Pushing for change: What Colorado’s 2023 legislative session could mean for education in Eagle County | VailDaily.com
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Pushing for change: What Colorado’s 2023 legislative session could mean for education in Eagle County

Addressing school finance and the educator shortage top the to-do lists of local education leaders, legislators

Colorado's 2023 Legislative session began on Monday, Jan. 9. With it, Rep. Meghan Lukens and Sen. Dylan Roberts are the two legislators working on behalf of Eagle County.
Meghan Lukens/Courtesy Photo

As legislators rolled up their sleeves this week to get to work at the Capitol in Denver, many will be watching closely to see what solutions could be thrown into the mix to address the mounting pressures and challenges facing Colorado’s education system.

For local legislators and education advocates, there are equal doses of optimism and pessimism surrounding what progress could be made during the next four months.

“We face immense challenges in Colorado with the funding of our education system due to constitutional budgetary restrictions and the results of decisions made years ago to underfund K-12 and higher education,” said Sen. Dylan Roberts, a Democrat who lives in Avon and who represents Clear Creek, Eagle, Garfield, Gilpin, Grand, Jackson, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Routt and Summit counties.



Still, Roberts feels hopeful that the current legislative session will build upon the momentum made last year.

“I am feeling optimistic about the trajectory of education policy and funding in Colorado this year,” Roberts added. “I am already aware of and working on numerous bills to address performance standards, school funding, and the general cost of living that I am hopeful will improve our public education system at large.”

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Part of the optimism this year stems from Rep. Julie McCluskie, a Democrat from neighboring Summit County, who was appointed the Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives. McCluskie has long been a “staunch education funding advocate from the Western Slope,” as Roberts put it. McCluskie has served as the chair of the school finance interim committee for the past three sessions, a role she will continue this session as well.  

With this leadership, Roberts said there is “no doubt that we will make even more progress in education funding in the 2023 session.”

Certainly, there is an enhanced focus on Colorado’s education system. For Amie Baca-Oehlert, the president of the Colorado Education Association, her optimism is rooted in the number of “education champions elected to the legislature” in November.



One of these newly elected members is Rep. Meghan Lukens, a Democrat who represents Moffat, Rio Blanco, Eagle, and Routt counties. A Steamboat Springs resident, Lukens staked a large part of her campaign on her job as a rural educator.

“I understand the in and outs of our education system because I was educated in our schools and taught in our schools. I know what our students, teachers and school administrators need to succeed,” Lukens said.

Meghan Lukens hopes to bring her experience as a teacher to bring meaningful change for Colorado’s teachers, students and education system.
Meghan Lukens/Courtesy Photo

And heading into her first session — and as one of 11 members of the House Education Committee — Lukens has high hopes for the future.

“This is definitely a year in which we are going to see lots of progress in education policy in Colorado,” she said. “We have a wonderful slate of new and returning legislators who are ready to address the problems within our education system.”

These new members may also present a possible barrier, as the challenges facing education are complex. Baca-Oehlert called this a “contextual reality,” rather than a barrier, emphasizing that these new legislators will have a steep learning curve.

Philip Qualman, superintendent of the local Eagle County School District, said that this complexity poses challenges for all members of the legislature, state and community, who he said are “stuck in the status quo.”

“That means CDE, the governor’s office, legislators, and most K-12 advocates are accustomed to engaging in the same fights year after year,” Qualman said. “We can anticipate debates over changing the funding formula, how much to buy down the Budget Stabilization Factor, and a raft of bills that promote pet projects dear to each legislator (e.g. arming teachers, improving school accountability, funding small innovation projects, etc.).”

With this, Qualman remains cautious about whether there will be significant impacts this year.

“Tackling the big issue of a broken funding model requires courage and vision, neither of which are common in the legislative process,” he said.

School finance

For Qualman, any optimism is “tempered” by the ongoing Budget Stabilization Factor, as well as the complex K-12 funding formula, which he said, “requires immediate, comprehensive reform.”

“There is already much talk about changing the K-12 funding formula. While this has long been suggested, we believe these efforts will affect little positive change and waste time amongst legislators, lobbyists and K-12 advocates,” Qualman said. “Colorado funding of K-12 schools has and will continue to fall well below the national average for per pupil spending. Moving nickels and dimes between schools won’t move the needle.”

And certainly, this complex item, and addressing Colorado’s poor education funding, is at the top of the to-do’s when it comes to addressing any issues in Colorado’s education system.

As Baca-Oehlert put it: “Many of the things that would provide support to our students, our schools and our educators have a fiscal note.”

“It’s just looking like another tough year where funding constraints are going to impact education,” she added.

A visual representation of how the budget stabilization factor has impacted school funding in the local district since 2009.
Eagle County School District/Courtesy Photo

The Budget Stabilization Factor — also referred to as a negative factor or the ‘BS’ factor — was introduced in 2010 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.

Since 2010, this factor has meant that the local Eagle County School District has lost out on $82 million in funding. During the current school year, the factor will be responsible for a loss of $2.6 million in funding for the district.

Last year, similar talk about the complete buy-down of this factor surrounded the 2022 session. However, this was not fully realized.

As Roberts pointed out, there was some growth last year in education funding: The legislature increased per-pupil funding by 6%, decreased the BS factor to $321 million and added $80 million for special education. 

“Our state needs to allocate more funding to our public schools. Right now, Colorado ranks 45th in the nation for the amount of tax money spent on education, and Colorado allocates $3,000 less per pupil than the national average,” Roberts said. “Looking ahead, I am hopeful that we can make even more progress in fully funding our public schools and in turn, further decrease the budget stabilization factor.”

Roberts added he was hopeful that he and his colleagues would “find creative solutions to expand the school budget.”

In the 2023-24 budget proposed by Gov. Jared Polis, there is a proposed increase of 9% in per-pupil funding. This K-12 proposal increases the state’s education budget by $704 million — reaching over $9 billion in total.

Lukens said that she and her colleagues “hope to achieve and even exceed that,” while also looking for “innovative ways to fully fund schools.”

Qualman added that this budget proposal “as well as economic forecasts are favorable to Colorado K-12 schools.”

However, even if legislators do manage to “fully fund” education with the buy-down of this factor, it would not be an end-all-be-all solution for the state’s education funding system.

“Experts anticipate a nominal buy-down of the Budget Stabilization Factor, but don’t expect it to disappear,” Qualman said. “To be clear, ‘fully funded’ means funding K-12 at the rate prescribed by Colorado’s Constitutional Amendment 23.  That would still be about $2,500 per pupil less than the national average.”

While Baca-Oehlert said the association would certainly continue pushing for the buy-down for the factor, she said there is an additional need for “long-term system fixes.”

We need more revenue in our state, and so we’re also very focused on that long-term view of bringing something to the ballot that will be a systemic fix that can move us forward in a permanent way versus Band-Aids here and there every year,” she said.

Addressing the educator shortage

While funding is certainly the top priority, many other challenges are persisting and calling for reform and attention. Perhaps next on the list is finding ways to address the national educator shortage here in Colorado.

“We hope to build momentum for a broader solution to the issues that plague K-12,” Qualman said. “Our inability to hire adequate staff leaves our system in an untenable position. Colorado must get competitive on the national level in order to recruit and retain a dwindling number of qualified teachers and school professionals.”

Wendy Rimel, board president of the Education Foundation of Eagle County, pointed to the “enormous challenge” facing Colorado’s legislature.

“Colorado ranks 50th in the nation in providing a competitive wage to teachers educating our kids,” she said. “Across the state, we are digging for dollars to house educators and their families.”

Already there are some policy and bill proposals that could begin to chip away at the problem.

One such proposal was one of the first five bills introduced in the House and Senate, Roberts said. The House bill aims to “address teacher shortages by removing some of the financial barriers that student teachers face when entering the profession,” he said, adding that this includes expanding eligibility for financial assistance and loan forgiveness.

Lukens is also targeting this shortage in one of her first bills, which would aim to streamline out-of-state teaching licensures.

“By supporting the mobility of licensed teachers through the development of a new interstate compact, that will create reciprocity among participant states and reduce barriers to license portability and employment, it will be easier for teachers to move from out of state and fill open positions in our Colorado schools,” Lukens said.

Baca-Oehlert pointed to a few policy areas that could address this shortage including looking at educator workload and respect. One specific area is a proposal for a new office of school safety in the governor’s budget proposal, which she said could have an “absolute impact on educator recruitment and retention.”

Housing

Another policy area under this umbrella is housing. While housing impacts many industries outside of education, Baca-Oehlert said the association is closely watching these policies around housing.

Roberts said that this lack of affordable housing — as well as regional unaffordability in Northwest Colorado — was certainly a priority and is reflected in his first Senate bill. This bill would contribute $13 million toward workforce housing development on unused state-owned land. In Eagle County, he said it would initiate the process to build affordable housing for workforce (including teachers) on CDOT land in Dowd Junction.

Roberts said he is also working on additional bills “that would increase workforce housing development in our mountain regions.”

Mental health

There will also undoubtedly be proposals and policies surrounding the mental health of both students and teachers in this session. The latter of which also serves the purpose of supporting the retaining and recruitment of educators.

“Providing and making sure we have those supports for students helps our educators as well,” Baca-Oehlert said. “It’s one of the top things that in our member survey that our educators talk about is having access to those supports and resources which is linked back to funding.”

Roberts pointed to two early bills that are targeted at helping schools address the youth mental health crisis. The first, a House bill, proposes an assessment program for the identification and allocation of resources for mental health challenges. The second, a Senate bill, proposes aid for schools in hiring “badly-needed mental health professionals,” Roberts said.

The latter proposes “removing the requirement that school-based counselors must receive licensure from the Department of Education (in addition to their professional license),” he said.

Further advocacy

In 2018, Colorado teachers rallied outside the state Capitol to demand more funding for schools and advocate for other changes. This ongoing advocacy continues through the Colorado Education Association (and local Eagle County chapter) today.
Colleen Slevin, AP Photo/Vail Daily archive

Solving these education challenges — like many of the other complex issues facing Colorado legislators this session — will not be without its barriers.

For Lukens, this includes reframing the issues surrounding education.

“We need to remember that education is not a political issue. Instead, education unites us,” she said. “I believe that Colorado is ready for an education transformation, and I am proud to be part of that movement.”

For Baca-Oehlert, she hopes that this movement will be one that includes educator voice and involvement in “crafting and shaping policy and legislation.”

With high expectations for the 2023 Colorado legislative session, advocacy efforts will also continue locally.

“We have to band together as the intelligent population in Colorado and demand that education is essential and integral to who we are in the world. Only then, even a proactive legislature remains hobbled by the voters of Colorado,” Rimel said.

With ongoing efforts by many involved in the local school district — including EFEC, the local Eagle County Education Association as well as involvement from the Board of Education and Superintendent himself — as well as in the state, there is some hope ahead.

“We aim to replicate the momentum that resulted in the passage of Amendment 23 in 2000,” Qualman said. “It will take a state-wide coalition to provide a similar result, and we are excited to support that process.”

Regardless of the different solutions, policies and approaches, the ultimate goal of any progress in education is to deliver high-quality education to students.

“We understand that high-functioning public schools are the key to high quality of life for all in our community,” Qualman said. “We are willing to invest in our young people because that investment pays dividends for generations to come.  Strong schools deliver strong communities.” 


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