DENVER — After years of promoting hefty education reforms, Colorado lawmakers this term focused on a school overhaul that was both more popular and more problematic — giving schools money to make the reforms and backfill years of recession-era cuts.
Two K-12 education bills and higher-education spending plan put a cumulative $320 million toward education, from increased dollars for preschool programs to $100 million for public colleges and universities.
"The recession might finally be in sight and we can finally bring dollars back to the schools," said Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock and sponsor of one of the K-12 bills.
Officials from both parties have said all year that education spending would be a top priority now that Colorado's revived economy has replenished tax coffers. But the education measures — particularly the K-12 bills — sparked days of intense negotiations as lawmakers, teachers, school executives and education advocates clashed over how and where to spend the money.
A final agreement on one of the K-12 bills includes $110 million for public school districts to begin restoring recession cuts. Public school budgets were slashed a cumulative $1 billion during the last recession. That bill also sets aside money for certain programs, including $20 million for early literacy programs and up to $40 million from marijuana taxes for school construction.
Another K-12 spending bill devotes $17 million to adding slots for young pupils in preschool and kindergarten — enough for 5,000 more students. That measure also adds $27 million for schools to help students learning English.
The measures were intensely debated, at one point leading to a Senate standstill as education lobbyists huddled around senators to argue for or against certain spending provisions. Some unpopular requirement for schools were cut or modified, including a new system for counting pupils and spending transparency requirements that school districts complained were duplicative.
The higher education bill was far less controversial. The plan to give public colleges and universities $100 million — along with lowering a tuition hike cap from 9 percent to 6 percent — has already been signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Lawmakers ultimately agreed to trim some of the K-12 spending, including money for school counselors from $5 million to $3 million.
"It's haircut day," Democratic Sen. Pat Steadman joked as he presented one of the K-12 spending agreements this week.
Still, lawmakers say the final measures are a big first step to repairing ravaged school budgets. Schools are also on track to receive up to $40 million from new marijuana taxes, money earmarked for school construction and considered separately from the overall education spending package.
"We have a long way to go in order to get class sizes to where it needs to be in a lot of our schools," Murray said. "But we're all pleased we finally could start to get money back to the schools."