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Kindergarten teacher Katie Hoiland holds a reading intervention session Wednesday, January 23, 2019 with kindergarteners at Aragon Elementary in Fountain-Fort Carson. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

An effort to change Colorado’s longtime school funding formula has hit a wall just days before the start of the 2020 legislative session — for now, at least.

Legislators on Thursday decided to change course and take more time to pursue tweaks to the Public School Finance Act of 1994 through legislation.

Since the end of October, the Legislative Interim Committee on School Finance has been exploring what specific changes to the formula would mean for the state’s budget and for each of Colorado’s 178 school districts.

Changes have focused on redeveloping the formula into one that better prioritizes students’ needs. Critics regard it as an outdated funding mechanism that doesn’t adequately cover the cost of educating students or distribute money equitably among districts. 

The committee, composed of five Democratic and five Republican legislators, has been meeting for about three years and took its biggest step yet in December with a presentation of how two funding formula scenarios would impact public education across the state.

All that progress hit a speedbump in the days following the presentation, and lawmakers are now shifting their strategy, looking at the possibility of introducing a bill later on in the legislative session.

One snag: the clock.

The committee had hoped after its last meeting that it would be able to outline changes for a draft bill, according to state Rep. Julie McCluskie, committee chairwoman and a Dillon Democrat.

State Rep. Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, works in her office at the Colorado Capitol, using a simulation tool developed by national nonprofit EdBuild to explore how changes to the state’s school funding formula would impact districts across the state. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

That would have included a full fiscal analysis, which McCluskie said was critical before committee members voted on the bill.

Legislative staff simply could not complete that kind of analysis in time for the start of the legislative session on Wednesday, in part because committee members could not reach agreement on enough of the policy components fast enough, according to McCluskie.

The committee does not have authorization to meet once the session begins since it’s an interim committee made up of both House and Senate members, she explained. Once the lawmaking term begins, members are broken up into the House and Senate education committees in their respective chambers. 

All is not lost, however. There is still a chance that legislation changing the formula could be introduced before the end of the session in May. It just won’t be endorsed by the committee as a whole, potentially giving it less bipartisan weight. 

McCluskie will continue working on a bill alongside willing committee members, noting they must still finalize how much weight different factors will hold within the formula and address challenges specific to small districts.

The committee has considered changes to the formula that would better fund students who are low income, are English language learners or who have special needs. Another possible change would curb how much cost of living affects dollars that flow to districts. Committee members have yet to spell out exactly how much each factor would influence the formula and have assessed different outcomes through a special simulation tool.

While McCluskie is disappointed that the committee did not have more time to collaborate and work on the formula, she does not discount the progress it has made.

“I am still excited and looking forward to see … where the story finally ends,” she said. “Are we going to be able to bring that bill forward? I hope so and I’m certainly going to work hard to see if we can make it happen.”

Pushing the pause button on a bill frustrates Sen. Paul Lundeen, committee vice chairman and a Monument Republican who has spent nine years trying to make changes to the formula.

Lundeen acknowledged that a time crunch was one part of the problem. Politics are another.

State Sen. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, at the Capitol in Denver on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Not everyone has been on board with changing the formula, he said, pointing to school districts comfortable with the status quo and pushing to keep it in place.

“That’s creating a political roadblock, so we need to figure out how to change the political calculus,” Lundeen said.

Both he and McCluskie see value in reconfiguring the formula so that it is more student centered, an idea Lundeen said has gained traction with many policymakers and education experts and one that must continue to be pursued.

Despite his frustration, Lundeen remains optimistic that a bill could still move forward during the legislative session. “I’ve been doing this for nine years, and I’m still fighting,” he said. “That’s an optimist if ever there’s been one.”

Should a bill fail to pass this legislative session, the prospect of changing the formula in the future is unclear. The interim committee was supposed to end last year but was given a third year to do its work. But, as of right now, a fourth year of meetings is not on the horizon.

McCluskie wants to stay focused on the immediate opportunities to change the formula while Lundeen aims to “keep all options on the table.”

Both lawmakers encourage those who are eager for a reimagined formula to stay involved and determined.

“I say Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Lundeen said. “This is a great idea. Let’s not give up.”

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...