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Democrats’ school funding proposal would give more money to rural districts, increase per-student spending

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Colorado school districts could see a slight bump in the amount of state funding they receive per student next year under a bill introduced Friday by Democratic lawmakers, who also want to devote more money to rural school districts.

Senate Bill 188 marks the first school funding bill lawmakers have brought forward this legislative session. It was debuted ahead of the state budget, known as the long bill, which was introduced late Monday.

The legislation would increase the base amount of funding districts receive per student by about $420, up to $8,496, for the 2024-25 school year — largely because of the state’s commitment to paying off the debt it owes to schools this year, known as the budget stabilization factor. The jump in funding is also driven by inflation plus growth of Colorado’s student population.

Lawmakers are proposing the funding boost after Colorado has consistently ranked behind other states in the amount of per-pupil funding it dedicates to schools, falling $2,000 to $2,500 short of the national average in recent years, according to Tracie Rainey, executive director of the nonprofit Colorado School Finance Project.

It’s unclear how much the additional funding would close the gap between per-pupil funding levels in Colorado and other states.

“It’s hard to know where we’ll end up this year,” Rainey said. “My guess is we will not have changed very much.”

Legislators sponsoring the bill acknowledge that even with the additional money they want to give schools for each student they educate, it won’t meet schools’ needs. Instead, eliminating that debt — totaling $141 million — means education dollars will only go as far as they did in the late 1980s when accounting for inflation and enrollment growth.

“We are not fully funding schools,” said State Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat who is sponsoring the bill.

An overhead view of young kids writing on whiteboards
Elementary schoolers practice writing words at Aspen Creek PreK-8 School in Broomfield Sept. 21 on new whiteboards purchased through grant funding from a program launched last month by the Colorado Department of Education and the national nonprofit DonorsChoose. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

“We have a lot of things that are really needed now that we didn’t need in 1989 as much,” McLachlan said, citing mental health resources and technology support. “So we need to change and address current issues instead of 1989 issues.”

Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat who is also sponsoring the bill, said that the per-student funding amount of $8,496 is just an average. As in past years, districts would receive additional funding for specific groups of students who typically need more support, including kids from low-income families and students learning English.

Even with the extra money, Zenzinger said, state funding for schools is “still inadequate.”

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Some lawmakers have been in behind-the-scenes talks with school districts and education advocates about more consequential changes to the state’s school funding formula — which has remained the same for 30 years — after a task force earlier this year released recommendations on how to improve the state’s approach to school funding.

Legislation advocating for more substantial changes to the funding formula — which would likely not go into effect during the next school year — has not yet been introduced.

McLachlan anticipates that proposals for more significant funding changes could cross lawmakers’ desks next year after results of two studies come out, both of which are calculating the precise amount of funding it takes to educate a Colorado student.

Extra support for rural districts and students with disabilities

Another major component of the school funding bill would route more money to rural school districts, many of which have fewer resources and fewer staff than districts in more dense parts of the state. 

Rural districts have continually benefitted from one-time grant funding from the state, and lawmakers are now pushing to establish a permanent source of additional funding for districts. That share of funding would not be part of the state’s school funding formula but would exist as “a standalone factor” that would guarantee rural districts more reliable funding in the future, Zenzinger said.

“We have known for the last eight years that there is an equity gap within our formula whereby our rural schools are shortchanged, and so we have been plugging that hole for the last eight years with temporary money,” she told The Colorado Sun. “And we know it exists and if we continue to do it as one-time temporary money, then the districts can’t take full advantage of that funding because they can’t plan for it in the same way you can plan for money you know you are getting.”

Temporary funding can help districts invest in programs and resources that are helpful, Zenzinger added, “but it’s not the highest and best use of that funding.”

Under the bill, the state would allocate between $30 million and $35 million to rural districts as a permanent pool of funding in addition to per-pupil funding. In the past, the state has distributed that same amount to rural districts through a one-time, temporary basis.

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