Glenn Gustafson, the chief financial officer for Colorado Springs District 11, has spent the past few months crisscrossing the state sharing his grave prediction about school funding to anyone who will listen.
His prognostication goes like this: It might not happen this year, or even in next two, but if something drastic doesn’t change, Colorado lawmakers will be forced to slash school funding to historically low levels.
“The system will implode,” he said in an interview.
What’s happening, Gustafson and others agree, is a slow-moving collision involving Colorado tax policy, growing inequities in public schools, and other spending priorities like the state’s health insurance program and roads.
Multiple efforts to stave off a financial crisis for Colorado schools are under way, including legislation that would create a committee to develop a new way to fund schools. A cross-section of Colorado school superintendents also have been working behind the scenes to come up with their own method to fund schools. And a new coalition of education advocates is laying the groundwork for a potential 2018 ballot initiative that would send more money to schools.
How the three groups work together to solve one of the state’s thorniest questions is unclear — especially since some lawmakers staunchly oppose a state tax increase for schools. But representatives from each faction say they’re more hopeful than ever that changing the way Colorado funds its schools is possible, even if multiple past efforts have failed.
“We’ve gotten to a common place that everyone realizes what we have is not working,” said Charlotte Ciancio, superintendent of the Mapleton School District in Adams County. “We have multiple groups focusing on the problem and we’re all willing to see it from one another’s perspective.”
The perennial debate
The fight over school funding in Colorado — and across the nation — is not new. There have been multiple efforts here during the last decade to change the system, including legislative study sessions, lawsuits and ballot initiatives. All have failed.
Since the Great Recession, when the state was forced to cut spending dramatically, the debate has intensified. But lawmakers and school leaders have been unable to make any substantial changes.
What complicates the school-finance debate in Colorado is a series of constitutional amendments that restrict how much tax revenue the state can spend, how the state collects property taxes and what lawmakers must spend on schools.
The two most recent efforts to flush schools with cash were in 2013 and 2016.
Had Amendment 66 passed in 2013, it would have sent more than $1 billion to schools and triggered a major rewrite of the law that spells out how much each school district gets based on a variety of factors. Voters soundly rejected that ballot question.
Last year, efforts to build enough support to go to the ballot with another measure fizzled.
Recent legal challenges to how Colorado funds schools also have proven fruitless. In 2013, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that Colorado’s funding system was adequate, but perhaps could be improved. And in 2016, the state’s highest court found a legislative tool to cut school funding was constitutional.
The state currently funds schools at a deficit of about $800 million. And according to multiple studies, Colorado as a state spends less on schools than most other states.
How much the state spends on its public schools is one question under scrutiny. How it divides the money is another — and just as contentious.
The formula that determines how much each school receives was written in 1994. Since then, the state has rolled out major reform efforts that include more rigorous standards and graduation requirements. The state’s student demographics have changed, too. Colorado now has more poorer students and students learning English as a second language.
“Education and opportunities are dramatically different today,” said state Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican working to change the funding formula. “The funding formula affects how we deliver — in meaningful ways — those opportunities. It’s time to update.”
Lundeen, along with Denver Democrat state Rep. Alec Garnett, has introduced a bill that would establish a committee of 10 lawmakers charged with proposing legislation during the next two years. The bill grants the committee the authority to study and propose changes to tax policy and the formula that divides school funding.
“Coloradans fundamentally are telling the legislature, ‘Do better,’” Garnett said. “We shouldn’t be using a formula from 1994. We should be using a formula that reflects the realities of today.”
Politics over how much each school receives — or doesn’t — are sure to get in the way of policy, both lawmakers said. But they’re resolved to push through a compromise.
“It’s incumbent upon us to bridge the divide,” Lundeen said. “We go in with eyes wide open. We realize it’s going to be tough. But we need to do something.”
A coalition of Colorado superintendents are one step ahead of lawmakers. After meeting privately for three years, they are beginning to share their proposal to fund schools with advocacy groups and lawmakers.
The superintendents are calling for more money for students who are poor, learning English as a second language, are gifted and talented or have learning disabilities. While it does take into account the size and geography of the school, those are lesser factors.
Shifting the focus to student need instead of district characteristics is likely to win favor with lawmakers from both parties. But the price tag will be a likely roadblock. While the school chiefs haven’t added it all up, their formula could easily cost another $1 billion.
That’s likely a nonstarter for Republicans who are convinced the more than $6 billion the state spends on schools is enough.
Walt Cooper, superintendent of the Cheyenne Mountain School District in Colorado Springs, said the superintendents didn’t create the formula based on what they believe are students’ needs.
“It’s not how much money do we have to start with and how can we back into dividing that,” he said. “It’s really what is the amount needed to do the job we’re expected to do.”
Cooper said the superintendents aren’t living in a fantasy world.
“This is probably an approach and a model we’ll have to grow into over time,” he said.
A new campaign
While lawmakers are poised to debate how to slice the fiscal pie, a coalition of education advocacy groups is laying the groundwork to once again ask voters for more money.
Last week, the Colorado Education Network met for the first time in a ballroom on the University of Denver campus. The new organization is the first byproduct of ongoing conversations about a 2018 ballot question lead by Great Education Colorado, a 14-year-old nonprofit that advocates for school funding.
“Somebody else is not going to fix school funding,” Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, told the room of 250 parents, school leaders and school board members. “It has to be the grassroots to the rescue.”
In an interview, Weil said her organization and its partners haven’t settled on a strategy to increase school funding. But the network — which includes the Colorado Association of School Boards, Padres Unidos y Jovens and the Colorado Children’s Campaign — is a crucial first step.
“The mechanism and vehicles that move us forward have yet to be seen,” she said. “But we know we’re going to have to engage voters one way or the other to invest in schools.”