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Colorado School Finance Partnership Report Fails to Inspire Real Reform Hopes

I’ve recently been asked whether I actually take the time to read every piece of hate mail, er, fan mail that I receive with not only compliments but also with thoughts and suggestions to improve this blog. Let me tell you, I’ve never let a piece go unopened. And yes, all your suggestions have been heard loud and clear. But this time, it really is important for me to talk about school finance.

You see, Ed News Colorado reports today that the School Finance Partnership has released a new and expanded version of a report released five months ago, highlighting some guiding principles to develop a new school funding system for Colorado.

The Partnership includes several groups from CASE, CASB and CEA to a few more reform-minded organizations, and is co-chaired by former state treasurer Cary Kennedy. To approve any and all recommendations required the full consensus of all these groups on the steering committee. Unsurprisingly, then, the result is not exactly tilted in a fiscally conservative direction. That’s seldom how these things work. But it’s worth a closer look:

Two of the Partnership’s principles state that “low-performing districts should come under more oversight than high-performing districts,” and “the State Education Funding System should provide districts and schools with as much fiscal flexibility as possible to meet educational outcomes,” which together represent a nod toward commonsense incentives that encourage excellence. However, the wording causes concern that funds still will be locked primarily into district control rather than following the student to the school, much less to the course level.

Elsewhere, the Partnership calls for modifying the state’s 2010 school agency transparency law, to “ensure that expenditures at the state-, district- and school-levels are publicly available for review.” — By the way, you’re welcome for last year’s unacknowledged Independence Institute analysis of local compliance with Colorado’s Public School Financial Transparency Act, along with recommendations for improvement. But it would be interesting to see how much money they believe they can ask for “to build the capacity for districts to accomplish this transparency.”

Another highlight is the Partnership’s recommendation that

The School Finance Act should encourage student advancement based on mastery of content areas, rigorous pace and challenge levels, the flexibility for different delivery models at the school and district levels, and innovation to achieve these ends.

For me to become more optimistic about how such a change would work out, it would have been good to see direct reference to a couple of the key points in Colorado’s 2012 digital learning policy road map.

I’m not really that optimistic, though. Why? Because of other places where the Partnership does advocate for a couple of the softer road map recommendations. The call to modify the student count system to multiple dates is couched in a caveat:

Any change without additional financial investments could impact districts with unanticipated consequences. Therefore, this recommendation is based on the contingency of additional resources to provide for making these changes with the least amount of harm to the most vulnerable districts.

With an approach nearly as radical and daring, the Partnership declares that “in order to provide a 21st-century learning environment for students, the State Education Funding System should provide for technology.” Other principles just reiterate the continuation of the status quo — e.g., the BEST school construction program, categorical funding initiatives, and enhanced funding of regional BOCES.

But I’m probably being too harsh on these matters just as I’m probably being too nice on some of the others. Why? Because, to skim from the top of the bag of cliches, the devil will be in the details. The Partnership’s Action Plan reiterates the call to “convene a task force charged with creating a new School Finance Act in accordance with the principles and recommendations developed by the School Finance Partnership.” With some significant gaps in specificity, it will be extremely important to know who would serve on such a task force.

But if the Partnership’s focus is supporting and coordinating with other initiatives like the Colorado Forum’s Fiscal Planning Project (which created the misleading Colorado Commits ad campaign), caution is warranted. Other specifically touted initiatives include at least two from the Governor’s office (TBD Colorado & Colorado Blueprint) and the mysterious (try Googling it!) “Interagency Alignment Initiative.”

Finally, though, my hopes were ultimately dashed by seeing that the Action Plan called for a new Colorado K-12 resource cost analysis to use “a balance of all available methods…including professional judgment, successful school district approaches and evidence-based approaches.” How much will the (unnamed but undoubted) contractor Augenblick Palaich and Associates duplicate its work for last year’s Lobato case?

Then again, Dr. Jay Greene has ably identified the defects with the professional judgment and successful school district methods, which were used in last year’s Lobato analysis and explicitly called for in a another analysis. Of all the specifics that could have been embedded in the latest School Finance Partnership report, it’s the use of defective methodology to help determine “adequate” K-12 spending. And you wonder why I’m growing so cynical….

Would it have been too much to seriously include the ideas in this video to rethink how Colorado finances student learning success?

Guess it would have been too hard to muster a full consensus.