Great Education Colorado wants to make 2013 Year of the Student
When District Judge Sheila Rappaport handed down her (now appealed) decision in Lobato vs. Colorado, the word she used to describe Colorado's education-finance system was "unconscionable." That harsh description is backed by stats provided by Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit that describes itself as "a statewide, nonpartisan, grassroots organization that is focused on improving education in Colorado through wise, increased investment in our schools, colleges and universities."
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When adjusted for regional cost differences, according to Lisa Weil, director of policy and communications for the organization, Colorado is $2,500 below the national average per person in K-12 education funding. That puts the state in the bottom three for higher education funding.
In the past, one-third of the total education cost fell on the family. Now, it's two-thirds -- and Colorado also ranks in the bottom ten in class size and classroom technology. The state identifies the fewest students with special needs and reimburses schools the least for these students' special education. And across the state, schools are cutting down on science labs, foreign languages and other critical skills, as well as electives -- the classes that get students excited about their education.
In order to address these problems, seven-year-old Great Education Colorado is working with more than eighty organizations in the Colorado community in a push to quit passing the education buck and instead make 2013 the Year of the Student -- the year the state finally commits to funding education. The Year of the Student initiative was announced at a student-run press conference led by Hayley Stromberg in June. A wide range of groups already supports the cause -- everything from the Autism Society of Colorado to the Colorado Association for Gifted and Talented, Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives and the Colorado Council of Churches. Weil says their efforts have been indispensible, but more help is needed.
"Every year, a few thousand new kids come into our system and too many of them didn't get preschool," explains an impassioned Weil. "Every year, students get their one chance at that grade level and every year that we delay is hurting them. And that's why we decided to create a backstop, a deadline. It's time to do right by our kids. We can't kick this down the road anymore, and it's not going to get any easier."
As Weil sees it, the problem is not the schools themselves, but the politicians whose job is to make sure schools get the resources they need. "I think that schools have been doing a remarkable job, in the colleges and early childhood, with the resources that have been made available," she says, "but we've got teachers who are having students added to their classes every year. They're having coursework added to their classes. They're getting very frustrated because they know what they could do if they had one-on-one time with kids, and they just don't have it."
Students launching 2013: Year of the Student
According to Weil, many of Colorado's education funding problems stem from one poor policy direction: a 2009 reinterpretation of Amendment 23 that reallocates state money guaranteed by the amendment to fund education based on several "factors." But Amendment 23's provisions also get tangled up in TABOR and Gallagher provisions, which complicate the issue and make a solution difficult to find.
Voters passed Amendment 23 in 2000 with a goal of reversing budget cuts imposed on Colorado school districts throughout the '90s. The amendment requires the state legislature to annually increase K-12 funding by "inflation +1 percent," and also requires funding for special education and transportation to increase by the same percentage. The amendment reserves 33 percent of Colorado's income tax for the State Education Fund, which is exempt from TABOR limits that had restricted spending increases in the past. But the way the Colorado Legislature reinterpreted Amendment 23 three years ago was to acknowledge the increases in base per-pupil funding, but ignore the "factors," variables such as school district size, local cost-of-living and the number of at-risk students in a district. "It's an absurd argument," Weil says. "It absolutely flies in the face of the voters' intent, but they have a legal interpretation [and] there has not been a lawsuit about it yet.... I would say they didn't want to reinterpret it, but what happened was the recession.... At the same time the revenues plummeted, the number of people who were eligible for Medicaid skyrocketed. You imagine the pie shrunk, [but] Medicaid expanded."
At the same time, the Gallagher Amendment stipulates that there must be a constant ratio between the property tax revenue that comes from residential property and from business property. But since Gallagher passed decades ago, increases in residential property values have significantly outpaced the increases in the value of commercial property. Because property tax is one of the primary sources of funding for education, this, coupled with the problems of 23 and TABOR, creates a perfect storm for education funding.
For a small, rural, poor school district with an at-risk population -- such as the San Luis Valley districts from which the Lobato case emerged -- this has had disastrous effects that provide strong evidence against the state in the Lobato case, Weil argues, because legislators are not supporting schools in the way our state constitution requires.
But Weil stresses that the Year of the Student is not about Lobato. Whether or not the courts side with legislators, she says that 2013 must be a year focused on education. And the timing could be just right.
Page down to read more about the Year of the Student initiative.