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July 19, 2013

Signatures are now being gathered on a petition that would put a new school funding structure before Colorado voters when they go to the polls this coming November.

Voters may support the measure, Initiative 22, because it promises more funding for schools in a state well known for its subpar support of education. But the increase falls far short of what's needed, said Kathleen Gebhardt, of Children's Voices, and lead counsel for plaintiffs in the Lobato v. State school funding case. In addition, it's paired with structural changes that "eliminate the guaranteed base in the Colorado Constitution, that is, Amendment 23," she said.

The ballot measure reduces the annual transfers from sales, income, and excise taxes to the state education fund. At the same time, it asks voters to approve a higher income tax with some new funding for schools. Also, Initiative 22 would give top priority to "budget flexibility," which means the state would have the option to cut school funding at any time and for any reason.

The ballot measure "would make the legislature wholly unaccountable," Gebhardt declared.

Initiative 22 comes in combination with the Colorado legislature's adoption of a new state funding formula, which would work well for only 33 of the state's 178 school districts -- and only if it's fully funded. The new formula treats 77 rural districts and some other districts unfairly, requiring them to raise more local dollars to backfill for missing state support.

The new formula directs some additional funding to programs for "at-risk" students and students learning English. Also, if the ballot measure passes, some of the revenue it generates in 2014, before the new formula kicks in for the 2015-16 school year, will be dedicated to school facilities and early education.

But Initiative 22 will not solve Colorado's main problem -- the state has underfunded its public schools for many years. In Lobato v. State, a Denver District Court examined Colorado's education finance system and found pervasive deficiencies in the state's allocations, which result in troubling consequences for students.

The District Court detailed these facts and noted that the State in its defense did not dispute most of the evidence:

  • Colorado ranks 51st among all states, plus the District of Columbia, for its financial contribution to special education. This underfunding leads to "rationing," a practice in which school districts offer only the services they can afford rather than what students actually need.
  • 12%, or over 100,000, students are trying to learn English in Colorado's K-12 classrooms. Yet, Colorado's current funding level for English learners bears no relationship to the cost of meeting the state's own learning standards and requirements for these students.
  • Preschool is rarely available to the state's growing number of low-wealth children, and state quality standards for preschool are extremely low. The amount of preschool funding is not based on any study of the cost of providing an adequate program and places Colorado at the lowest end of the spectrum of state support for preschool.
  • In this largely rural state, rural school buildings are often unsafe, unhealthy and out-of-date.

It is not surprising, then, that Colorado earns failing grades in the best available analysis of school funding systems, the National Report Card on School Funding Fairness. With an F in "fiscal effort," a D in funding distribution, and a mediocre score in the level of funding, Colorado has the undistinguished honor of being one of the states farthest away from the features of a quality funding system.

Conveniently for the state, a standards-based cost study was released in March 2010 and updated in February 2013. However, the legislature did not use the information contained in "Costing Out the Resources Needed to Meet Colorado Education Standards and Requirements," prepared by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, when developing the state's new school funding formula or designing the ballot measure. The new formula and proposed revenue structure, like the old, ignore the actual costs---and the substantial benefits---of delivering the state's own learning standards to its students.

Those gathering signatures expect to meet the August 5 deadline to place Initiative 22 on the November ballot.

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CO Supreme Court Rules Against Plaintiff Children & Parents
Education Justice Press Contact:
Molly A. Hunter, Esq.
Director, Education Justice
email: mhunter@edlawcenter.org
voice: 973 624-1815 x19

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