Science scores, low tuition, ‘full education funding’ highlighted in Polis’ annual speech

A man wearing a dark suit stands at a podium with a woman standing behind him and the back of people sitting in the foreground.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis delivers the 2024 State of the State address to a joint session of the legislature in the House chamber at the Colorado Capitol in Denver on Thursday. (Hyoung Chang / Denver Post)

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In his annual State of the State speech Thursday, Gov. Jared Polis thanked lawmakers for agreeing to end a longstanding Colorado practice of withholding money from K-12 schools to balance the state budget. His words were met with a standing ovation.

“This has been a long time coming,” Polis said, “and we are thrilled to fulfill our commitment to voters and enter a new era of full education funding in Colorado.”

Since 2009, the state has withheld more than $10 billion from Colorado schools through a mechanism known as the budget stabilization factor. Last year, lawmakers passed a provision within the state’s education funding bill to eliminate the withholding.

While the provision isn’t binding, Polis, along with both Democratic and Republican leaders, have said they wanted to keep that promise.

Polis said in his speech that this year’s promise to fund schools without taking away money would mean better teacher pay, more learning opportunities for students, increased training for teachers, and better resources in classrooms.

State lawmakers on the powerful Joint Budget Committee, which helps craft the state budget, echoed Polis. State Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Weld County Republican, said she and fellow JBC members plan to make sure that education is funded responsibly and sustainably.

“We’re not going to go back to where we are balancing our budget on the backs of students,” Kirkmeyer said in an interview. “It’s not going to happen. Not in my time.”

What else did Polis say about education in his speech? Here are some highlights.

What Polis means by ‘greater efficiency’ in higher education

What Polis said: “We are working with higher education institutions to keep tuition low through innovation and greater efficiency.”

What that means: Higher education budgets are again a topic of concern this year among lawmakers after the governor’s November budget proposal, especially because Colorado students pay more to go to an in-state public university than the national average.

Polis’ budget set aside $39.7 million more for college and university budgets and financial aid. Another $3 million would be used to support the college attendance of youth who have experienced homelessness.

Joint Budget Committee members have said they want to give more state money to colleges and universities on top of what Polis has proposed, especially because school leaders have said they’ll have difficulty keeping tuition rates at the mandated 2% increase for in-state students and 6% increase for out-of-state students next year.

While Polis’ priorities help shape the budget, ultimately the General Assembly adopts a budget in March or April that is actually written by the six legislators on the Joint Budget Committee.

During a news conference after his State of the State address, Polis said “greater efficiency” would include analyzing administrative costs at schools and ensuring state money goes toward teaching students.

Kirkmeyer said she’s disappointed in the amount of money Polis earmarked.

“The reality is if we don’t cover basic core costs at our institutions of higher education,” Kirkmeyer said. “Then the tuition has to go up. And I’m with him on let’s keep the tuition down. But let’s not, as one of our university presidents said, bleed out higher education, because that’s what he is doing.”

Colorado Senate President Stephen Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat, said Democrats have been supportive of higher education and ensuring they can be strong to train the workforce.

“But we also do agree that we need to take a hard look,” he said. “There are limited resources. And so yes, we do need to partner with our institutions and make sure that they are providing services and degrees in a manner that’s efficient and that’s worth the investment.”

Science instruction gets a boost

What Polis said: “Last year we also passed bipartisan legislation to help more students and educators access the resources they need to improve math achievement … Now we need to expand out of school opportunities to boost science achievement too.”

What that means: The state has focused on boosting resources to improve reading and math instruction in recent years.

Not all students statewide take the test, but 2023 statewide science results show about a third of students in fifth and eighth grade met or exceeded standards. About a quarter of all students in 11th grade met or exceeded standards on the test.

Last year, Colorado set aside $28 million to increase math resources statewide, including for after-school programs and tutoring.

This year, the governor updated his budget proposal in January to include $8 million to support science education.

About $3 million will go to schools to improve curriculum and training for educators. Another $5 million would fund out-of-school academic support for Colorado students.

Colorado House Speaker Julie McCluskie, a Dillon Democrat, said as someone who graduated college with a chemistry degree, she’s very supportive of the focus.

“We’ve got to make sure we’re nurturing young minds in the sciences to be sure they’re ready for those careers,” she said

Polis promises to expand workforce training

What Polis said: “Right now there are about two job openings for every unemployed Coloradan. We want every person in Colorado to be able to build a good life and a good career on their own terms, and we are creating many different ways to do that.”

What that means: Polis and lawmakers made an investment last year in expanding free training programs across the state in certain fields such as health care, firefighting, law enforcement, and education.

The goal from the state is to train more Coloradans for in-demand jobs. Some of those industries, however, don’t pay as high, and the state’s free training program is meant to help subsidize that education so students aren’t saddled with debt by choosing those careers.

Polis said during his speech that the program has already served over 3,500 students. Polis has his eyes on expanding other opportunities, too, such as apprenticeships that help students learn on the job.

“We want to go even further, increasing the number of state government apprenticeships by 50% and supporting the creation of 100 new apprenticeship opportunities in the private sector — both by June 30 of this year,” he said.

Polis’ November budget proposal included $2 million in grant funding and $30 million in tax credits to expand apprenticeship programs. And he wants $2 million more in Opportunity Now grants, as well as $30 million in tax credits to support the state program. The program helps develop public-private partnerships focused on workforce development.

Jason Gonzales is a reporter covering higher education and the Colorado legislature. Chalkbeat Colorado partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage. Contact Jason at jgonzales@chalkbeat.org.

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