Charter school funding fight — and a contentious amendment — shake up Colorado school finance debate

The amendment, which the Republican-controlled committee approved along party lines, does more for charter schools than what Sen. Owen Hill led lawmakers to believe.

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Students at the AXL Academy in Aurora worked in pairs or small groups to solve math problems. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Students at the AXL Academy in Aurora worked in pairs or small groups to solve math problems. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)

By Nicholas GarciaChalkbeat 

When state Sen. Owen Hill proposed an amendment to Colorado’s annual school funding bill, he told his colleagues on the Senate Education Committee no less than three times that the language was a carbon copy of another bill, currently stalled, that would benefit charter schools.

It wasn’t.

The amendment, which the Republican-controlled committee approved along party lines, does more for charter schools than what Hill led lawmakers to believe.

The unexpected twist comes as the full Senate is expected to debate the annual school funding bill Friday. The bill, which is necessary to fund the state’s 178 school districts, is one of the last major pieces of legislation lawmakers must tackle before they adjourn in six days.

Meanwhile, the Democratic chair of the House Education Committee said she is seeking a last-minute legislative compromise on charter school funding.

It’s uncertain whether either development will change how charter schools are funded in Colorado, which has become the session’s most contentious education issue.

Supporters of the charter school funding bill argue that the practice of withholding tax dollars is discriminatory. Opponents believe the legislation violates a school district’s local control and the will of voters.

The local tax increases at the center of the debate are usually earmarked for specific programs such as teacher training or tutoring. If the charter school bill were to become law in its current form, school districts would only be required to share that money with charter schools if they offer similar programs.

Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, is the sponsor of both this year’s school finance act and the charter school funding legislation, Senate Bill 61.

When Hill brought his amendment to the broader school funding bill, he said he wanted to put pressure on the Democrats in the House of Representatives, who have not assigned the separate charter school bill to a committee.

What Hill didn’t say was that his amendment included an additional $15 million for state-authorized charter schools.

State-authorized charter schools don’t have access to local tax increases for schools because they are not part of the school district that collects the taxes. The $15 million would come from the state’s general budget, according to the amendment.

A similar provision had been included in the charter school bill stuck in the House. But it was removed early in the process when the state’s fiscal forecast was gloomy.

State Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat who sits on the education committee, received a copy of the amendment before the committee voted on it. During the hearing, Todd said she did not compare the amendment’s language to Senate Bill 61. She asked Hill if it was verbatim.

He nodded.

“It’s deceptive,” Todd said Thursday after learning the amendment contained the additional money for the charter schools. “It’s disappointing that you can’t trust someone to speak the truth.”

Todd did not support Hill’s amendment and voted against the earlier charter school funding bill.

When asked how the $15 million for the state’s charter schools ended up in the school funding bill, Hill first said Wednesday he added the money in during an appropriations hearing this week.

When pushed that he did so during the Senate Education Committee he said: “With all the stuff going on … I don’t remember. It’s a good question. Off the top of my head, I don’t remember.”

Hill declined to answer additional questions on Thursday.

“Folks outside the building are making this conversation much more difficult right now,” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure. It’s about mutual trust and respect and the bipartisan work that we work so hard on. That’s what we’re committed to.”

The school finance bill, including the $15 million for the state’s charter schools, is expected to be approved by Senate Republicans. However, it’s unlikely House Democrats will approve the change and others, including using marijuana taxes already earmarked for other programs to close the state’s education funding shortfall.

But state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat who is the House sponsor of this year’s school funding bill, is floating a possible compromise on charter school funding.

“I’m determined to solve this problem,” she said.

Her idea would require school districts to develop a plan to use their local tax dollars to address the needs of the district’s students — especially those that face learning challenges — regardless of what school they’re enrolled in. The district could also choose to comply with the idea of Senate Bill 61 and share the local tax dollars equitably.

Hill and state Rep. Lang Sias, the Republican House sponsor of the charter school bill, previously said they were open to Pettersen’s compromise.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.