School funding

Opening round of what could be a long, contentious fight over paying for education

State Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, rolled out a proposal Monday to fundamentally alter the way Colorado funds education. It could be the opening of a critical battle over one of the most important things Colorado does.

It also could be a multifaceted fight. Still in draft form, Johnston’s proposal was attacked immediately by state Treasurer Walker Stapleton for not including reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association. And all concerned are waiting for the state Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of the current school-funding system.

Johnston has a history of backing school reforms, including ending seniority-based job protection for teachers. Central to his thinking is the principle that real reforms and a better funding mechanism go hand in hand. With that, he would take a two-pronged approach: legislative reforms backed by a vote of the people for a tax increase to boost funding.

The idea is to get broad agreement on major changes rather than to squabble over piecemeal reforms one at a time. It would be Colorado’s first major change to school funding in 20 years.

Getting it done could be tough, though. Colorado voters rejected a 2011 effort to raise taxes for education by a 2-to-1 margin – although some critics think that measure failed in part because it was limited.

Johnston is thinking bigger. “We see this as a once-in-a-generation chance to get this right,” he said.

Among the changes Johnston would enact would be to eliminate the feature of the current system that keeps property tax rates low in the richest districts, while still giving them state money. It also would do away with cost-of-living payments to places such as Aspen and Telluride. As Johnston points out, it can be harder to attract and keep good teachers in low-cost districts on the Eastern Plains than even in bucks-up mountain resorts.

He also would shift more of the burden of paying for schools back to local districts, which historically have been supportive of schools. Colorado used to fund schools with about one-third state money, but over time, that reversed to where the state now supplies about two-thirds of the funds.

Nonetheless, Johnston figures restoring the money cut from the state’s school budget in recent years will take an additional $750 million to $1.1 billion. Average funding per student now is about $6,500 but would have been $7,700 had the cuts not been needed. Getting back there nonetheless will require voter approval.

Stapleton’s objection is that nothing in Johnston’s plan speaks to PERA, which he says has a $26 billion unfunded liability. And with that, the retirement fund is making school districts increase their contributions. The treasurer says he does not want to see “money that is supposed to go to our kids get used to subsidize an underfunded pension.” That, he says, is what happened in California.

It is unclear whether Stapleton would kill Johnston’s plan or if his concern for PERA’s influence on school budgets reflects an opportunity for an additional reform that would allow him to sign on to better school funding. Either way, it is a point that deserves a look.

And all of this will depend on what the state Supreme Court says. A lower court ruled that the state’s present school-funding system violates the state Constitution’s provision mandating a “thorough and uniform” education for every child. If that is upheld, the Legislature will have to enact school-funding reform.

The fate of the legislative component of Johnston’s plan should play out in the coming weeks. However that turns out, it is heartening to see our lawmakers engaged with a topic clearly so important.