STEM in Colorado

Colorado lawmakers are stepping in to help prepare students for the state’s booming tech sector

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Northglenn High School who are studying biomedical science work on an assignment. The class is part of the school's STEM offerings.

More Colorado students could be building smartphone apps by the end of next school year.

In an effort to prepare students for the state’s booming technology job market, lawmakers are considering three bills that would beef up access to computer science classes and provide students with new credentials after they leave high school.

A Chalkbeat analysis last year found that only about two out of every seven students in Colorado have access to courses in STEM — short for science, technology, engineering and math.

The bipartisan bills could change that, increasing access to computer science courses for the state’s black, Latino and rural students, and — for the first time — begin to define what a quality STEM program is.

The first bill scheduled to be debated by the House Education Committee on Monday would require schools to include technology in lessons alongside traditional subjects, such as English and civics.

It would also require the education department to create lessons to help educators teach computer science as a standalone course, and set up a $500,000 grant program to help train them.

“Kids need to be up to speed on these things in order to function in the current marketplace,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, along with Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat. “The more they’re attuned to the technology of the times — all the better. It will help them in college and getting their job and careers.”

The technology sector is the fastest growing in Colorado. There are an estimated 13,517 open computing jobs in the state, according to Colorado Succeeds, an education reform advocacy group that represents the state’s business community.

Some states have already made the shift to include technology in their learning standards. In Arkansas, which made the change in 2015, officials say the new standards have already started to break down stereotypes about who can do computer science.

“What we’re trying to do is to make computer science a normal part of their academic lives,” said Anthony Owen, the state director for computer science education in Arkansas. “When we make it normal for everyone, it’s abnormal for no one.”

A second bill under consideration in Colorado would make mostly technical changes to the state’s new P-Tech schools, a model that mirrors a New York City school that partners with IBM to give students work experience and a path to an associate’s degree while in high school.

The model allows students to stay in high school for up to six years — which has caused schools that house P-Tech programs to worry about their graduation rates.

House Bill 1194 would change the way the state calculates graduation rates to avoid penalizing schools that have P-Tech students enrolled for an extra two years.

The third bill, House Bill 1201, would create a special kind of diploma that shows colleges and employers that its holder is proficient in STEM subjects. To get the diploma, students would have to take a variety of STEM classes, earn high marks on standardized math exams, and demonstrate their science skills through a special project they complete their senior year.

“I want to make sure, across Colorado, that we have clear expectations and that they’re equitable expectations,” said Rep. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat and sponsor of the bill. “All of our schools are doing a good job preparing our kids, but I want to be specific in terms of what our colleges and workforce is seeking in our graduates.”

The bill, however, stops short of defining what coursework students must complete. Local schools will decide that. That was important to Jess Buller, the principal of West Grand’s K-8 school who helped write the bill. He noted that different schools and districts offer different STEM courses.

“We want that STEM endorsement to be that sign of distinction, that a student completed a program and does not need the remedial work that might be required for other students,” Buller said. “The bill is specific enough, but flexible enough.”

Morgan Kempf, the STEM science specialist for Pueblo City Schools, said she is excited to offer such a credential.

In the absence of a special diploma, Pueblo Central High School, the city’s STEM school, has sought outside accreditation to give weight to its STEM courses. The school has also started handing out school letters, usually a tradition reserved for varsity athletes, to exceptional STEM students.

“It’s an extra stamp of approval that recognizes and appreciates what they’re doing and at the level of rigor they’re doing it at,” Kempf said. “That stamp of approval lets students and potential employers know they’re meeting expectations.”

Funding fight

In Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Colorado’s teachers union finds a useful face for the opposition

PHOTO: Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, is working to fuel opposition to a bill that would boost charter school funding by associating it with U.S Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

The union on its Facebook page published an image of DeVos and branded Senate Bill 61 as a “Betsy DeVos-Style Privatization Bill.”

The bill, which has bipartisan sponsors in both chambers, would require school districts to equally share money from local tax increases with charter schools. It was recently approved by the state Senate — but not without a fierce fight from a bloc of lawmakers who taught in district-run public schools.

The union isn’t the only group using DeVos’s image to oppose legislation making its way through the statehouse. A new political nonprofit, Colorado Children Before Profits, launched its own website linking DeVos and President Donald Trump to the charter school funding bill, and two other bills that would change the way Colorado funds schools.

DeVos, a Michigan billionaire who has long supported charter schools and vouchers for private schools, became an unexpected political lightning rod early in Trump’s administration.

PHOTO: CEA/Facebook
The Colorado Education Association posted this image to its Facebook page earlier in March.

In Colorado, the union and a group of parents protested outside U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner’s downtown Denver office, urging him to oppose her confirmation. Gardner ultimately voted to confirm DeVos.

DeVos has no formal role in the push for Senate Bill 61, which soon will be considered by the state House of Representatives.
But “there’s a natural tie,” argues Kerrie Dallman, CEA’s president.

“Betsy DeVos has long been connected to the movement to radically expand charter schools, as well as grow education vouchers and tax credits,” Dallman said. “We’re concerned because there is so little accountability in that movement, and a lack of transparency.”

Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform organization, said the union’s use of DeVos is “typical D.C.-style politics.”

“The teachers union’s latest propaganda campaign is shameful,” Ragland said in a statement. “They are spreading demonstrably false information in an attempt to politicize an issue that has had longtime bipartisan support in Colorado. Senate Bill 61 is a uniquely Colorado solution, supported by local leaders in both parties.”

The perennial debate

How the heck does Colorado fund its schools? (And six other money questions you might be embarrassed to ask.)

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A high school student at Vista Peak Preparatory works on a computer during an engineering class.

Since public schools were founded, arguments have raged over how to pay for them.

In Colorado, it’s one of the perennial debates that gets the best of lawmakers, lobbyists, school leaders and advocates every year. Further frustrating things, lawmakers can only do so much because constitutional amendments lock in much of the state’s budget.

It’s no chump change: More than $6 billion in Colorado tax money goes toward schools.

As Colorado lawmakers get to work on crafting the state budget, here are some questions and answers about how the school funding system works in the Centennial state.

How the heck does Colorado fund its schools?

Colorado funds its schools from two major sources of revenue.

The first pool of revenue is called the “local share.” This money comes from local property taxes on homes and businesses. The second pool is the “state share.” This revenue comes from income and sales taxes.

PHOTO: Sarah Glen
Over time, the state has had to increase its contribution to the state’s schools.

Historically, schools received about an equal share of their funding from the local and state shares. However, for a variety of reasons, the state has had to dramatically increase its contribution to schools during the last two decades.

Many schools, especially those that serve large populations of at-risk students, also receive federal money.

What about marijuana taxes? Aren’t schools seeing a windfall from recreational sales?

No.

The first $40 million of tax revenue collected from marijuana excise taxes — a wholesale tax — goes to a special fund to help school construction. That doesn’t go very far.

However, given a tightening state budget, Gov. John Hickenlooper has suggested increasing taxes on pot to help fund school operations. Lawmakers haven’t been keen on that idea.

Does every school district get the same amount from the state?

No. Lawmakers use a funding formula to determine how much money each school district gets. The formula, which was written in 1994, takes in a variety of factors including student enrollment, the district’s cost of living and how many at-risk students the district serves.

The large suburban district in Douglas County received $7,050 per student this year. Thirty-four percent came from local taxes, while the state picked up 66 percent of the cost.

The smaller Mapleton school district in Adams County, which serves a large Latino population, got $7,303 per student. But only 24 percent came from local property taxes, while the state kicked in 76 percent of the cost.

The tiny Aguilar school district in southeastern Colorado received $13,600 per student. The locals pitched in 25 percent and the state took care of the rest.

What determines the size of the local share?

School boards have no say in how much local property taxes contribute to their funding. That’s left to a complicated constellation of constitutional amendments and state law.

First there’s the Gallagher Amendment. Adopted in 1982, the amendment requires the state to maintain a 45 percent to 55 percent ratio ratio between the revenue collected from personal property and business property. When home values go up, the state is required to drop the percent on which property can be taxed. In 1980, the rate was 21 percent. In 2013, it was 7.98 percent. That means a smaller proportion of a home’s actual value can be taxed by school districts.

The second constitutional amendment in play is the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR. Approved by voters in 1992, TABOR puts a cap on how much revenue the state and local governments can collect from taxpayers. It also requires governing bodies to seek permission from voters before increasing taxes.

While all but four school districts have received voter approval to keep excess tax revenue, lawmakers have put two key restrictions on school districts.

First, school district property taxes can only increase by inflation and enrollment growth. When that revenue exceeds the limit, school districts must reduce their tax rates. And because of TABOR, once the tax rate is lowered by statute, it can’t be raised without voter approval.

(If you want to sound super-smart at your next PTA or school board meeting, this is known as the “ratchet effect.”)

Lawmakers put an additional check on school districts in 2007 when they put a statewide cap on school districts’ tax rates.

What determines how much the state is supposed to kick in?

While there are two amendments that put restrictions on how the state can generate revenue to fund its schools, there is another Constitutional amendment that spells out how the state is supposed to spend that money.

Amendment 23, approved by voters in 2000, did a few things, but two points are still relevant today.

First, Amendment 23 requires the state to increase funding based on population growth and inflation. Second, it created the State Education Fund, an account lawmakers are relying on more heavily to pay for schools. It is financed by one-third of 1 percent of federal taxable income that is exempt from TABOR limits.

Wait, if lawmakers are required to increase funding each year, why does the state have an education funding shortfall?

During the Great Recession, when lawmakers were forced to slash hundreds of millions from the state budget, they argued that Amendment 23 only covers “base funding,” or the average every school district receives per pupil.

The amendment, they argued, doesn’t govern the additional money districts receive to compensate for size, at-risk students and other factors.

So in 2010, lawmakers created “the negative factor,” a new tool they could use to make across- the-board cuts to school funding after all other factors (size, at-risk students, cost-of-living) are taken into consideration.

As part of a compromise, lawmakers are required to report how much money they’re not giving to schools based on that legislative tool.

A lawsuit challenged the negative factor. But the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of lawmakers.

So while a large portion of funding must increase every year, lawmakers have places to cut education in a pinch. The current shortfall is at $828 million, down from a $1.01 billion in 2013.

Didn’t a bunch of school districts just pass tax increases?

Yes, and according to some, that’s making the situation worse.

As the state’s finances have squeezed, some school districts have turned to local voters to ask for more local revenue. These tax increases, known as mill levy overrides, exist outside of the state’s school funding system. The more voters approve doesn’t lessen the state’s burden.

There are some school districts like Boulder, Denver and Cherry Creek that have generated millions of local revenue but are still getting their equal share from the state. Meanwhile, districts like Greeley, Pueblo and Sheridan have never been able to convince their voters to approve a tax increase. That means they have to get by with whatever the state gives them.