School finance exam

Coloradans usually have plenty of distractions to take their minds off a frigid January. There’s great skiing. There’s the National Western Stock Show, which begins this week in Denver and runs through Jan. 27. And the Colorado Legislature returns to work at the state Capitol.

That event occurs this morning, when the 2013 session of the General Assembly is called to order. Not long afterward, lawmakers will begin examining how we fund public schools in this state and how to improve that system.

As The Daily Sentinel’s Charles Ashby has detailed in a series of recent articles, legislators will be confronted with a typical smorgasbord of issues. They include civil unions for gay couples, new attempts to control or ban certain types of weapons, ongoing disputes over how the state and local governments regulate the oil and gas industry, and a constitutional requirement that the Legislature develop rules to regulate retail marijuana outlets.

But perhaps no issue will be as time-consuming and potentially controversial as efforts to rewrite Colorado’s School Finance Act.

That important piece of public policy outlines how state money and local property taxes are divided for schools. But the act hasn’t been significantly revamped in nearly 20 years. And, as most residents of this community are aware, it perennially places School District 51 near the bottom of the pack among Colorado’s 170-plus school districts when it comes to state funding per pupil.

Several Democratic lawmakers say they plan to introduce legislation to remake the School Finance Act, although specific details of how they would do that haven’t been made public yet.

However, they have made it clear that their plan will require additional funding. So, if they win passage of their school finance plan at the Capitol, they have said they will also ask voters to raise taxes for education through a ballot measure.

If the ballot measure doesn’t pass, then the revamped School Finance Act won’t be implemented.

Expect long and contentious debates about the advisability of raising taxes during the current tenuous economic recovery versus the need to spend additional money to make our schools and students more competitive.

What’s more, all of this discussion will occur under the shadow of another issue that could drastically change how schools are funded: the Lobato case.

The Colorado Supreme Court is reviewing a $4 billion judgment in favor of the plaintiffs and could render a critical decision while the Legislature is in session.

Plaintiffs in the Lobato case claimed the current school finance system is unconstitutional because it doesn’t provide adequate funding or educational opportunity in small, rural school districts. A victory for the plaintiffs could even change the way the state’s TABOR Amendment functions.

So, as the 2013 session begins, it’s probable that lawmakers and Colorado citizens will receive renewed instruction on school finance before the session adjourns in May.


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