Vail Daily column: A visit to the Capitol
This week, superintendents from across the state gathered at the statehouse to advocate for increased school funding. The event drew hundreds of attendees into the packed west foyer at the Capitol. Teachers, parents, students and business leaders stood with superintendents demanding that something significant be done about school funding in our state.
School leaders also met to discuss the challenges that would be faced in both the short term and long term due to inadequate school funding. One issue that arose was the feeling that the general public was relatively unaware and uninformed of the ongoing school funding issues in Colorado and both the causes and impacts of those funding issues.
Where do we stand today?
According to an analysis by Education Week (a leading national education news magazine), Colorado ranks 42nd in school funding nationally — $2,681 less per student (yes, per student) than the national average. Compared to Vermont (the leading state in education funding), every student who walks into a Colorado school gets a disgraceful $9,867 less spent on their education than students do in Vermont.
What are our kids missing out on because of this low funding?
The vast majority of school funding goes to personnel costs. Namely, how many people (like teachers) you have and how much you pay them. Colorado’s low funding levels mean that our kids are in much larger classes with an educator making thousands less than teachers in other states. They also have fewer supports like interventionists, who specialize in working with struggling students, and less in the way of specials — things like art, music and physical education.
But it’s not just the staffing. Our kids have less and older technology, and fewer instructional materials. They don’t have as many transportation supports. And they go to school in buildings with millions in what we call “deferred maintenance,” where building needs that should have been addressed proactively have been put off for years.
How did this happen?
It wasn’t always this way. In the years leading up through the 1980s, Colorado hovered a little above the national average when it came to school spending.
Colorado’s funding mess has arisen through a collision of state constitutional amendments that weren’t designed to work together. Colorado is one of the easiest (possibly the easiest) state in the county to have citizens vote to change the state Constitution, and Colorado’s voters have taken advantage of that power.
In 1982, the Gallagher Amendment was passed, which lowered residential property taxes but dramatically raised commercial taxes and shifted the burden of funding schools from the local level to the state level.
Then in 1992, the Taxpayer Bill of Rights amendment was passed, which has had the effect of systematically lowering revenue available at the state level for funding schools (or anything else).
Schools got a brief reprieve in 2000 with Amendment 23, which guaranteed increases to school funding. However, these increases were at the expense of everything else funded with state dollars (like higher education and transportation) and this amendment was effectively neutralized after a Supreme Court ruling last year.
The net result: Declining school funding relative to the rest of the country and relative to inflationary costs as time moves forward.
Aren’t things improving as the economy roars back?
In a word, no.
The Taxpayer Bill of Rights contains a provision that requires the state to refund tax dollars to citizens whenever state revenues increase faster than a formula written into the amendment in 1992.
Because Colorado’s economy is one of the fastest growing in the nation, it is trigging that rebate clause. Taxpayers will get small refund checks from the state — but it will mean that schools will never be able to recover after this last recession or possibly any future recessions.
What about all that pot money?
In 2012, Colorado voters added yet another Constitutional amendment to the rolls. Amendment 64 legalized recreational marijuana use and created an avenue to collect taxes from its sale. In total, about $40 million annually can be collected through pot sales and directed toward schools.
However, there are some significant hitches.
First, the pot money is earmarked for capital construction needs and can’t be used at all for the largest and most important education expenses — adding more teaching staff and paying them more.
And while $40 million does sound like a lot of money, in the context of the state education budget it’s a drop in the bucket. Consider this — Eagle County Schools is a middle sized district in the state and our total budget alone approaches $100 million annually.
What’s being done about this?
In the short term, superintendents are pressing state leaders to at least fund schools at a level to keep up with inflation and rising student enrollment. To do anything less means even further cuts for our schools.
Longer term, there are a couple of options. One is for some kind of state level ballot effort to have Colorado’s voters undo some of the mess past voters have put into place. Another is to take on the issue locally. I’ll talk more about our local options in a future column.
Right now, there is a lot of talk on all these fronts. Time will tell what emerges in terms of a solution — but something is going to have to give or Colorado schools will continue to slide further and further behind the rest of the country — robbing our young people of opportunity all along the way.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at email@example.com.