School Finance

Panel: Mourning Amendment 66 clouds next steps for school finance

Too soon.

That’s the message from supporters of Amendment 66 who are still reeling from their loss at the ballot box earlier this month when voters rejected a tax increase in order to finance a school finance overhaul law.

The symbolic corpse of Amendment 66 is cold enough for a political autopsy — and there have been several (here, here and here) — but it’s still too early in the mourning process to articulate how the state should move on and implement some or all of the reforms outlined by the ballot measure and its companion legislation, Senate Bill 213, supporters said Tuesday night.

A panel including, from left, Sheridan Schools Superintendent Mike Clough, Denver Preschool Program CEO Jennifer Landrum, Littleton Public School Superintendent Scott Murphy and State Sen. Mike Johnston couldn't answer, specifically, how the state should move forward after voters rejected an income tax increase to overhaul education funding. Photo by Maura Walz
A panel including, from left, Sheridan Schools Superintendent Mike Clough, Denver Preschool Program CEO Jennifer Landrum, Littleton Public School Superintendent Scott Murphy and State Sen. Mike Johnston couldn’t answer, specifically, how the state should move forward after voters rejected an income tax increase to overhaul education funding. Photo by Maura Walz

“I’m still so disappointed,” said Denver Preschool Program CEO Jennifer Landrum. “I loved the whole package. I don’t want to think about having to take it apart.”

Landrum was a panelist attempting to address how Colorado should move forward after voters patently rejected the tax increase by 66 percent.

If the amendment had passed Colorado’s flat income tax rate would have risen to 5 percent on incomes up to $75,000. Income above $75,000 would have been taxed at 5.9 percent. The extra money would have funded the school finance overhaul and provided for such things like full day kindergarten and funding for charter schools, funneled money to impoverished school districts, and changed how districts calculate their student enrollment among other changes.

Colorado’s income tax remains at 4.63 percent.

Onlookers called the married amendment and legislation, authored by State Sen. Mike Johnston, who also sat on Tuesday’s panel, the most progressive school finance reform effort in the nation.

Now backers face the reality they “can’t do it all,” Littleton Public School Superintendent Scott Murphy said.

The panel, at the University of Colorado Denver’s School for Public Affairs, was produced by EdNews Colorado.

Johnston would not elaborate on any specific legislation he plans on authoring in the 2014 legislature. And other panelists were hesitant to single out one specific piece of the legislation they believe could stand and be funded in a silo.

“For me there is nothing I’d want to give up (in SB 213).” Johnston, a Denver Democrat, said. “The question has to be, ‘What are the steps to achieve the full vision?'”

Gut reaction after the failure of Amendment 66 was that funding for education initiatives in Colorado would lie in the hands of local, not statewide, electorates.

That sentiment was echoed at Tuesday’s forum. But many panelists fear that scenario will only further the financial gap between large urban districts and small rural ones.

“I don’t think we’ll get there,” Murphy said.

Part of relationship between Amendment 66 and SB 213 was more funding for small and rural school districts, which, as Sheridan Schools Superintendent Mike Clough said, “have cut to the bone.”

The Sheridan district was banking on money from the passage of the ballot question, Clough said.

“We can expect to see larger classes sizes. We’ve already lost our consumer and family studies program. The challenges will keep coming until we find a way to address this,” Clough said. “The smaller you get, the more you feel the pinch.”

Urban districts aren’t that better off, Superintendent Murphy and Colorado Children’s Campaign Vice President Reilly Pharo said.

“There are a lot of unknowns for all of us,” Murphy said. Reserve funds at large districts have been spent down since the Great Recession and supplemental money from federal grants are drying up too.

Colorado is one of a few states with a growing student population, and those students are likely to be English language learners and living in poverty Pharo said.

“How we serve underprivileged kids is paramount in the conversation,” she said.

The postmortem did not impress Jeffco mother Rachael Strickland.

She had hopped to hear more solutions from the panel. She opposed the amendment because of, what she called, attached strings.

“We should be funding our neighborhood schools,” she said. “I don’t agree with the distribution of the money to charter and online schools. When you have funding tied to reforms parents don’t support, you’re going to see us vote ‘no.'”

state of the state

Whitmer: Michigan needs ‘bold’ changes to fix schools — not just more money

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her first State of the State address on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Michigan’s new governor called for “bold” changes to the way schools are funded — though she’s not saying what those changes could be.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who took office last month, devoted a large part of her first State of the State Address on Tuesday night decrying a “crisis” in education defined by alarming declines in childhood literacy.

Those declines can’t be blamed on students or schools, she said.

“Our students are not broken,” she said. “Our teachers are not broken. Our system has been broken … And greater investment alone won’t be enough.”

Whitmer offered no specifics about the reform she wants to see, but said she didn’t think incremental changes would be enough to fix Michigan schools.

“Phony fixes won’t solve the problems,” she said.

“A government that doesn’t work today can’t get the job done for tomorrow,” she said. “That ends now. As a state, we must make the bold choice so we can build a stronger Michigan.”

Whitmer is expected to propose her first state budget next month. She said that budget will “give our frontline educators the tools they need to address the literacy crisis.”

Her comments come amid a growing chorus from education and business leaders across the state who have called for funding schools differently, giving schools more money for students who cost more to educate, such as those who are learning English or living in poverty. That would be a departure from Michigan’s current system of giving schools largely the same amount per student, regardless of that student’s needs or background.

A report from Michigan State University last month found that Michigan had seen the largest education funding decline in the nation since 2002 and currently has one of the nation’s lowest funding levels for students with disabilities.

Changing school funding could pose a challenge to a Democrat working with a Republican-controlled legislature.

Whitmer’s hourlong speech was greeted warmly by Democrats who cheered her policy proposals but drew less support from people across the aisle.

At one point, she seemed concerned that only Democrats stood to applaud a line about “generations of leadership” failing Michigan children.

“I know Republicans love education, don’t you?” she asked.  

Whitmer invited Marla Williams, who teaches special education at Detroit’s Davison Elementary School, to the speech. She praised her for “tireless” advocacy that includes visiting children when they’re sick and doing their laundry.

“That’s because she — like so many Michigan educators — knows teaching is more than a career. It’s a calling,” Whitmer said. “I want to send a message to all the devoted educators across Michigan: You’re not failing us. We have been failing you.”

Detroit teacher Marla Williams waves during Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address.

The only specific education policy proposals Whitmer offered in her speech involved helping high school graduates attain career certificates or college degrees.

She proposed a scholarship program called MI Opportunity Scholarship that would guarantee two years of debt-free community college to qualified high school graduates.

Whitmer said this would make Michigan the first midwestern state to guarantee community college to all residents, but the impact would be minimal in the 15 cities — including Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo — that already offer free community college through Promise scholarships.

Whitmer’s proposed scholarship would also provide two years of tuition assistance to students seeking four-year degrees at nonprofit colleges and universities. She said the option would be available to all Michigan students who graduate with a B average.

The Detroit Promise scholarship pays the four-year tuition for students who earn a 3.0 grade point average and score above a 21 on the ACT, or a 1060 on the SAT.

Whitmer’s scholarship proposal bears some similarities to a popular Michigan scholarship called the Michigan Merit Award that gave scholarships to students who earned high scores on a state exam. That program was cut from the state budget over a decade ago.

First Person

Denver teachers are stepping up. It’s time for Colorado voters to do the same.

PHOTO: Kirsten Leah Bitzer

I’m a Denver social studies teacher, and I am striking today with my colleagues as we fight to make teaching in Denver schools a sustainable career.

Yes, it must be noted that Denver Public Schools is top-heavy, and more of the district’s funds should be directed toward professionals who have direct contact with students. But amid this pitched battle between district and union, it’s also important to realize that our current moment does not exist in a vacuum.

Twice in the last six years, we’ve watched ballot initiatives that would have significantly increased Colorado education funding fail. Amendment 73, which lost last fall, was projected to raise $1.6 billion a year. Much of this revenue would have gone to local districts, which could have boosted teacher salaries and added programming for students.

Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights played a significant role in creating this situation, through its draconian limits on our representatives’ ability to raise additional needed funds and its requirement that ballot measures effectively be presented to the public with the costs as a headline and the benefits as a footnote.

But there are other forces at work here, too. Last year, the state’s Chamber of Commerce and business-oriented lobbying groups celebrated the demise of Amendment 73, the latest attempt to bring Colorado’s education funding to an appropriate level — even as some business leaders have expressed concern over the lack of fully prepared graduates.

The result? Denver Public Schools’ and the teachers union’s proposals are currently separated by $5 to 8 million. While our state’s $345 billion economy booms, we are fighting for scraps.

It shouldn’t be this way. An investment in teachers is an investment in our students, and in our civic and economic future. This is challenging, essential work that requires us to contend with competing answers to a recurring question: What is the purpose of schooling? As teachers, we work to balance many answers, from teaching our subject matter to instilling work skills, modeling interpersonal skills, developing citizens, and cultivating creativity.

As a social studies teacher, I’m driven to help my students understand the world as it is while also giving them the tools to reimagine it. So as my colleagues and I strike, I hope my students and my neighbors will think about what education activist Margaret Haley said 115 years ago.

“A grave responsibility rests on the public school teachers and one which no fear of opposition or misunderstanding excuses them from meeting,” she said. “It is to organize for the purpose of securing conditions that will make it possible for the public school, as a democratic institution, to perform its proper function in the social organism, which is the preservation and development of the democratic ideal.”

This is why we are organizing, today and in the future. We deserve pay that is commensurate with the demands of our work and a level of education investment that reflects the vital importance of our schools.

When the district and the union reach an agreement, which I am confident will happen soon, we will be closer to that goal — but we will not be there yet. Whereas teachers in West Virginia and Arizona were able to pressure their legislators to raise pay statewide, Denver teachers are stuck negotiating with a district starved of funding from above. Our state cannot endure this neglect forever.

The next time education is on the ballot, I hope Coloradans will invest in our students and our future.

Peter Wright is a teacher at Denver’s Northfield High School, serving students from Stapleton, Park Hill, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch, and beyond.