Which is more important: funding P-12 public schools or funding Colorado’s resource-starved system of higher education?
The quick answer: “Both.” And, as a state, we shouldn’t have to choose. Colorado’s public schools have been chronically under-funded for years—with detrimental consequences like high teacher-student and counselor-student ratios, outdated technology and textbooks, limited vocational education options and high dropout rates.
Nonetheless, K-12 funding has (at least until recently) been protected from wholesale cuts by Amendment 23’s mandatory minimum annual per pupil increases. Higher education, on the other hand, was not protected during the early years of this decade, when the post 9/11 recession forced deep cuts in funding for community colleges and state universities. These cuts left Colorado an estimated $832 million behind peer states in higher education funding. Some have blamed Amendment 23 for those cuts. [Falling mill levy rates are a more direct cause, as is discussed in a related FAQ]. It is, to say the least, a short-sighted and ill-conceived policy to force a state to choose between funding K-12 or institutions of higher learning.
In fact, Colorado’s zero-sum budget game has placed us at a competitive disadvantage with surrounding states that have chosen to fund both more adequately than Colorado. Without a strong P-12 system, colleges and universities face tremendous remediation costs. Likewise, the state suffers if graduating high school students do not have quality higher education institutions to attend. Moreover, Colorado’s economy simply cannot thrive or compete without the kind of highly educated workforce and robust R&D institutions that attract and retain 21st century businesses. Great Education Colorado believes that “great education” requires adequate funding for educational opportunities from preschool through post-graduate degrees and everything in between. Colorado’s students and economy will continue to suffer if we fund one level of education only at the expense of another.
Does more money mean better education?
The mission of Great Education Colorado is to act as a catalyst for improved investment in Colorado’s public schools. This means both increased investment and wise investment. Too often, discussions about investing in public education become polarized between those who seek more funds and those who believe that “throwing money at the problem” will not improve schools. The truth is better school funding is a necessary condition for making meaningful improvements in our education system—but alone, it is not sufficient.
There is broad agreement that increased individual attention, by skilled, well-prepared, and experienced teachers is key to academic success. Additionally, we want our schools to provide children with a well-rounded education, which means relevant vocational education, arts, civics, and physical education—in addition to the basic three Rs. Finally, parents rightly expect that their children will attend—at a minimum—facilities that are free of health and safety hazards, that are not overcrowded or detrimentally outdated and that provide access to the science and computer technology that is at the core of the economy our children will enter. Progress toward these goals is impossible without a significant increase in school funding, particularly in Colorado where school districts have endured years of chronic budget cuts and underfunding.
We must also recognize, that funding alone will not allow us to achieve all our goals: eliminating the achievement gap, reducing the dropout rate, and preparing all children for the 21st century. How money is used matters. In a time of budget scarcity, we are obligated to use new funds as wisely as possible—as determined by a public, democratic and representative process, informed by the best available data. That is why Great Education Colorado supports efforts such as Governor Ritter’s P20 Council and legislative efforts to think creatively and expansively about the goals of our state’s education system and how we achieve them. As Colorado comes into consensus about education reform principles, Great Education Colorado will be in the forefront of the fight to match that roadmap with the resources necessary for success.
Will fixing our school funding crisis require action at the ballot?
Yes. After almost two decades of tax cuts and TABOR, Colorado’s state budget simply is not large enough to fund public schools, colleges, and universities adequately, while making appropriate investments in other parts of the budget: higher education, health care, transportation, and other critical state services. Because TABOR requires voter approval before any tax increase can be implemented, there can be no solution to our budget crisis without a vote of the people. There are multiple discussions going on among state leaders, advocacy groups, foundations, community leaders, and other interested parties about how to raise revenues, how those funds should be used, and when (i.e., in what year) the resulting ballot initiative(s) should be put before Colorado voters. Great Education Colorado has been convening and participating in these conversations and will continue to work to ensure that voters have the opportunity—as soon as is pragmatically and strategically possible—to vote on long-term funding solutions that will allow Colorado to invest wisely and adequately in the education of our children.
Legislators often say that their hands are tied. What can they do?
The legislature has a number of tools at their disposal. Of course, as it has for the last 20 years, the legislature has the authority to refer a revenue measure to the voters. Additionally, the Supreme Court has made clear that it is also within the General Assembly’s authority to make “tax policy changes” such as closing tax loopholes and ending tax credits, as long as those changes don’t result in revenue exceeding Colorado’s TABOR limit. As much as $1 billion is available to the legislature under this authority.
New funds for education may also be available for the 2013-14 school year as a result of HB12-1338, which requires that certain general fund surplus dollars be deposited to the State Education Fund at the end of the fiscal year. Depending on general fund revenue growth, the legislature could use these dollars to supplement education funding (rather than to supplant other education dollars that can be then used for other purposes — a common practice in recent years).
In addition, the legislature has not yet explored (or asked their lawyers to explore) various provisions in TABOR that could provide the General Assembly with greater flexibility and authority than they currently believe they have. You can read more about these and other possibilities in an amicus brief filed in the Lobato school funding case by the Colorado Center for Law and Policy.
With all that said, the General Assembly’s options come back to: be creative and curious; ask questions and listen; and don’t give up just because the task is difficult, especially if it’s the right thing to do.