year in review

Colorado’s school funding debate raged on in 2016. Here’s how.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Jefferson Junior-Senior High School Principal Michael James.

School funding is the perennial school policy debate in Colorado.

During elections and legislative sessions, year in and year out, the state grapples with decisions over how much money schools need and what they actually get.

This year, lawmakers staved off growing the state’s education funding shortfall, known as the negative factor. It’s currently sitting at about $831 million — meaning that’s how much more money schools are owed but aren’t given because the state doesn’t have the revenue.

But those same lawmakers failed to find a compromise on charter school funding. Despite bipartisan support in the state Senate, the General Assembly failed to pass a law that would have required local school districts to share local tax increases, known as mill levy overrides, with their charter schools. Now, one of the bill’s sponsors has pledged to bring the issue up again.

After the session, advocates for more school funding went to work on a ballot question that would have sent more money to public schools. But their hearts were broken when the Colorado Priorities campaign — which also would have funded roads, health care and other services — came to a sudden halt.

In response, a coalition led by Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for school funding, sent a letter to lawmakers and Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, asking they come up with a funding solution in January.

The nonprofit also began gathering members of the education community and others to discuss a potential ballot initiative in 2018.

Meanwhile, school districts across the state asked voters for a record number of local tax increases to fund programs like teacher training and to build new schools. About two-thirds of those requests passed, including those in Denver, Aurora and Mapleton. Voters in Jefferson County, however, rejected their district’s request. That meant upgrades at one high school that serves mostly Latino students is being put on pause — again.

Some in the education community worry that local school districts relying on mill overrides to make up for the state’s funding shortfall is causing greater inequities across school districts. Some districts, like those in Greeley and Pueblo, have never passed a local tax increase.

One other potential driver in funding inequity Chalkbeat looked at in 2016: school fundraisers. Fundraising at individual schools has always been uneven, depending on the socioeconomic status of each school’s population. But observers believe it’s gotten worse in recent years as cuts have forced more expenses onto the shoulders of Colorado parents.

Next year’s funding debate is already underway. Hickenlooper’s proposed budget called for a slight increase in school funding, but it’s not nearly enough to keep up with what’s required by the state law and the Constitution. That means the school funding shortfall will likely increase.

But whether schools actually get more money next year was in doubt after a December forecast projected the state would need to make more cuts than Hickenlooper’s original budget anticipated.

Looming threat

Report: Looming financial threats could undermine ‘fresh’ start for new Detroit district

The creation of a new school district last year gave Detroit schools a break from years of crippling debt, allowing the new district to report a healthy budget surplus going into its second year.

It’s the first time since 2007 that the city’s main school district has ended the year with a surplus.

But a report released this morning — just days after Superintendent Nikolai Vitti took over the district — warns of looming financial challenges that “could derail the ‘fresh’ financial start that state policymakers crafted for the school district.”

The report, from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, notes that almost a third of the district’s $64 million surplus is the cost savings from more than 200 vacant teaching positions.

Those vacancies have caused serious problems in schools including classrooms crammed with 40 or 50 kids. The district says it’s been trying to fill those positions. But as it struggles to recruit teachers, it is also saving money by not having to pay them.

Other problems highlighted in the report include the district’s need to use its buildings more efficiently at a time when many schools are more than half empty. “While a business case might be made to close an under-utilized building in one part of the city, such a closure can create challenges and new costs for the districts and the families involved,” the report states. It notes that past school closings have driven students out of the district and forced kids to travel long distances to school.

The report also warns that if academics don’t improve soon, student enrollment — and state dollars tied to enrollment — could continue to fall.

Read the full report here:


Teacher Pay

Every Tennessee teacher will make at least $33,745 under new salary schedule

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Some teachers in 46 Tennessee districts will see a pay boost next year after the State Board of Education voted Wednesday to raise the minimum salary for educators across the state.

The unanimous vote raises the minimum pay from $32,445 to $33,745, or an increase of 4 percent. The minimum salary is the lowest that a district can pay its teachers, and usually applies to new educators.

The boost under the new schedule won’t affect most Tennessee districts, including the largest ones in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga — where teacher salaries already exceed the state minimum. (You can see the list of districts impacted here.)

The state’s largest teachers union lauded the increase, which will be funded under the state’s 2017-18 budget under Gov. Bill Haslam.

“Teachers statewide are increasingly struggling to support their own families on the stagnant wages of a public school teacher,” said Barbara Gray, president of the Tennessee Education Association. “It is unacceptable for teachers to have to choose between the profession they love and their ability to keep the lights on at home or send their own children to college.”

Tennessee is one of 17 states that use salary schedules to dictate minimum teacher pay, according to a 2016 analysis by the Education Commission of the States. In that analysis, Tennessee ranked 10th out of 17 on starting pay.

The 4 percent raise is a step toward addressing a nationwide issue: the widening gap in teacher wages. On average, teachers earn just 77 percent of what other college graduates earn, according to a 2016 study from the Economic Policy Institute. Tennessee ranks 40th in that study, with its teachers earning 70 percent in comparison to other graduates.

View the Economic Policy Institute’s data in full: