DENVER – The vote on a bill that would require Colorado school districts to share current and future mill levy overrides equally with charter schools in their district was postponed because one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Owen Hill, (R-El Paso), had to leave early.
Mill levy overrides are local taxes on property owners. Hill co-sponsors the bill with Democrat Angela Williams from Denver.
The Senate Education Committee on Thursday heard testimony on SB17-061 for nearly four hours and featured what Sen. Kevin Priola, (R-Adams) jokingly called a game of ping-pong, alternating the testimony of supporters and opponents in groups of five.
Everyone who spoke was passionate on their position. Those for the bill were mostly charter school administrators, associations and parents, while opponents were mostly school boards and their lobbyists, superintendents, teachers’ unions and other education associations.
“The school finance act already is inadequate,” said Robert Alejo, Alamosa School District superintendent. “Senate Bill 61 would further fracture that already inadequate funding.”
Under a current state law that went into effect several years ago, school districts must include charter schools in discussions on mill levy override (MLO) and bond issues before they go to voters. However, it didn’t address MLOs that were passed before that law became effective.
Proponents say since charter school students are public school students, and they should have equal access to money collected through property taxes. They argued that if a district was to build a new traditional school, it wouldn’t deny that school the MLO funding; therefore, it shouldn’t deny charter schools the money either.
Senate Bill 61 would make districts start sharing revenue from existing MLOs beginning in 2018. It would not require the district to retroactively share revenue received before 2018.
Many of the concerns raised by opponents are concerns debated continually among the anti-charter movement, despite numerous attempts by school choice organizations to correct the misinformation.
“Colorado charter schools are NOT private schools,” said Williams, who before the hearing Tweeted from her account that “SB61 will repair inequity in school funding and give equal opportunity to all public school students.”
Williams is not the lone Democrat in support of equalized funding. Jennifer Walmer from Colorado Democrats for Education Reform also testified on behalf of the bill.
“When a voter is considering a local mill investment that reads … ‘it will be used to provide each child access to a comprehensive education’ or ‘to ensure students have the necessary skills for the jobs of tomorrow’ should any voter have to questions if this means support to every public school student?” Walmer said. “Should they need to consider that this might not apply to their child if they attend a charter school?”
Joyce Brooks, retired teacher and current education chair of the Denver NAACP chapter, said charters schools contribute to “severe racial inequities that continue to plague public schools.” Brooks listed the reasons she was opposed to the bill and said that no new charter schools should be allowed until:
- Charter schools were held to the same standard at traditional public schools.
- Public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the traditional system, adding Colorado schools are already underfunded.
- Charter schools cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate.
- Charter schools cease to perpetuate “defacto segregation.”
“Mill levies are raised for specific needs in communities and are determined by locally elected officials,” Brooks said. “This bill is an assault on the local control of school boards who know what is best for their students, schools and community.”
Williams and Hill challenged Brooks’ comments, all of which were made by the national chapter of the NAACP in its call for a moratorium on charter schools.
“Charter schools operate differently from state to state,” Williams said. “Has the NAACP looked at performance; have they looked that the success of kids in Colorado? Or do they have national statistics?”
Hill said much of Brooks’ points are not true.
“There is a myth out there that somehow there are two separate accountability standards,” Hill said. “We have all the exact same testing and accountability requirements for charter schools that we have in traditional neighborhood schools. But on top of that you have the performance measures included within the charter for the charter schools. So my contingency is there is actually a higher level of accountability, a higher level of transparency with public charters.”
Denver School of Science and Technology CEO Bill Kurtz also took exception with some of Brooks’ comments.
“DSST serves a population that identifies 80 percent students of color, 69 percent students coming from low income backgrounds, 40 percent of students who speak English as a second language and 8.5 percent students with special needs,” Kurtz said, adding the school’s success is because of a commitment to serve all populations in Denver.
“And, under the same accountability system as all other Denver public schools. To be clear, DSST has no power to expel our students. The same expulsion officer that expels students at East High School or Thomas Jefferson High School makes the decision for our students.”
Other concerns were:
- Charter school teachers don’t need to be licensed – to which Hill pointed out that he has all the credentials to teach at a post-secondary level, but can’t teach sixth-graders, something he said is not right.
- Charter schools pick and choose who they enroll – most all charter schools are on a lottery system or a first come, first in wait list, and under state law cannot test or screen students for a spot. Sen. Mike Merrifield, (D-El Paso) said traditional schools don’t get to cap enrollment, they have to take the students in their district. Republican Sen. Tim Neville, who represents parts of Boulder, Denver, Gilpin and Jefferson counties pointed out that traditional schools do cap enrollment and some have long waiting lists of students wanting in.
- Charter schools can receive waivers from certain state laws – Sen. Bob Gardner, (R-El Paso) pointed out that all schools are eligible for the waivers, but districts need to be more aggressive in applying for them.
- The bill would take away local control from school boards – all the bill does is ensure all public school students within a district get an equal share of money that is collected via property tax MLOs.
- That the bill would dictate where the money would be spent – the bill only ensures that the money is divided evenly across all students in the district.
Kurtz said charter schools are no different than traditional schools.
“DSST schools have taken on the full responsibility of enrolling all students just as traditional Denver schools have done,” he said.
Kurtz added that the DSST system has only been able to do so because Denver Public Schools has made the commitment to share funding. He said all charter schools should have that same opportunity.
“Charter school children are public school children, how is it possible that children who go to two public schools within a mile of each other within the same town or city, get dramatically different funding,” Kurtz said. “This is neither equitable, democratic or right. I ask you to consider how you would explain to two middle school children sitting in front of you from the same town — one from a charter school, one from a district school — why one gets art and one doesn’t, why one gets extra reading support and one doesn’t, and why one has new textbooks and supplies and one doesn’t. And how would you explain these difference when their parents pay the same taxes to support their schools.”
Voting on the bill will likely take place next week. It is expected to pass along party lines.
“Our goal here is to make sure we treat all our students equally with whatever choice works best for them,” Hill said the school board holds all the decision-making power with (charters) … We are still going to preserve that right, but we’re just going to say, ‘If you do allow public school students to choose these options, you still have to treat them fairly.’”