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A Couple More Weeks of Waiting for School Finance “Grand Bargain” Details

Back in early December my Education Policy Center friends helped put on a State Capitol event, laying out ideas for dramatic “backpack funding” reforms that need to be at the heart of this year’s keystone school finance debates. We’ve been waiting awhile now to see what Senator Johnston’s “Grand Bargain” legislation might look like.

I can get impatient about these things. As Ed News Colorado reports, the time is drawing near, but legislative leaders are proceeding deliberately:

Johnston indicated Wednesday it could be another couple of weeks before that happens.

His strategy is to gain as much support for the bill as possible ahead of time in order to minimize extensive arguments over amendments after the bill is introduced.

A lengthy story by Kevin Simpson in Sunday’s Denver Post seeks to frame the issue as one of “adequacy” (is there enough money?) and “equity” (is money distributed fairly?) for school districts. Such articles could use accepted facts that may call into question some of the assumptions posed.

But at least as important, if legislators adopt the “Grand Bargain” of tying school finance reforms to a $1 billion statewide tax hike proposal, we should be talking about truly tying funds to students in the schools and courses they choose.

So what to think of the reforms Johnston brings forward? To borrow a phrase used by former state representative Tom Massey in the Denver Post piece, “the devil’s going to be in the details.” Will the legislation follow the flexible, choice-friendly, student-centered path charted at last December’s event? One could hope. Will it be more than only a handful of notable tweaks on the status quo? I don’t know.

Will it take on the serious issue of the growing burden per student to fund employee retirement benefits? (As state treasurer Walker Stapleton recently noted, PERA reform has to be on the table in order to ensure the school finance reform is “effective and lasting.”)

Overall, it’s too early to jump to conclusions. We have to wait and see. Guess I’ll just have to deal with a couple more weeks of thumb-twiddling and foot-tapping.