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Published in Print: April 11, 2001, as Colorado OKs Plan To Spend Extra School Aid

Colorado OKs Plan To Spend Extra School Aid

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A spirit of compromise has pervaded the chambers of the Colorado legislature lately, as its members have deliberated over two major education spending bills.

In recent weeks, lawmakers have come to relatively easy agreement on the annual school finance bill and on a measure that would carry out a state constitutional amendment guaranteeing greater spending on public education over the next 10 years.

The school finance situation "is better this year than it has been in decades," said Phil Fox, the lobbyist for the Colorado Association of School Executives.

Late last month, both houses passed a $3.8 billion school spending bill that would provide a 6 percent increase in general-fund appropriations. The measure would increase funding for textbooks and academically at-risk students; create a pilot full-day-kindergarten program; and, for the first time, provide a state contribution to the school lunch program.

And in a big victory for charter schools in Colorado, the legislature included some $5.3 million for charter school construction and a guarantee that charters can participate in bond issues of their local school districts.

Lobbyists for traditional public school groups did not mind the state money being set aside for charter schools' capital needs, but they were disappointed about the ability of the publicly funded but administratively independent schools to participate in district bond issues.

"Most of us are fairly uptight about that," Mr. Fox said. "It's going to screw up the election process and the bonding process."

Jane Urschel, the associate executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, said the inclusion of charter schools would raise the amount of the bond issues and potentially put them at greater risk of defeat at the polls.

"It will make it harder to pass bond issues," she predicted.

The charter issue raises questions that aren't answered in the legislation, such as what happens to a charter school built with bond money if the sponsor loses its educational charter, Ms. Urschel added.

Advocates for charter schools argued during the debate that charters are public schools also, and that they have generally lacked the access to capital that regular public schools have.

A Russian Novel?

The school finance bill was passed March 29, several days after the legislature gave final approval to a bill to implement Amendment 23, a state constitutional amendment adopted by voters last year.

The amendment 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 income tax. The fund is expected to accumulate $4.58 billion over 10 years.

Earlier in the legislative session, lawmakers disagreed over some of the details of the bill that would implement Amendment 23, such as whether to make class-size reduction mandatory. That idea was favored by Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican. ("Colorado Leaders Clash Over How To Spend Extra Money," Feb. 14, 2001.)

The compromise bill says Colorado's schools districts could spend the extra money as they wished as long as it was used to improve education and as long as districts studied the option of reducing class sizes.

"The bottom line is, districts got their flexibility to use the dollars as they want, and the governor got his rhetoric on class size," Ms. Urschel said. "Districts can now use the money for teacher salaries, or class-size reduction, or to pay their utility bills, if they want."

Compromise on school finance measures has been facilitated this session by the first Democratic majority in the Colorado Senate in 40 years, she added.

"Compromise has been spelled with a big C," she said.

Amendment 23 is the "hero" of the school finance story this year, Ms. Urschel said.

"School finance is like a Russian novel," she said. "It's long, boring, and in the end, everybody dies. But with Amendment 23, things happened that would not have been possible in other years."

But not everyone was enthusiastic about sharply increased spending. Sen. Norma Anderson, a Republican and a longtime legislative advocate for public education, said she feared the state was increasing spending too much this year, which would have the effect under Amendment 23 of driving up future spending at a faster pace. She voted against the school finance bill, stating on the Senate floor that "we're spending like drunken sailors."

"Amendment 23 was intended to bring us back to where we should be on school spending, not to be spent all at once," she said in an interview last week. The school finance bill, she said, is "a budget buster."

Gov. Owens, meanwhile, has signaled he will sign both bills.

Vol. 20, Issue 30, Pages 25,28

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