Controversial compromise on school funding may send more money to charter schools

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, sits alone on the House of Representatives floor as members of her own party filibustered her compromise on charter school funding. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)
State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, sits alone on the House of Representatives floor as members of her own party filibustered her compromise on charter school funding. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)
State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, sits alone on the House of Representatives floor as members of her own party filibustered her compromise on charter school funding. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Nicholas Garcia on May 8, 2017

The Colorado House of Representatives advanced a crucial school funding bill and a controversial compromise that could send more money to charter schools after a group of Democrats from both chambers threatened to upend the deal as the legislature was running out time to complete its work.

The deal, months in the making but only made public during the final three days of this year’s legislative session, aims to put an end to a two-year debate over whether school districts should share local tax increases with their charter schools.

The compromise became entangled in the larger funding bill after a months-long standoff between the legislature’s two chambers over Senate Bill 61, that would mandate school districts share their tax increases.

The last minute deal, forged by state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, gives school districts two options on how to share their local tax increases.

School districts may choose to create a plan that outlines how it will spend its local taxes, known as mill levy overrides, to best meet the needs of their students regardless of what type of school they attend. If school districts opt not to create a plan, they must share 95 percent of the taxes with charter schools if they offer certain programs the taxes are earmarked to pay for.

Charter school critics did get something out of the compromise. Charter schools would be required to post some additional tax documents online, as well as their waivers from state law and their replacement plans. Charters would also lose two automatic waivers including one that allows them to forgo competitive bidding for services.

“This is a compromise most people thought was impossible,” Pettersen said after the House gave its initial blessing to both bills shortly before 11 p.m. “This is a huge success.”

Supporters of the compromise believe the practice of school districts withholding locally-approved tax increases, known as mill levy overrides, from charter schools is discriminatory.

While it isn’t the exact deal many supporters hoped for, they told the House Education Committee earlier Monday that it was an important first step.

“These funds, rather raised at the state level or local level, belong to no one but the school children of Colorado,” said Shannon Fitzgerald, a Jefferson County charter school mother.

Some opponents to the measure believe local school boards should have the authority to decide how to spend that money — not the state.

“I don’t want to beat this horse, but you know the conversation of local control,” said Rico Munn, superintendent of Aurora Public Schools.

The local tax increases generally go to specific programs such as funding full-day kindergarten or teacher training. The tax increases have become popular among school districts as state funding has lagged.

Durango schools Superintendent Dan Snowberger said he supported the compromise in part because he felt it would advance the conversation about the need for more school funding.

Monday’s 11th-hour vote in the House came after a discordant day of debate on the two issues in both chambers.

First, the state Senate gave its final approval to the larger spending bill that keeps the state’s school funding shortfall from growing.

Several Senate Democrats raised objections to the bill because it included an amendment that would have provided a line of credit to schools and school districts that see a large bump in student enrollment.

Some Democrats raised concern that the amendment disproportionality aided online charter schools.

Then the House Education Committee met for more than four hours to discuss the finance bill.

It was during that afternoon meeting that Pettersen unveiled her charter school funding compromise and successfully added it to the finance bill.

But Senate Democrats sent word to their colleagues in the House that they objected to Pettersen adding the compromise to the bill.

“Kids and parents should have confidence that the basic job of funding our schools doesn’t fall prey to politics,” said state Sen. Andy Kerr, a Lakewood Democrat. “The Senate Democrats stood firm about how important it was that we have a clean school finance act, for the sake of our kids.”

So House Democrats quickly introduced a stand alone bill that mirrored the language added to the finance bill. They rushed the bill through a necessary committee hearing with the intent of later stripping away the language from the school finance bill.

But then a small group of House Democrats threatened to upend the deal by demanding the House first take up the separate larger spending bill required to fund the state’s public schools.

After hours of behind the scenes conversations with the filibustering House Democrats and Senate Republicans, the House quickly stripped away Pettersen’s compromise from the school finance bill and passed it and the stand alone compromise bill, House Bill 1375.

A third vote for both bills is required tomorrow. Then the Senate must concur with changes to the school funding bill and debate Pettersen’s new legislation for the first time. Capitol observers and lobbyists familiar with the issues said Monday night that the debate on both pieces of legislation is far from over.

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