Simone Aiken for Colorado

Public Education

I believe in public education and view it as a viChalkbaord with moticational messagetal aspect of the American dream, economic growth, the social contract, and even national defense.  An educated populace is the most important resource a country has. Even the childless benefit greatly from public education because of both the education they personally received and all the wonderful things that educated children invent when they grow up.  

More important than my opinion on the subject, the Colorado Constitution enshrines public education as a positive right to all state residents and Amendment 23 sets minimum funding levels for education.

The general assembly shall, as soon as practicable, provide for the establishment and maintenance of a thorough and uniform system of free public schools throughout the state, wherein all residents of the state, between the ages of six and twenty-one years, may be educated gratuitously. 

The Problem

Colorado schools are underfunded by over $800 million per year. That would just get us to constitutionally mandated funding levels.  We'd still be significantly below the national average. Douglas County spends $1.5k less per student per year than the state average so we are currently $3.6k per student per year behind the national average.

https://www.greateducation.org/statistics-faqs/statistics/graph-that-says-it-all/

In 2013 the state was sued over not meeting its constitutional obligation to provide for k-12 education and lost. It appealed to the State Supreme Court and won because the reason we are 39th in the country for school funding is another constitutional amendment - namely TABOR.  So constitutionally we are between a rock and a hard place. To cope with our ever shrinking school budget Colorado schools are trying some ingenious coping strategies.  

  • Rural schools are dropping to four day school weeks to save money.
  • Urban areas faced with overcrowding and insufficient funds to build new schools are adopting track systems with year round schooling and no summer vacation.  Instead students get short breaks staggered throughout the year so that each school building is always being used by a fraction of the students.
  • Many schools are cutting bus routes and one is even trying to sell ads on school busses to fund bus routes.
  • Home Economics and Shop classes are all but gone while music classes are on their way out.  Athletics programs will probably be next.
  • Colorado is experiencing a teacher shortage, needing 3,000 teachers to fill open positions (particularly math and science teachers) while a third of our teachers are 55 or older and nearing retirement.
  • Colorado teacher's salaries have been slashed to the bone making attracting and retaining talent new talent especially challenging.

The report found Colorado teachers with a graduate degree and 10 years of experience make less than a trucker. In fact, those same teachers who are the family’s breadwinners qualify for seven federal assistant programs designed for low-income families, such as the School Breakfast and Lunch program.

Many of these problems get worse over time. Aging bus fleets and deferred capital expenditures get worse the longer you ignore them. And even if we raise teacher salaries tomorrow that won't bring back the experienced educators who have left our district and our state. Teacher pay in Colorado has declined 7.7% over the last decade and while many of our older teachers have stayed with us through these cuts, they will be retiring soon.

Why Aren't People Voting For K-12 Funding?

For most people in Colorado this problem isn't visible.  Only about 22% of Colorado households have school age children. And some of them are in districts affluent enough to make up the shortfall with property taxes. When you aren't dealing with a problem directly you rely on second-hand information. Thanks to the internet you can find someone telling you anything you want to hear. There will always be people claiming that we have too much money, just enough money, and not enough money in our schools. These claims are made at high volume and with great conviction no matter what our funding levels actually are. Google can help you find a web site funded by a think tank agreeing with whatever view you already hold.

At the end of the day our 4 year high school graduation rate is the 7th worst in the nation. The problems are real. We saw in the Douglas County school board race that when we engage with people one on one - when its friends and family telling you that they need help - people listen.  We need to keep that energy up in the push for school funding in going forward.

What can I do?

As a legislator I can play offense by supporting school funding bills and working to get them on the ballot for citizens to vote on.  Due to TABOR they will still need voter approval to pass and I will hold town halls to engage voters on the question.

I can play defense by opposing proposals that waste our already inadequate funds.  For nearly a decade we have entertained proposals that this is merely a "management problem" that we could somehow fix by "thinking outside the box" and "getting creative".  We've thrown money away on useless nostrums like a cumbersome teacher evaluation bill in 2010 that spent a lot of money to prove that our existing methods for firing incompetent teachers worked just fine and weren't missing anyone. 

Meanwhile some legislators - like my opponent Kim Ransom - have given up on public education entirely.  I will oppose the kinds of bills she sponsors like:

  • [SB 18-083] which attempted to divert money from our underfunded public schools to give tax credits to parents who enrolled their children in for-profit private schools. Ransom is a prime sponsor for that one every year - see SB 17-039, SB 16-154, SB 15-045.
  • [HB 15-1053] which would have reduced the window of compulsory education by two years from ages 6 - 17 to ages 7 - 16.  I guess that's one way to save money.
  • [HB 17-1117] which tried to stop the state from testing students on Social Studies materials entirely. Social Studies includes important information on civics and how our government works which is not optional knowledge for students.

 

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