Here’s how the education debate could shift if Democrats retake Colorado’s Senate
Partisan control of Colorado’s Senate is in play this November, and with it the direction of major education policy debates on charter school funding, testing and how teachers are licensed.
For the last two years, Republicans have held a one-vote advantage in the Senate, while Democrats have enjoyed a three-seat majority in the House of Representatives.
But if Democrats have a successful night on Nov. 8, they could reclaim control of that chamber and claim one-party rule for the final two years of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration. (Political observers are all but certain the House will remain under Democratic control.)
The potential shift in power comes as Colorado’s schools are calling for more money and less regulation. But there is also a contingent of school leaders and advocacy organizations who are asking lawmakers to keep the status quo, at least for one more year as many of Colorado’s most ambitious reform efforts take hold.
The last time Democrats held both chambers and the governor’s mansion — in 2013 and 2014 — little was accomplished on education issues. Most energy was spent on an ill-fated attempt to rework the way the state funds its schools, and getting more money to schools.
So will anything be different this time? We asked a variety of lawmakers, lobbyists and education activists. Here’s what they said is likely to happen if Democrats take over:
Democrats will almost certainly free up more money for schools in the short-term, as advocates push for a resolution to Colorado’s school funding quagmire.
Despite aggressive lobbying earlier this year by the governor’s office, Republicans refused to approve a technical change to a pool of money the state collects that was in part responsible for triggering a mandatory refund to taxpayers.
Currently, the state collects a fee from hospitals that goes toward Medicaid costs. Those dollars also count toward the state’s constitutionally mandated revenue ceiling outlined in the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. Once the state reaches its ceiling, like it did last year, the state must issue refunds to taxpayers.
Democrats want to reclassify the fee so that doesn’t continue to happen as other revenue comes close to the state’s limit but doesn’t reach the ceiling.
“The opportunity is that we can pass some Band-Aid fixes to our restrictions to help with education funding,” said Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat and chairwoman of the House Education Committee.
If Democrats are successful, an estimated $90 million could flow to schools. However, lawmakers could be forced to cut back funding if economic forecasts don’t improve by next spring.
And that fix might still not be enough to appease school districts and advocates preparing to ask lawmakers to rethink how the state funds its schools.
“Obviously the hospital provider fee can relieve some short-term pressure, but they have to look at a long-term solution,” said Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit organization that focuses on school funding. “We hope that elected officials come looking to solve problems.”
Charter school supporters are worried a Democratic-controlled state Senate means funding equalization is DOA. They’re probably right.
Last session, lawmakers failed to reach a compromise that would have required local school districts to share local tax dollars equally with their charter schools.
While advocates are vowing to bring the measure back, some conservatives who supported the measure are skeptical the legislation will have a fighting chance in 2017.
“That is not a reality without at least a Republican majority in the Senate,” said Tyler Sandberg, senior policy adviser for Ready Colorado, a conservative nonprofit that advocates for school reform policies.
The Colorado League of Charter Schools isn’t as pessimistic.
“Regardless of which way the election goes, we really see this as a bipartisan issue,” said Here’s how the education debate could shift if Democrats retake Colorado’s Senate - Denverite: