A solid start for school-finance reform
It’s been clear since before the current session of the Colorado Legislature was called to order that revamping the state’s School Finance Act would be among the most important tasks facing lawmakers this year.
This week, state Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver and Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Frisco, have stepped into the breach, with a 144-page draft bill aimed at making necessary changes. Hamner’s district includes part of Delta County.
We have not delved into every detail of the proposal, but a synopsis of the measure shows it attacks some of the critical problems of school funding in Colorado. It could greatly benefit School District 51, which has historically been at the bottom or near the bottom of the state’s per-pupil funding system.
But even if the Johnston-Hamner plan is passed by the Legislature, none of it will be implemented unless voters in Colorado approve a ballot measure in November to raise taxes to increase funding for schools. Exactly what such a ballot measure will look like is not clear, since no ballot language has been put forth, as yet.
However, Johnston and Hamner have said they want to increase education funding by $750 million to $1.1 billion a year. To give readers an idea of what that would require, raising the state sales and use tax 1 cent, from 2.9 cents to 3.9 cents per dollar would raise approximately $870 million in new revenue, according to a revenue forecast for the 2012-2013 fiscal year prepared by the Colorado Legislative Council.
The same forecast showed that raising the state income tax by 1 percentage point — from its current level of 4.63 percent to 5.63 percent — would generate about $1.3 billion million in additional revenue this year.
If voters are persuaded to raise taxes for schools, and if the legislation is approved in close to its current draft, it would benefit School District 51 in several ways.
First, the basic formula for state funding and local property taxes would be based on a statewide average for all districts rather than the current system that has several different tiers. For the past 20 years, District 51 has been left to languish in the lowest-funded tier.
Additionally, there would be provisions to grant school districts more money based on the percentage of low-income students in each district. Because District 51 has a relatively high level of students receiving free or reduced cost lunches, such a provision could help this district significantly.
Another part of the bill would set up a special fund to help school districts comply with the many unfunded state mandates that have been created by the Legislature. Those mandates have provoked regular — and quite reasonable — complaints from school districts around the state.
There are significant problems that must be addressed with regard to school funding in Colorado. We applaud Johnston and Hamner for offering a detailed proposal which attempts to accomplish just that.