As the debate over equitable funding for charter schools continued on Wednesday in the legislature, political lines became unclear, as Democrats picked up the torch for local control.
The Senate Education Committee advanced a bipartisan bill that would require districts to distribute revenue from local property taxes equally to charters on a per-pupil basis. It would address revenue from additional property taxes that are used to pay for operations.
Districts that charters are tied to have been known to withhold from charters the additional tax money, which comes from mill levy overrides.
Senate Bill 61 is sponsored by Sens. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat, and Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican. Despite the bipartisan sponsorship, the bill was advanced on a party-line vote Wednesday, with Republicans supporting the measure.
Williams spoke of charter schools in her district, where she said students have found different pathways to success.
“To be able to equalize the funding across this state for other children out there, I believe will help their futures and help our children get the best education they can,” Williams said.
But her Democratic colleagues on the committee disagreed, suggesting that it is not the state’s role to interfere with the decisions of local school boards.
A similar effort failed last year in the legislature. The legislation this year has an uphill battle ahead of it, especially if it makes its way to the Democratic-controlled House.
Much of the concern revolves around the financial impact to school districts. The total amount of local revenue that would be distributed to charter schools is estimated at about $96 million for the upcoming fiscal year.
The state also would be required to spend nearly $14 million in the next two fiscal years to distribute mill levy equalization payments to charter schools, according to state fiscal analysts.
The mandate would come as districts continue to grapple with a nearly $900-million shortfall in full K-12 education funding, known as the “negative factor.”
The vote Wednesday came after hours of testimony last week on the bill.
Even school districts aren’t in agreement. While some districts share revenue with charters, others do not. Only 11 of the state’s 178 school district share local tax increases, according to the Colorado League of Charter Schools.
A University of Arkansas study found that Colorado’s charter students receive an average of $2,000 less per student than students enrolled in traditional public schools.
“All we’re saying with this proposal is that if taxpayer dollars are coming in on an annual basis for programming that a charter school in that district provides, then there’s no reason that the charter school and its students should not benefit equally from those resources,” said Dan Schaller, director of governmental affairs for the Colorado League of Charter Schools.
But several superintendents spoke of the need to keep local control at the district level. Democrats on the committee backed those superintendents up.
“Mill levy equalization is a decision that is best left to local school boards,” said Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, a retired teacher. “Those levies are raised for specific needs in the communities and should be determined by locally elected officials.”
He called the legislation a “bait-and-switch,” suggesting that it misleads local voters, who approved funding for traditional public schools, not charters.
But Hill called advancement of the bill “an early victory for equity in school funding.”
“Charter students and teachers consistently outperform their district peers on state exams, but they operate with significantly less funding,” Hill said. “My kids, like yours, are unique, and do not fit into a one-size-fits-all brand of education, they should be given the same opportunities and fair shots as their district peers and not punished for daring to break the traditional mold.”