This year, the Colorado Legislature is considering a number of fiscal and education policy bills. Perhaps the most prominent of these is the so-called “Student Success Act,” which has endured several hours of critical testimony from Colorado school leaders as a first step in the legislative process.
While the bill does contain some positive elements, the “Student Success Act” contains two problematic provisions for Colorado public schools. One would change the method of counting students in the state, and the second would create a state reporting website for financial information on schools.
On the surface, these provisions would not seem to have much of an impact, if any at all, on the day-to-day operation of a school. And, this is precisely the problem. These are classic state-level, top-down, big-government policies that will have absolutely no effect on those things that we know make a difference in really improving education. Things like efforts to improve the quality of instruction and efforts to mitigate the effects of poverty on learning.
Colorado currently counts students based on how many are enrolled in schools as of Oct. 1 of each year. The “Student Success Act” would change the counting method to an “average daily membership,” where the enrolled students are counted daily, and then the days are averaged to arrive at a school district (or charter school’s) funded pupil count.
A stated goal of this policy is to create an “incentive” for teachers to serve students after Oct. 1 while creating pressure on schools to keep students enrolled. Yet, in a study commissioned by the Colorado Legislature in 2011 which looked at this issue, no evidence could be found that changing the student count mechanisms either increased student performance or attendance. In fact, study shows that three of the highest performing education states in the country (Massachusetts, Maryland and New Jersey) all use the single-day count method, which this bill moves Colorado away from.
The theory that this entire policy rests on is foolish and misguided. The notion that our educators need an “incentive” to educate students, or keep students in school after Oct. 1 is professionally insulting. Our teachers and school principals work to help students every single day because we love the children and families in our community and will do whatever we can for them to be successful.
This policy has not considered the additional resources in terms of staff time, energy and systems that will be necessary in our schools to carry out this new counting method. Counting students every day will not happen by itself. This is yet another unfunded mandate that our legislature has become fond of pushing on our local schools.
Finally, without any real investment of new dollars into the school funding formula, changing the funded pupil count mechanism is nothing more than a state government shell game. The allocation of education funds is primarily determined by the student enrollment count. If the size of the funding pie does not significantly increase but we just change the manner by which we divide it up, then has anything significant really changed?
A second major provision of the “Student Success Act” directs the Colorado Department of Education to create an accounting website that tracks district and school spending. The rationale behind this is to provide greater fiscal “transparency,” which will lead to better efficiency.
Yet our school district already publishes more than 200 pages of budget documentation annually. In addition, we present all of our checks on the district’s website and make readily available all of our spending and other financial documents. How much more transparent do our schools need to be?
Also, Colorado schools are remarkably efficient in how they spend tax dollars. Colorado education spending ranks in the 40s compared to other states (depending on which school funds are included). Yet, on the latest national achievement measures, the state ranks 11th in terms of student performance.
There is no credible evidence that the creation of this accounting website will improve academic outcomes or spending efficiency. And, it is so far removed from teaching and learning as to be laughable. Before moving forward with this policy we must ask if another state-mandated and duplicative bureaucratic hoop for local schools really adds value to our education system. Do you want your tax dollars funding this, or funding students?
Together, these two provisions will cost $15 million of your tax dollars, which will be directed to the Colorado Department of Education. Hmm. The bill provides no resources for this purpose to your local schools, which will ultimately be saddled with the responsibility of collecting and uploading the information. This is a politically driven state government solution in search of a non-existent problem.
Glimmers of hope
In spite of these two harebrained elements of the “Student Success Act,” the bill does have a few redeeming features. First, it takes a step toward repairing the billion-dollar gutting of education spending in the state that occurred with the “negative factor” through a proposed $100 million restoration. While a step in the right direction, at this rate it will take us a decade (or longer) to restore Colorado education to pre-recession levels.
Second, it contains some provisions to better fund English Language Learners, a group of students that has grown expansively in the state who have additional needs beyond typical students. Finally, the bill allocates some dollars to fund past unfunded, or underfunded, mandates the Legislature has put forth in previous sessions.
Collectively, we can urge our legislators and governor to focus on policies that support better instruction and help mitigate the effects of poverty on learning. We can also demand that our elected officials adequately resource education and give our teachers what they need to be successful. The education of our state’s children is, arguably, the most precious thing our government does — we should treat it with a commensurate level of reverence.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.