It’s spring, and for Colorado’s students that means state testing. This year, the same is true at the state Capitol where legislators, too, are facing a particularly high-stakes test.
The key question for them: When is the right time to start repairing the damage caused by the five years of state cuts? Three answers to that question are circulating in the Capitol:
A: Never. The current level of education spending — $1 billion below inflation and growth — is the “new normal.”
B: Not yet. If we increase spending significantly now, a future economic downturn could require us to cut again in the future.
C: Now. Revenues are recovering and the future well-being of our students, families, communities and economy all depend on investing wisely in education.
Which bubble should the legislature fill in? Let’s take the options one by one, starting with the first response: That schools and students should get used to the way things are now, because it’s the best we can do.
That answer is troublesome for a number of reasons, first and foremost because the status quo is simply unacceptable for our students, our communities and our state. We heard that loud and clear just this past week when Great Education Colorado asked for comments on an online petition to legislators.
We heard from teachers who are considering leaving the state or the profession because the demands on them outstrip the hours in the day — not to mention their ability to support their own families. Students told us that they can’t compete because they are no longer able to take full course loads due to budget cuts. Parents described how the special learning needs of their children simply can’t be addressed without improved resources.
And, shedding light on how these deprivations will have a long-term impact on Colorado’s economy, one business owner confessed that he “should have done more due diligence before moving here” and now has to “reconsider my choice of Colorado as a future place to grow my business” because of the state’s lack of commitment to its schools. Answer “A” is out, if we want to ensure a bright future for our communities and our state.
On, then, to answer “B”: That we can’t significantly increase funding now (beyond keeping up with inflation and enrollment) — despite a healthy rebound of state revenues during the past several years — because we may not be able to sustain school funding increases in the event of another downturn. For the “B” proponents, the only prudent course of action is to budget as if new dollars won’t be here next year (despite forecasts to the contrary) and resist using increased revenues to significantly reverse the $1 billion in cuts endured by schools in the past five years.
But that’s no way to treat the next generation. It’s akin to saying: “Kids, we had to cut you back from three meals to two meals a day during the bad times. We can afford more now, but we’re sticking with two because someday we might have to cut back.”
Answer “B” is the one that best describes the past two years of budgeting. The legislature has — with the best of motives — underestimated revenues each year, holding back spending so much that revenues have exceeded appropriations by as much as $1 billion in a single year.
That’s the equivalent of putting hundreds of millions in cash under the mattress, rather than into preschool and teaching slots, counselors and specialists, technology and textbooks. Each of those investments could have improved the craft of teachers and the skills and knowledge of students permanently — that is, in ways that could never be taken away, even if budgets are cuts in the future.
Option “B” fails to recognize that kids don’t get do-overs for the years we fail to invest adequately in them. Opportunities lost for a year are opportunities lost forever. As one parent summarized on our petition last week: “Fear of money not being there in the future does not justify depriving our students of resources they need now.”
And then there is option “C,” the one that acknowledges the budget as a moral document that should be driven by a vision for the future of our children. Fiscal responsibility is critical and our legislators have an obligation to consider the whole budget and ensure sustainability within Colorado’s unique budget constraints.
Option “C” challenges our legislators and state to use every tool available, to be creative, to do whatever it takes to start repairing the damage done by cuts and to rebuild a bright future for our students, communities and economy.
It’s a mistake to accept this as the “new normal” and to hold back on Colorado’s kids out of fear of possible future budget challenges. History may forgive us for cuts made in bad times, but not for timidity in good.
For the short-term and the long haul, we need our legislators to “pick C.” This is one high-stakes test Colorado can’t afford to fail.
Margie Adams is board chair of Great Education Colorado, a community volunteer for Cherry Creek School District and a business consultant. Wendy Rimel is a parent and president of Education Foundation of Eagle County.