Colorado legislature makes some progress on top education challenges |

Colorado legislature makes some progress on top education challenges

Despite the largest buy down of the BS factor in state history, schools are still in need of more funding and resources

Among the myriad of topics pursued and debated in Colorado’s 2023 legislative session were dozens of bills looking to find solutions to the challenges facing K-12 education in the state.

From bills allocating funding and resources and those tackling the educator shortage to other bills around mental health and housing that could ultimately add support for teachers and school staff, legislators worked to bring about improvements to a flawed system.

Rep. Meghan Lukens, a former high school teacher who represents Moffat, Rio Blanco, Eagle, and Routt counties, was one of the legislators looking to make a dent in Colorado’s education shortcomings this year. Lukens, a Democrat, came into her first session ready to take on a range of education issues, leveraging her own experiences as a rural educator.

“I understand that the education crisis cannot be solved overnight, so I went into this session with the goal of using my experience as a rural educator and my role as a legislator to advocate for our students and teachers,” Lukens said. “I wanted to sponsor and support legislation that would take positive steps forward, and I believe that I accomplished what I set out to do.” 

Rep. Meghan Lukens and Sen. Dylan Roberts led and saw significant momentum around education during the 2023 Colorado legislative session.
Courtesy Photo

As a teacher, Lukens noted that she “saw first-hand the crisis in our classrooms as a result of the underfunding of our schools.”

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“The voices of teachers and districts expressing their concerns for the state of our education system have been heard, so we, at the State Capitol, are addressing these serious concerns,” she said, later adding that “the power of advocacy and determination is inspiring and powerful.”

Overall, Lukens said that the session saw “important legislation was passed that will have a positive impact on Colorado students, teachers, and communities.”

While it was Lukens’ first year as a representative, Sen. Dylan Roberts, who previously served two terms in the House, said this was “the best and most impactful year for education funding during my tenure at the legislature.”

Roberts is a Democrat who lives in Avon and who represents Clear Creek, Eagle, Garfield, Gilpin, Grand, Jackson, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Routt and Summit counties.

“I think we reached a tipping point in Colorado, where we realized that we cannot continue to shortchange our kids. With Colorado leading the way nationally on so many fronts, we should not rank among the last states in the nation for teacher pay. I’m glad that we could all agree on the weight of this issue and see broad, bipartisan support for school funding,” Roberts said.

Eagle County School District’s Superintendent Philip Qualman reflected on a session that had “some wins and losses.”

While there were several bills and steps made that show progress, Qualman didn’t see that “any of these changes dramatically improved Colorado’s position compared to other states in terms of K-12 funding, so we still have our work cut out for us in recruiting and retaining quality educators.”

School finance

For legislators, education organizations and educators, school funding continues to be the top priority. As Roberts put it: “The No. 1 issue facing schools in Colorado is underfunding.”

Each year, the legislature crafts a budget and determines how much will be allocated to education. The amount earmarked for K-12 education is then divided among the state’s school districts with formulas based on the School Finance Act.

Whatever funding is available, however, has been tempered significantly by the Budget Stabilization Factor for over two decades.

The Budget Stabilization Factor — also referred to as a negative factor or the ‘BS’ factor — was introduced in 2009 as a way for Colorado lawmakers to legally cut the education funding required by Amendment 23 amid an economic downturn. Amendment 23 is a measure that, among other things, requires the state to increase per-pupil school funding by at least the rate of inflation each year.

Across Colorado, this factor is responsible for over $10 billion being withheld from school districts since the 2009-2010 school year. In the Eagle County School District, it has been responsible for $83.7 million in funding being withheld in that same time frame.

Amie Baca-Oehlert, the president of the Colorado Education Association, said the impact of this long-term disinvestment has been larger class sizes, fewer or inadequate mental health supports, and low educator salaries.

This year, legislators approved a significant buydown of this factor. Lukens referred to it as a “historic buydown.”

“After years of smaller buy-downs of the BS Factor, this year shows a meaningful commitment towards permanently buying down the BS factor by next year. In a year with a tumultuous economic future, making a more proactive investment is necessary to ensure proper funding for our schools,” Lukens said.

Baca-Oehlert said that this buydown as well as an additional $30 million allocated for special education signifies “significant progress made toward school funding.”

This buydown increased average per-pupil funding by $1,083, she added.

“This is on top of the over $500 per pupil increase last year. As a result, schools will see over $660 million more this year and well over $1 billion more per year than just a few years ago,” Lukens said.

Roberts said that this was “the largest single-year increase in decades.”

“I know this will have an immediate, tangible impact on our ability to pay our teachers competitive wages, as well as update our school facilities and materials and hire essential paraprofessionals and school support staff,” he added.

“Our biggest hope is that this increase in funding, which is significant, will translate into addressing several problems. So lowering class size, hiring more staff, hiring more mental health support, all of those things definitely have a direct impact on our students’ experience in school,” Baca-Oehlert said.

A look at the impact the Budget Stabilization Factor has had on the Eagle County School District since the 2009-2010 school year.
Courtesy image

In Eagle County, at the May 10 Board of Education meeting, Sandy Farrell, the district’s chief operating officer, reported that the School Finance Act also included an 8% cost of living factor, a 6% increase for special education funding and funding estimated at $11,097 per pupil. The “BS Factor,” she added is dropping to around $1.17 million for the upcoming school year, the lowest it has been since the 2009-2010 school year.

There were other wins associated with school funding this year, Qualman noted.

“There was talk about the formula changing, and most of those discussions would be detrimental to ECSD, including removing rural funding, changing cost-of-living adjustments, and redefining ‘at-risk,'” Qualman said. “In the end, none of those things happened.”

Looking ahead, a 17-member non-legislative task force has been formed to examine the school finance formula in Colorado. This is something Qualman said he’s looking forward to.

“My hope is that this task force can study ‘adequacy’ and honestly report how Colorado funds K-12 compared to other states,” Qualman said.

However, even with some progress made, “the budget stabilization factor lives on,” Qualman said.

“At the end of the day, the district has some funds to put toward increases in salaries and compensation, but not as much as we had hoped,” he said.

Outside of the new budget and School Finance Act, Qualman is closely watching Gov. Jared Polis’ proposed property tax relief plan (Prop HH) for the possible impacts it could have on K-12 funding.

“I applaud the effort to keep public services whole, relying on TABOR excess to backfill public education and other local governmental agencies.  However, those dollars rely on an economy that is bullish and healthy,” Qualman said. “An economic downturn could be devastating to the state budget, and specifically K-12, if the most reliable source of state revenue (property tax) is reduced.”

Polis and legislators have indicated that a full buydown is expected by 2024-2025, with some indications it could happen sooner than that.

“Fully funding public schools in Colorado will have a profound and far-reaching impact on teachers and students. Right now, the majority of teachers and students in our state have never been in a fully funded classroom,” Roberts said. “I feel strongly that in the coming years, we will see that this funding increase had a dramatic impact on student learning.”

Even so, fully funding K-12 education only gets the system so far.

“Even if we eliminated the budget stabilization factor, it would just bring us back to 1989 levels of funding so we would still be well below the national average and per pupil spending,” Baca-Oehlert said. “We have a long ways to go to actually solving our funding problems here in Colorado, and that requires bringing more revenue into our education system.”

Educator shortage

One of the other areas that was looked at closely in this session was the educator shortage. Numerous bills were introduced with creative solutions aimed at increasing incentives to enter the profession and retaining quality educators.

One of these was House Bill 1064, which has been signed into law, and establishes a 10-state Interstate Teacher Mobility Compact. Lukens sponsored this as one of her first bills.

“The current teacher licensure system is complex and difficult to navigate. When a teacher wants to move from another state to Colorado, they have to jump through many hoops to change their licensure to match the requirements in Colorado,” Lukens said. “This burdensome process costs money and takes time, discouraging teachers from coming to our state.”

The new compact “streamlines the process for high-quality teachers to transfer their credentials between participating states,” she added.

Qualman acknowledged that this “may prove helpful.”

“Colorado ranks among the lowest paying states in the nation for K-12 educators, so I’m cautiously optimistic about the actual outcomes of this bill,” he added.

Two other bills — one creating a teacher degree apprenticeship program and another expanding financial assistance for educators — were also both signed into law.

While there were some wins in this arena, Baca-Oehlert acknowledged there was disappointment that there wasn’t more progress made around housing.  

“We were supporting, along with a lot of our coalition partners, several bills related to housing, housing affordability,” she said. “Part of the reason why we were really supporting those housing bills was because of the linkage it has to the educator shortage and the impact it could have had in, again, recruiting and retaining people in the profession.”

Specifically, Baca-Oehlert pointed to bills around local rent control and just cause eviction — both of which she said would not only have helped educators but also students and families.

Tackling other challenges

Gov. Jared Polis visited the Children’s Garden of Learning in 2022 to sign bills related to early childhood education. In 2023, legislators continued to make progress in this field, allocating funding for the first year of universal preschool.
Carolyn Paletta/Vail Daily archive

The education bills signed into law extend past these areas and could bring some positive change to schools.

Baca-Oehlert emphasized the impact the newly-created Office of School Safety will have — which included the expansion of funding for licensed school counselors and grant dollars for co-responder models — as well as other wins in terms of student mental health including expanding free mental health support for students.

“Several of those bills together are broadening the opportunity to ensure that we’re working towards having those adequate mental health supports for our students and our schools,” she added.

Roberts said that while “we’ve passed meaningful legislation in years past to invest in our school-based behavioral health services, this year we passed legislation that will make it easier to detect and treat students.”

Lukens also pointed to a law, which established a school transportation task force. This group will look at ensuring equitable access to students as well as improving traditional busing shortfalls

This year, the legislature also began preparing for the rollout of universal preschool later this year. This included an allocation of around $10 million for the program.

“A quality early childhood education can set a student up for success for the rest of their academic career and making this resource free provides tremendous opportunities to low and middle-income families, who might not otherwise have the resources to send their child to preschool,” Roberts said.

Qualman said that the “benefits of increased access to quality preschool are undeniable.”

However, “districts don’t expect that $10M will be nearly enough to cover the costs of this program,” he added. “So districts will be dipping into general fund dollars to offset the costs of universal PreK.  I suspect funding for this will improve over time, as districts learn more about enrollment and costs.”

More to do

However, while some progress was made, it doesn’t mean the work is over.

“While there was definitely progress made, we still have room to go on several of these big issues, and so we’re committed and ready to keep building off of this momentum and keep pushing forward for our students and our educators,” Baca-Oehlert said.

For Lukens, she’s already looking for bills to sponsor next year to continue taking “positive steps forward.”

“We need to continue to invest in education and ensure that all students are receiving a great education regardless of their location and socioeconomic status,” Lukens said. “I want to continue to advocate for our rural schools to get the resources and staffing that they need to succeed. There have been steps taken to help rural schools during this session, but it is important to continue to take steps forward.”

Roberts, looking specifically at school funding, said he was “confident we’ll fulfill our commitment to get the BS factor to 0 by next year,” adding that he will personally monitor and advocate for that reality.

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