An interim legislative panel charged with developing recommendations to overhaul Colorado’s school funding formula on Tuesday kicked off its work with a 6.5-hour meeting bringing members up to speed on inequities in the state's decades-old school finance system.
The Legislative Interim Committee on School Finance’s first meeting of the year, one of five scheduled before the start of the next legislative session, featured panel presentations from a handful of state agencies, nonprofits working in the educational space and a pair of district superintendents.
After a general overview of the funding formula presented by staff members from Legislative Council and Legislative Legal Services, the panel dove into a pair of presentations on the so-called at-risk factor, one of several components of added funding schools receive from the state.
The measure is intended to add dollars to base per-pupil funding to better support at-risk students, a qualifier gauged in Colorado based on eligible for free, and as of this year thanks to a bipartisan bill passed in June, reduced-price lunches.
Members of the panel, split evenly by party and legislative chamber, in open comments expressed skepticism of using that metric to gauge whether a student was at risk and that was reinforced by a presentation from the Colorado Children's Campaign.
CCC’s Riley Kitts and Stephanie Perez-Carrillo told the panel because the free and reduced-priced lunch program was designed as an anti-hunger program, it isn’t “the most accurate or preferable proxy” for student need for a number of reasons. Among those, Kitts said, was that the binary does-or-does-not-qualify metric “does not distinguish between children living in the deepest poverty and those who could have somewhat more substantial means, even if they're struggling to make ends meet.”
“These families are in very different levels of need, very different circumstances yet our system views them completely the same,” Kitts noted before exploring other issues the metric presents, such as only taking income into account, hindering participation in other programs and data collection issues.
The formula as a whole also came under fire from Wendy Birhanzel and George Welsh, superintendents of the Harrison School District 2 and Cañon City School District respectively. Those two districts have among the highest rate of students in poverty in the state based on the free and reduced-priced lunch program.
Welsh said other another aspect of the school funding formula, which sends state dollars to districts based on cost of living, perpetuated inequities.
“Colorado has baked into its system the likelihood some communities remain wealthy while others remain poor because of educational access and programs that can be offered,” he said.
Both Birhanzel and Welsh indicated interest in an at-risk metric recently implemented in Texas that ignores socioeconomic factors like family income in favor of a “menu” of factors, only one of which had to be met in order to qualify as at-risk.
Those factors, as described by Michael Griffith of Learning Policy Institute, including student success metrics as well as others such as homelessness, pregnancy, interaction with the criminal justice system or being housed at a residential placement facility. Texas' metric is still in its infancy, having only been implemented just ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Griffith’s presentation presented a variety of models for the panel to examine as it works to revamp the at-risk factor.
The panel is next set to meet on Sept. 17, one of two more meetings lawmakers will hold before requesting bill drafts at the Nov. 5 hearing. The panel will wrap up its work on Jan. 10 when it votes on whether to move forward with those bills.
The Tuesday meeting marks the fourth year lawmakers will meet in the interim to try to change Colorado’s outdated formula for distributing money to schools. The most recent version of the panel, which was convened ahead of the 2020 session, failed to make recommendations amidst complaints of political interference from school districts.