill Owens and many of his Republican lieutenants in the legislature want to see some of the money dedicated to class-size reduction and other specific spending proposals.
As the House of Representatives takes up the bill, the battle has been engaged.
"I think this will be peaceably resolved, but it's going to take about six weeks," said Phil Fox, the deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives and a veteran education lobbyist in Denver.
Amendment 23, as the ballot measure was called, requires the state to increase funding for public schools at the rate of inflation plus 1 percent over each of the next 10 years. The amendment also establishes a state education fund separate from the general fund, with dedicated annual contributions of one-third of 1 percent of the revenues from the state's income tax. The fund is expected to accumulate $4.58 billion over 10 years.
Lawmakers are hashing out the implementing legislation for the amendment, which will establish many important details about how and when the extra money for schools is spent.
Differing Over Details
Senate Bill 82, sponsored by Senate President Stan Matsunaka, a Democrat, would carry out the requirements of the constitutional amendment, such as the creation of the state education fund. But it also would set up an "education reform council" to oversee the education fund and make recommendations for distributing Amendment 23 money to districts.
The bill also would require districts to write six-year plans for spending their extra money on low- performing schools and on students who perform below state academic standards.
Sen. Matsunaka has said it is important to give districts flexibility in spending their Amendment 23 funding, based on the principle of local control, which is bedrock in Colorado government.
Gov. Owens, however, has called for making class-size reduction the top priority in implementing Amendment 23. He called at one point for dedicating the entire 1 percent increase over the rate of inflation for lowering class sizes. But he has also called for spending some of the money on new textbooks and all-day kindergarten for students at risk of failure.
"I ask this General Assembly to pass responsible, targeted increases in education funding that will actually help the children, though not necessarily the administrators," the governor said during his State of the State Address last month. Supporters of Amendment 23 "didn't say, 'Give us these dollars and we'll just pass them along to fund business as usual,'" he argued.
In a setback for Mr. Owens and Republican legislators, the Senate on Feb. 2 defeated a proposed amendment to SB 82 offered by Minority Leader John Andrews that would have required districts to spend part of their Amendment 23 money to reduce class sizes. The vote was 20- 13, with three Republicans voting with the Democratic majority.
Another Republican senator's proposal that some of the money be spent on textbooks was ruled out of order. In a final reading, the Senate voted 26-9 on Feb. 5 in favor of Sen. Matsunaka's bill.
Lobbyists for the governor have expressed their dismay with the Senate's action, and they have suggested they may have a better chance of getting what they want from the House, which is still under Republican control.
Meanwhile, school groups in the state favor the Senate bill, which would give them greater flexibility in setting spending priorities.
"Everybody thinks class-size reduction is a worthy goal," Mr. Fox of the school executives' association said. "The question is, do you pay for it out of Amendment 23, or out of other sources?"
Vol. 20, Issue 22, Page 21