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School finance overhaul passes Senate on party-line vote

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Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, and Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, celebrate the passage of the School Finance Act following a final vote on the Senate floor in May. (Photo courtesy: Senate Majority Office)

DENVER — A major proposal to overhaul how Colorado funds its schools, and to increase education funding by a $1 billion in new tax revenues that would yet need to be approved by voters, is on its way to the House after passing the Senate Tuesday on a 20-15 party-line vote.

“This generation is waiting on us to reform education. They’re waiting for a state of the art, 21st century education system, and they urgently need it, said Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, a former teacher and principal who authored the rewrite of the School Finance Act based on input from thousands of stakeholders across the state.

“This bill is a path to get the job done.”

The complicated funding model, which aims to dole out state money based more on student needs, wouldn’t take effect after Gov. John Hickenlooper signs it into law. Because it calls for $1 billion in new funding, voters would still have to approve the increase in income tax that would support the new changes.

“This is a once-in-a-generation chance to re-write the way that we fund the single largest, most complex and most important part of state government,” Johnston said during a six-hour floor debate on the bill Monday.

Two years ago, Johnston won support from every Republican at the Capitol when he pushed — and passed — a landmark law to change how teachers are evaluated and awarded tenure; Democrats, meanwhile, were divided on the proposal.

That wasn’t the case with the School Finance Act, which every Senate Republican voted against.

“We’ve taken a lot of the reform out of this,” Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, told FOX31 Denver Monday. “And really all we’re left with is a tax increase. “And that’s going to hit the average Colorado family by $417 a year.”

In 2011, voters overwhelmingly rejected Proposition 103, which would have generated about $300 million for education funding by raising income and property taxes.

The author of that ballot initiative, Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, co-sponsored Senate Bill 213 along with Johnston.

“The most effective investment in economic development the state can make is through education,” Heath said. “We will only attract the brightest if we invest in education at all levels. Our workforce is what attracts and retains companies that provide good paying jobs.”

Republicans, who offered a slew of unsuccessful amendments during Monday’s debate, oppose the bill primarily because of the proposed tax hike; and they don’t like that districts with higher numbers of at-risk students or English language learners will get additional funding.

Johnston’s proposal would also fund early childhood education and full-day kindergarten for any Colorado family that wants to enroll.

“We know that one of the best returns on investment for our education dollars is in early childhood education,” Johnston said.

The bill would also change how enrollment, which determines a school’s funding, is counted. Right now, a one-day count determines a school’s funding for the entire school year. Johnston proposes moving to a more accurate tabulation of attendance by averaging the number of students in the classroom over the course of a school year.