A pandemic exposed the cracks in Colorado’s school funding system and changed the conversation

Sen. Jim Smallwood sits alone amid desks, many cluttered with papers, lined up in a semicircle in legislative chambers at the Colorado State Capitol
State Sen. Jim Smallwood sits alone as fellow senators break at the Colorado State Capitol on Monday, June 15, 2020. (AAron Ontiveroz / The Denver Post)

The 2020 Colorado legislative session opened with high hopes for increasing teacher pay, strengthening school safety, bolstering student mental health services, and improving funding for higher education and K-12.

The coronavirus pandemic crushed those hopes and brought significant budget impacts that not only sidelined this year’s education agenda but reversed much of the progress made last year. At one point, budget writers even floated the idea of defunding full-day kindergarten, the signature accomplishment of the 2019 legislative session.

But, through all of the painful decisions, there were victories large and small. 

Most significantly, the budget crisis amplified conversations about addressing long-standing challenges that have plagued school finance. 

“The COVID crisis put a massive spotlight on the inequities in all the ways we fund schools,” said Leslie Colwell of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, which has lobbied for school finance changes for years. “Given the challenges [legislators] faced when they returned, this turned out to be a tremendous session, perhaps the most significant in years.”

Next year’s projected $3.3 billion revenue shortfall guided almost every discussion. Lawmakers returned from a two-month coronavirus recess and tabled roughly 300 bills, many because they cost money the state doesn’t have. Lawmakers did pass a host of bills to protect low-income workers and families from the effects of the pandemic, as well as a sweeping police accountability bill that days and nights of protests outside the Capitol made urgent. 

Lawmakers cut more than a billion dollars to K-12 and higher education to fill the budget hole. The 2020-21 budget, approved last week, is filled with large tradeoffs, said House Speaker K.C. Becker, a Boulder Democrat.

“No matter what you’re doing … in this world that we’re in right now, you’re going to be taking resources from one area and shifting them to another. There’s just no getting around that,” she said.

Amid all the cuts, lawmakers preserved funding for kindergarten and existing public preschool slots, as well as protecting programs for student mental health and English language learners. They also took up complicated property tax issues that have made it harder to pay for K-12 education, along with proposals to increase revenue without going to the voters.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, started the session by pushing a bill to increase teacher and staff pay in cash-strapped districts and calling for Colorado to fully fund its schools by 2022. The session ended with Colorado withholding almost $1.2 billion from schools when compared to constitutional requirements, a level not seen since the depths of the Great Recession. 

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“We’re well back from square one, and it is hard to see beyond that, knowing what that means for our students,” said union President Amie Baca-Oehlert. She was heartened to see lawmakers looking for ways to find new revenue, including through tax code changes. 

“This crisis exposed more broadly the problems and challenges with our structure,” she said. “It allowed us to have those conversations that we have been having all along, but in a more urgent way.”

Luke Ragland of the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado said he was disappointed that lawmakers chose across-the-board cuts rather than more targeted cuts that would shift more money to small rural districts and those that serve more students in poverty. He also lamented that the school finance act contains a property tax change that is likely to end up in court. 

But he agreed that the budget crisis has changed the conversation and that the next session could see bigger changes in a school funding system that doesn’t address student needs.

“Are we going to make cuts that protect students or protect districts?” he asked. “That is going to be the fundamental question.”

And he predicted that a Republican education agenda focused on parent choice that didn’t make progress this year will become more urgent next year, as parents try to find a good education amid a checkerboard of in-person, online, and hybrid models.

“I promise you right now that wealthy families will move to find the opportunities they need, whether that’s in person or a higher quality online experience,” he said. “Access for open enrollment becomes incredibly important because the stakes have been raised for families.” 

While some of the proposed solutions didn’t get bipartisan support, Democratic lawmakers argued the proposals lay the groundwork for shoring up school funding in future years.

Becker, who is barred by term limits from running again, acknowledged that some of the solutions didn’t draw much Republican support. She said tough decisions needed to be made and likely will need to be made next year by those who succeed her.

“If folks are frustrated with [the changes], I would invite folks to participate in discussions to figure it out because Colorado is unique in its challenges,” Becker said.

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School funding dominates the conversation

K-12 education takes up 36% of Colorado’s general fund, so there was no way for schools to escape cuts when budget writers faced a 25% reduction in revenue. The school finance act cuts average per-pupil spending about 5%, a decrease to about $8,000. Many school districts are planning pay freezes, furloughs, and staff cuts. Lawmakers also cut tens of millions to grant programs that fund school construction, pay for social workers in schools, and support programs to reduce the dropout rate. 

Gov. Jared Polis provided some relief to schools in the form of $510 million in federal relief money, but district officials are concerned it won’t be flexible enough to fill budget holes

Lawmakers also took up proposals to bring in more revenue. A compromise change to the state’s tax code will bring in $156 million over the next three years. That’s less than backers had hoped, but Polis had signaled he would veto the original version of the bill. In November, voters will be asked to approve a nicotine tax that could provide money for rural schools and a long-awaited preschool expansion

The legislature declined to recommend a graduated income tax, but citizen groups will keep working to put that measure on the ballot.

Due to the complicated interaction of constitutional provisions and ongoing economic problems, next year’s budget picture could be even worse than this year’s. A proposal to ask voters to take up a property tax change to avoid the erosion of school funding drew bipartisan support.

The school finance act also contained a provision that could allow a future legislature to increase local school district taxes. Republicans condemned the proposal, which is likely to end up in court. If the provision were upheld, it could be a game changer in a state where government spending is constrained by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

Higher education helps balance the budget

Colorado’s public colleges and universities have continuously shouldered the burden of helping balance the state budget during economic downturns. Not much changed this time.

Lawmakers cut $493 million from statewide higher education, amounting to a 58% cut in state general fund support. Although state money makes up only a small portion of Colorado higher education budgets, the cut would have meant insolvency for some schools. Student tuition contributes most educational revenue and some schools project enrollment declines in the fall.

The state investment is a massive shift from the 2.5% increase Polis wanted for colleges and universities. 

Polis did send $450 million in federal coronavirus relief money to schools, amounting to a 5% cut in state money for schools. It’s unclear whether lawmakers will build next year’s budget based on the idea that this was a 5% cut or a 58% cut.

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The state will have less money to fund scholarships and financial aid. And schools have announced employee layoffs, furloughs, and pay cuts.

Lawmakers also postponed bills that required budgetary expenses, such as emergency assistance grants to students, pilot programs to promote student completion, and an educator loan forgiveness program.

Silver linings for higher ed

Lawmakers approved a change to the state’s funding model in the hopes that it will better align money to student outcomes rather than just enrollment. The change will go into effect in the 2021-22 fiscal year.

Prospective college students will be able to earn school credit for work-related experience starting in the 2023 school year, and lawmakers approved in-state tuition for military families regardless if they are Colorado residents.

The state will also now require the Colorado Department of Higher Education to collect data needed to calculate the return on investment of private, public, and occupational degree programs.

Before the pandemic, lawmakers voted to grant college athletes the right to receive compensation for the use of their name, image, and likeness.

The coronavirus also kickstarted the conversation over whether higher education institutions should use the ACT and SAT for student admittance. State colleges will stop using both when  admitting 2021 high school graduates.

Nationally, there is a debate among colleges whether the test is fair to students of color and those from low-income backgrounds. 

School safety

After last year’s shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch, the legislature convened a special committee to work on school safety issues, including improving coordination among law enforcement, mental health providers, and school systems. In pursuit of bipartisan solutions, the committee steered clear of gun control proposals. 

The legislature passed a recommended bill to create a committee to keep working on the issues and another to require schools to treat mental health as an excused absence. But a proposal to revamp the state’s once-groundbreaking hotline, Safe2Tell, was set aside, as was another to give teachers more training on recognizing and responding to mental health concerns.


Colorado’s immunization rates are among the lowest in the nation, and public health experts are concerned the state could be vulnerable to outbreaks of a host of preventable diseases as more parents skipped checkups and shots during lockdown. Legislation passed this year makes it slightly harder for parents to opt out of required vaccinations for non-medical reasons.

The bill was one of the most contested of the shortened session, with parents opposed to vaccines chanting for hours outside a committee hearing room.

Previously, parents only had to write a note to the school district. Now they’ll need a doctor’s note or to demonstrate they watched a video about vaccine science before declining immunizations. Schools will also have to release reports to parents detailing immunization rates in the student body.

Teacher workforce

Lawmakers passed a bill that combines funding for many existing teacher recruitment and training programs to allow for more flexibility. Some older programs were severely underutilized, while others had more demand than they could meet. The change is meant to ensure money is available for the programs that best meet student needs. 

The governor’s office tapped federal relief money to save a teacher training program that was set to be defunded.

But new proposals to address the state’s persistent teacher shortage were tabled, as was a bill to study and remove barriers faced by teachers of color, the union-backed teacher pay bill, and a new tax credit for educators who spend their own money on school supplies. 

Legislators also made it easier for retired teachers to reenter the classroom while keeping pension benefits, but with COVID-19 raising health concerns, that change may draw fewer educators than otherwise.

Special education

Under legislation passed this year, Colorado teachers will need to get more training on working with students with disabilities to renew their licenses. This is part of a strategy of using teacher licensure requirements to address educational system inequities. In recent years, the State Board of Education has required all teachers to get training on working with English language learners, and lawmakers required more training on reading instruction for elementary teachers. 

Parent advocates faced a setback, though, as a bill aimed at making it easier for parents of students with autism to request outside therapists was tabled. And to shore up the education budget, lawmakers diverted money from a special fund that offsets the cost of serving students with severe disabilities and medical needs. 

Accountability and school governance

At the start of the session, some education interest groups were calling for an audit of the accountability system by which the state measures school performance and determines which schools need intervention. Already controversial, it was tabled during the abbreviated session.

Faced with several months of remote learning this school year and the prospect of hybrid education models and rolling closures in the fall, some groups called for the accountability system to be suspended entirely. Instead, the school finance act calls for a working group to figure out what testing, school ratings, turnaround plans, and teacher evaluation should look like during the strange year to come.

Bills to limit campaign donations in school board races and allow 16-year-olds to vote also failed to advance. 

But the legislature did approve one governance change that proved to be timely: allowing remote attendance at school board meetings. 

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