first day of school

Budget battles likely to overshadow education issues as Colorado legislature convenes

DENVER, CO - January 10: Opening day of the second session of the 71st General Assembly in the House of Representatives at the Colorado State Capitol. January 10, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post)

Colorado lawmakers started the day Wednesday with pledges of bipartisanship and odes to the Colorado way. 

Then Republicans in the state Senate promptly sent a Democratic bill that would fully fund all-day kindergarten to a kill committee, while Democrats in the House dispatched a Republican bill that would allow concealed-carry permit holders to take their guns onto school grounds.

And so began the 2018 session of the Colorado General Assembly, a session that many observers expect to be stickier and messier than the 2017 session, which saw major compromises on budget issues, construction defects reform, and charter school funding. The big issues for this session are expected to be reform of the state pension fund and transportation funding, and both will have implications for education.

Colorado lawmakers are in an unusual position this year of having plenty of money to spend. Colorado’s economy continues to do well, and state economists predict that changes in federal tax law will cause Coloradans to pay more income tax to the state. Lawmakers also have more money to spend this year after passing a bipartisan bill last year that eased some spending restrictions.

Many Republicans are pushing for the lion’s share of that extra money to go toward transportation after a bipartisan bill to ask voters to approve a tax increase for roads and transit failed last year. That precludes spending it on other needs, including education.

Democrats, on the other hand, want to spread that money around.

“Let me be clear: Transportation funding is a priority,” Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran said in her opening day remarks. “Our Colorado students are also a priority. We will have the opportunity to address chronically low funding for K-12 and higher education.

“During this session, we will be reviewing every part of the state budget to assure that it balances the priorities and needs of the people of Colorado.”

That was about as specific as Duran got, though she also called out the need for more affordable child care options so that parents could pursue work opportunities.

Republican Minority Leader Patrick Neville said his party would work with Democrats on bills that offer “real hope for educational success,” but he pushed back against the idea that more money was necessary.

“We’ve spent a great fortune on K-12 education, but we haven’t gotten a great result,” he said. “The time has come for us to have an open mind to new approaches to education. Instead of spending that fortune to empower bureaucracies, why don’t we try to empower students and parents?”

The amount the state spends on education goes up every year with inflation and growth in the student population, and the governor’s budget calls for a 4.5 percent increase in per-pupil spending. Lawmakers also have reduced the state’s education funding shortfall that was created after the Great Recession. The shortfall is the amount of money the state should pay to local school districts under the state constitution but doesn’t because it can’t afford it. However, Colorado remains in the bottom tier of states when it comes to education funding, and doesn’t pay for full-day kindergarten.

The Democratic bill that was doomed on arrival would have found the money for kindergarten by asking voters to let the state keep money collected above a constitutional spending cap. State Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican, is working on a different kindergarten funding bill that would find the money by not paying districts for high school seniors who are taking multiple study halls or less rigorous electives. At Chalkbeat’s legislative preview, he said he hoped to make the bill revenue-neutral to make it more likely to pass.

On opening day, members of both parties praised a bill last year that requires districts to equitably share revenue from voter-approved local tax increases with charter schools. An interim committee on school finance is only halfway through its work and isn’t expected to produce recommendations until after this session is over. Any bills out of that committee would be taken up in 2019, by a new set of lawmakers.

Senate President Kevin Grantham, aCañon City Republican, did not call out any education issues as priorities for his caucus, but he did join Minority Leader Lucia Guzman, a Denver Democrat, in stressing the importance of expanding internet access in rural areas as a tool for both education and economic development. Gov. John Hickenlooper has repeatedly identified rural broadband as a priority, but legislative efforts have failed in past years.

“We have an opportunity to advance the education, economic growth, and healthcare systems of Colorado by ensuring that every corner of our state is effectively connected to the internet,” Grantham said. “Whether it’s the fifth grader in Dove Creek trying to get his homework done or the business owner in Creede wanting to sell his goods online or a hospital in Hugo researching life-saving solutions for their patient, there are few opportunities that can bring so much benefit to so many Coloradans.”

Guzman struck a similar note.

Far too many rural and mountain communities across Colorado remain isolated from the growing opportunities offered by broadband services,” she said. “Many students in schools across Colorado are falling behind because of the lack of access to reliable Internet.”

Guzman also called for campaign finance reforms that would reach into school board elections that have seen large influxes of outside money from teachers’ unions, charter school proponents and other interests.

Still walking

Colorado teachers plan more walkouts, and Jeffco canceled classes one day next week

Colorado teachers march around the state Capitol Monday, April 16, to call for more school funding and to protect their retirement benefits. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Teachers from Colorado’s two largest school districts are planning back-to-back walkouts next week to call for more funding for education – and they could be joined by other districts.

Jeffco Public Schools canceled classes for April 26, next Thursday, after many teachers there said they plan to go to the Capitol, while the union representing Denver classroom teachers said they plan to walk out midday April 27, next Friday, to rally at the Capitol early in the afternoon.

In a press release, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association said Denver teachers would be leading a statewide walkout. Corey Kern, the union’s deputy executive director, said he’s not sure yet how many other districts will be represented.

The announcements come after hundreds of teachers marched at the Capitol during a day of action Monday to protect their retirement benefits and call for more school funding. Enough teachers left the suburban Englewood district that classes were canceled there.

Colorado consistently ranks in the bottom tier for school funding and teacher pay, though there is considerable variation around the state. A recent study ranked Colorado last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries, and nearly half the state’s districts are now on four-day weeks. The 2018-19 budget takes a big step toward restoring money cut during the Great Recession, but the state is still holding back $672 million from what it would have spent on K-12 education if it complied with constitutional requirements to increase per-pupil spending at least by inflation each year.

The wave of teacher activism reflects a national movement that has seen strikes, walkouts, and marches in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky. Unlike other states, lawmakers here can’t raise taxes to send more money to schools or approve teacher raises on their own. Voters would need to approve more money, and local school boards would need to increase salaries.

Teachers interviewed at Monday’s march said they recognize the fiscal constraints in Colorado, but they’re also inspired by the actions of their colleagues in more conservative states.

Many teachers also said they fear that reductions in retirement benefits could lead to an exodus of younger teachers, further squeezing a profession that struggles to recruit new workers and suffers from high turnover.

A House committee made changes to a pension overhaul this week that removed the provisions teachers found most objectionable, like raising the retirement age and making teachers pay more out of their paychecks, but the final form of the bill still needs to be hashed out between Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate.

Jason Glass, superintendent of the 85,000-student Jefferson County district, sent an email to parents Tuesday that said classes would be canceled next week due to a “labor shortage.” Teachers who miss school are required to use their allowed leave time.

Glass called the level of education funding in Colorado “problematic.”

“Public education staff, parents, and other supporters have become increasingly vocal in their advocacy for increased funding for our K-12 public schools and the stabilization” of the state pension plan, he wrote. “There is a belief among these groups that years of low funding is having a significant impact on our ability to attract quality candidates into the teaching profession, and is impeding the ability to effectively deliver the high level of educational experience our students deserve.”

Glass apologized for the “inconvenience” to families and reminded parents that April 26 is also “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day.”

Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district with 92,000 students, announced late Tuesday that there would be early dismissal April 27, with more details to come.

“Officials across the country and specifically lawmakers in the statehouse must finally recognize that a quality education cannot be provided on the cheap.” Denver union president Henry Roman said in a press release about the walkout. “If we want Colorado’s current economic prosperity to continue, we need to realize the importance of strong schools.”

Advocates are trying to place a $1.6 billion tax increase for education on the November ballot. Voters have twice rejected similar measures in recent years.

priorities

With school finance act, Colorado lawmakers try to pass the hot potato of teacher pay to local districts

State Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat, calls for more money for education during a rally with teachers and fellow Democratic members of the House Education Committee at the Capitol Monday, April 16. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

A school finance act that puts more money into K-12 education than Colorado has spent at any point since the Great Recession passed a key House committee Monday with easy bipartisan support.

Democratic lawmakers on the House Education Committee urged local school boards to turn this money into teacher raises – and Colorado voters to provide even more funds next year.

The hearing on the school finance act occurred as hundreds of teachers descended on the Capitol as part of a day of action to ask for more school funding and protections for retirement benefits. Before the hearing started, Democratic committee members met with teachers in the foyer of the Capitol and joined them in chants of “not enough” and “no more B.S.,” a reference to the state’s budget stabilization or “negative” factor. That’s the difference between what Colorado spends on schools and what it’s constitutionally required to allocate, based on inflation and numbers of students.

A group of education advocates hopes to place a $1.6 billion tax increase for schools on the November ballot. Colorado voters have twice before rejected tax increases for education, most recently in 2013.

“We need to support our teachers, and we need to support our schools, and we need you to ensure not only that we pass the bills that we are bringing this session, but that we unite this November to ensure our kids are put first in Colorado,” said state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, the Lakewood Democrat who chairs the House Education Committee.

The school finance act, which provides more detail on the education funding already set aside in the 2018-19 budget, calls for a little more than $7 billion in total program spending in 2018-19, a 6.95 percent increase from this year. The state portion is $4.5 billion, a 10 percent increase from this year; local districts would provide $2.5 billion, a 1.4 percent increase.

In addition to mandated budget increases, the bill adds $150 million more for education. That leaves the negative factor at $672 million, the smallest it has been since this budget maneuver was created during the Great Recession.

Average per-pupil spending for 2018-19 will be around $8,137, a $475 increase from this year.

During the hearing, state Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat, asked Matt Cook of the Colorado Association of School Boards why teacher raises seem to come last when districts get more money, and state Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, asked if the legislature needs to have more oversight of how districts spend state money. Colorado does not have a statewide teacher salary schedule, and districts have a lot of discretion on how they set their budgets.

“The people on the ground are hurting,” Garnett said. “They can’t meet their basic needs. And I want to help them, but it’s really your members who hold the key to their solution.”

Colorado consistently ranks in the bottom tier for school spending and teacher pay, and a recent study ranked Colorado last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries.

Cook said school boards are acutely aware of how low pay hurts their ability to hire and keep teachers. The availability of more money from the state will be a factor in union negotiations currently underway in districts around the state, he said.

But districts have to balance teacher pay with a wide range of needs, including services for students learning English and students with disabilities that are not funded by the state at their full cost, he said.

“We recognize that a qualified, highly motivated teacher in the classroom is a major part of a child’s education,” Cook said. “We’re doing the best we can. Nobody wants to not pay teachers.”

School district representatives told the committee that a promising state budget forecast is already turning into more services for students. An official from the Adams 12 Five Star district said the district had increased interventions for students with dyslexia in anticipation of more state money, and a superintendent from the rural Hanover district said $30 million in extra funding for rural schools – first allocated last year and now extended for a second year – allowed him to hire a second science teacher and a school counselor.

State Rep. Jim Wilson, the Republican co-sponsor of the school finance act and a former district superintendent, said he could just as easily ask lawmakers why the entire $1.3 billion budget surplus isn’t going to schools.

“I won’t ask you to answer that because you already know the answer,” he said. “That’s the same situation that a school district finds itself in.”

The school finance act also:

  • Sends an extra $30 million to rural schools,
  • Creates 1,000 new spots for children with certain risk factors in publicly funded preschool and kindergarten,
  • Allocates money for English language learners based on the actual number of students at various levels of need, rather than dividing it based on a formula,
  • Calls for any general fund surplus at the end of this budget year to go into education next year,
  • Requires that the negative factor for 2019-20 not be any larger than it is in 2018-19.

The school finance act still needs to pass the full House before it goes to the Republican-controlled Senate.