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Senator Johnston Finally Unveils School Finance Act to Taxpayers

Colorado State Senator Mike Johnston (D-Denver), a former Obama Administration educational advisor, recently began to roll back the curtain on his proposed public school finance overhaul. The School Finance Act (SB 213), which has successfully moved out of committee and could be scheduled for a full vote at any time, includes a $1 billion tax increase and controversial enrollment formulas.

Though the bill has been in the works for the last several years, it has only been in the last three weeks that school districts and citizens are actually getting a “peek behind the curtain” for the first time, according to Douglas County Board of Education member Kevin Larsen.

Last night, the Douglas County School District Accountability Committee (DAC) hosted Senator Johnston at a public event to discuss SB 213. The meeting was closely followed by social media outlets and organizations on both sides of the educational aisle, as Johnston spoke to a crowded room of skeptical Coloradans.

Audience members were allowed to ask questions or give comment at the DAC event, and one citizen highlighted a common concern of many in attendance when he expressed his opinion that Johnston’s bill would not work because “more money does not mean a better education.”

Larsen, the Douglas County Board of Education’s liaison at the DAC meeting on Tuesday night, spoke at length his latest findings from within SB 213.

“Some of the parts of the bill are commendable, however there a number of things of great concern in this bill,” said Larsen, who has a background in finance.

Larsen cited worries about cost, noting that public education currently receives $6.5 billion from the state and if the bill passes, nearly 50% of Colorado’s state budget will be devoted to education. He also pointed out that “money from the bill will not go directly to the children, merely the educators and teacher union members” because the language of the bill does not allocate it for student or per-pupil spending.

When Sen. Johnston’s bill was originally drafted in 2011, it was estimated that the School Finance Act would cost Colorado taxpayers an extra $750,000 a year. That estimate has now increased to $1.2 billion a year, according to Larsen.

Should the School Finance Act pass through the House and Senate, the bill would have to be voted on via ballot measure under TABOR because of its projected $1 billion price tag for Colorado taxpayers.

Johnston claims the bill, the first major school finance act in the state of Colorado since 1994, will help school districts financially by providing a new system to count and record the enrollment of students. The plan is modeled after Rhode Island’s School Finance Act, and proposes a new formula that would allegedly work toward adequacy and equity by distributing state financial aid to districts based on their ability to pay.

This new formula for the class enrollment count would require the state of Colorado to tweak its current system of counting students, as well as adjusting the way districts qualify to receive state funding. For over twenty years school funding has been based on student enrollment as determined each year on October 1, which does not take into account changes in the district’s enrollment throughout the remainder of the school year.

Enrollment counting would change significantly as a result of SB 213. Instead of enrollment being recorded once a year, the bill requires a system to count daily averages every five years.

In short, each district’s students would be calculated using average enrollment over time.

Under SB 213, each Colorado district’s property tax (determined on a per-pupil basis) would be adjusted accordingly, tied to the district’s median income. If local districts were to lose educational funding over time, each district would be required to increase local taxes in order to make up the loss in state funding.

This story was originally featured at Media Trackers Colorado.

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