DENVER — A $500 million package to start refilling Colorado school budgets decimated during the last recession cleared a major hurdle Wednesday in the state Legislature.
The two bills awaiting a final vote in the Colorado House aim to use the state's improving tax collections to backfill K-12 school budgets. The measures raise per-pupil funding, give charter schools more funding and set aside money to help schools pay for full-day kindergarten.
"This begins the process of rebuilding K-12 funding that was struck hard" during the recession, argued Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Frisco and a sponsor of the bills.
The measures were approved on unrecorded voice votes that hardly reflected months of heated debate. Lawmakers generally agree that Colorado should hand much of its rebounding tax receipts to public schools. But there remains intense disagreement about how the money should be spent.
For example, one of the bills originally required school districts to reconfigure how they count pupils to qualify for state funding. Education groups howled that the change amounted to unnecessary red tape.
The student-count provision has been scrapped and replaced with a plan to study the matter. But other set-asides remain in the funding measures, including:
— $30.5 million to help students learning English;
— $17 million to enhance state support for kindergarten and pre-school programs; and
— $40 million from recreational marijuana taxes to fund school construction.
Republicans tried unsuccessfully to loosen spending restraints in the package. They tried to undo a provision changing requirements for how school districts report how they spend money. The provision has been touted as a transparency improvement, but GOP lawmakers argued that school districts already report how they spend money and that the new requirement burdens schools.
Republicans also attacked the pre-school and kindergarten money, saying schools should be free to spend those dollars how they wish instead of being told how much to spend on early learning.
"Do we give the money to schools with strings? Or without strings?" asked House Republican Leader Brian DelGrosso.
Democrats loosened the pre-school provision to say that schools would be able to first spend the money on full-day kindergarten, an item not entirely funded by the state. But the ruling Democrats, and one bill's Republican co-sponsor, rebuffed most changes.
"I would say considering where we have come from ... this is an amazing product that we have all developed together," said Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock.
Formal recorded votes on the measures are required before the school bills head to the Senate.
House Bill 1292: http://bit.ly/1jL7TDE
House Bill 1298: http://bit.ly/1kKYsm9