The Colorado State Board of Education on Wednesday decided to hold a hearing in December on a policy change that would allow school districts to no longer match funds for gifted and talented programs unless they want to.

If approved, the little noticed rule change could reduce funding to those programs by as much as 50 percent – especially in small, rural districts – beginning with the 2011-2012 school year.

budget cuts/scissors and dollar billThat news has coordinators of gifted and talented programs statewide scrambling for more information about potentially hefty cuts that could gut already cash-strapped programs for gifted and talented students.

Current legislation mandates that school districts match or exceed earmarked funds provided by the state for gifted and talented programs. For this year, the legislature appropriated about $9 million for gifted and talented programs. The department asked the attorney general’s office for clarification on the matching funds requirement, which went into effect in 1990.

The informal opinion by the attorney general’s office supported the view of the Colorado Department of Education and some districts that the funds matched by schools could be better used elsewhere. The rule change, which would take effect next year, states that districts will no longer be obligated to match funds for gifted and talented programs provided by the state.

Some districts have already had to make due with less for gifted and talented programming.

Weld County District 6 is one district that has experienced funding issues for gifted and talented programs. The district has already had to make sacrifices in programs for advanced students. For instance, the district reduced the number of teachers available for gifted and talented programs over the past few years, and more budget reductions could mean even fewer teachers for talented and gifted programs.

“We don’t get a whole lot of money, but we do a lot with what we have,” said Linda Johnson, coordinator of the district’s gifted and talented programs.

She said Weld County already relies heavily upon state allocations and support from parents to keep its gifted and talented programs going.

“What we have done with the cutbacks with gifted/talented teachers is we have changed their roles, they are facilitating and working with teachers in the classroom,” Johnson said.

In the Boulder Valley School District, Becky Whittenburg, coordinator of the district’s talented and gifted programs, sent out a recent e-mail to gifted student education leaders and advocates throughout the district urging them to fight back against the proposed change.

“We should speak out against this rule change for the same reasons we’ve advocated for more funding overall,” Whitenburg wrote. “GT is underfunded in Colorado. The per pupil allocation is far less for GT students than for other high needs populations. The state allocation is simply not enough and if districts decide not to match the state allocation, then our students and programs will suffer.”

Whittenburg and other gifted and talented advocates are concerned that if the rule change goes into effect, districts will not provide necessary funding to serve students who require GT services or provide needed outreach to parents, educators, and the school community.

Assistant Education Commissioner Ed Steinberg said the decision stemmed from the CDE and some districts’ view that the law was unconstitutional and that the funds could be used in other ways that would be more valuable. Tough economic times are also a factor behind the proposed rule change.

New ideas for funding examined

Steinberg said the CDE has been working closely with the BOCES Association (Boards of Cooperative Educational Services) to find an alternative solution to funding gifted and talented programs in smaller, rural areas that are expected to be most affected by the new rule change.

BOCES are regional organizations that provide services to school districts, particularly in rural areas where it makes more sense to have one agency provide services to multiple districts.

Steinberg said future economic conditions will play a significant role in determining the impact the rule change will have on gifted and talented programming.

“I think so much of that will depend on the economic circumstances, which, quite frankly, don’t look too promising at the moment,” he said. “At the same time, I have to say that gifted and talented programs are so ingrained in just about every school district throughout the state. I would be more concerned if these programs had only been around for the last few years.”