Charter school funding debate takes center stage at Senate Education Committee

Students at University Prep, a Denver charter school, enter the building in 2013. (Photo: Marc Piscotty)
Students at University Prep, a Denver charter school, enter the building in 2013. (Photo: Marc Piscotty)
Students at University Prep, a Denver charter school, enter the building in 2013. (Photo: Marc Piscotty)

By Nicholas GarciaChalkbeat

Parents, activists and school board members from across Colorado spent hours Thursday arguing for and against a bill that would require school districts to equally share money from local tax increases with charter schools.

Members of Senate Education Committee did not vote on Senate Bill 61, sponsored by state Sens. Owen Hill, a Republican, and Angela Williams, a Democrat.

But the Republican-controlled committee could vote on the legislation as soon as next week.

Supporters of the bill testified that their students deserve equal access to taxes their parents pay each year. Charter schools receive public money but operate independently, with greater autonomy over budgets, curriculum, and hiring and firing.

“Without question, their needs are great,” said Terry Cory Lewis, executive director of the Charter School Institute, which authorizes charters for the state.

Opponents said the state would set a dangerous precedent, essentially breaking a compact between school boards and voters who approved tax increases known as mill levy overrides..

Under the bill, charters would get a share of such tax increases —both those approved by voters in the past and any that win approval on future ballots.

“This bill is an assault on the local control of school boards who know what is best for their students, schools and communities,” said Joyce Brooks, education chair of the Denver NAACP.

Co-sponsor Hill had a family emergency and left the meeting before testimony ended, prompting the delay on the vote. The bill is expected to win Senate approval but its future is uncertain in the Democratic-controlled House.

School districts increasingly have turned to mill levy overrides as the state has failed to close a school funding shortfall. School districts are required to consult charter schools before asking taxpayers for more money, but they aren’t required to fund them and charters in most districts have historically only seen a marginal amount of any new revenue.

According to the Colorado League of Charter Schools, only 11 of the state’s 178 school districts equally share their local tax increases. Such increases must be used for specific programs such as teacher training or tutoring that are spelled out in the ballot requests.

Under the bill, school districts across Colorado would need to reallocate a total of about $95 million to charter schools. Lawmakers also would need to find up to $13 million for charter schools authorized by the state through the Charter School Institute, according to a legislative report.

Such a drastic reallocation would wreak havoc on school district’s budgets, school board members said at Thursday’s hearing.

“This is a one-size-fits-all that favors a few at the expense of many,” said Linda Van Matre, a board member for the Academy 20 School District in Colorado Springs.

But charter school parents told the committee that their children deserved an equal footing.

“I voted for my child in 1999 to get my tax dollars,” said Sonya Camarco, who also sits on her child’s Monument charter school board. “And to this day, they don’t.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.