2020 Policy Proposals: K-12 Education

While the United States has made progress in closing the achievement gap between students of different races, our education system remains one of great disparity. One factor contributing to this problem is the heavy reliance on local and state funding for education. Too often, a child’s zip code determines what opportunities and resources he or she may have to succeed.

Related: Quick Takes on 2020 Policy Proposals

Historically, the federal government has played a role in trying to address some of the largest disparities across the country. That includes boosting funding to schools with lower income students and putting in place standards — ones that come with incentives and demerits — for schools, teachers, and students to encourage proper education.

Building upon this history, candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination plan to expand funding for these programs. Because Colorado remains one of the poorest funded school systems in the country, these proposals could have a real impact on the future of our state.

Colorado has unique problems with our education funding system because of the importance local property taxes play in funding local school districts and the challenges the Gallagher Amendment imposed upon local governments. When property taxes go down in certain communities, many of them rural and underfunded to begin with, the state helps with the limited funds that are available. Our state has taken steps forward on this issue recently, including funding for full-day kindergarten, loan forgiveness for some teachers, and increased funding for all K-12 education throughout the state, but there are still real structural issues that must be addressed.

Increase Funding to Low-Income Schools

Two candidates — Vice President Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders — have focused on increasing funding to schools and districts that serve low-income children. This is known as Title I funding. They both want to triple Title I funding from $16 billion annually to $48 billion. VP Biden, in particular, makes clear where that money would go:

  • Raising teacher salaries
  • Universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds
  • High-achieving classes, such as Advanced Placement courses

Sen. Sanders also wants to use the funding to establish a floor for per-pupil funding throughout the country, a metric that Colorado rates particularly poorly on. Education Week found Colorado had the seventh lowest per pupil funding in the country as of 2018.

Teacher Pay

Teachers are notoriously paid less than occupations with similar levels of education. In fact, according to the Economic Policy Institute, teacher pay has actually decreased by $27 per week since 1996, when adjusted for inflation. According to the same analysis, Colorado has the fourth largest pay penalty for teachers, meaning compared to similarly educated workers in Colorado, teachers are paid 35 percent less in the state.

Sen. Kamala Harris has a proposal focusing specifically on this issue. The goal of Sen. Harris’ proposal would be to give all teachers, across the country, a $13,500 raise over four years, funded through a change in the estate tax — back to what it was prior to the Federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. In the first year, the federal government would send states money to be used specifically for raising teacher pay. In years two through four, states would have to match one dollar of every three dollars from the federal government. Money would also go to “high-need schools” and teacher development programs.

As part of their broader education plans, VP Biden and Sen. Sanders also make raising teacher pay a significant focus. While VP Biden would leave the exact pay increases to individual states and schools, Sen. Sanders wants to set a national salary floor for teachers of $60,000 per year.

Colorado’s Work on Education

Colorado is a particularly tricky state when it comes to education funding. The combination of TABOR and the Gallagher Amendment has helped put Colorado in a hole for funding education. The state’s budget stabilization factor (sometimes referred to as the BS or negative factor) — the amount of money the state owes education funding since the passage of Amendment 23 — is just below $600 million. The state has worked overtime just trying to get education funding to an adequate level, and we’re still not there.

Fortunately, Colorado has made this a priority and is making progress. In fact, just last year the state invested an extra $77 million in education funding to bring the BS factor down from $650 million to $573 million.

Also, the state, led by Gov. Jared Polis, made a commitment of extending full-day kindergarten to the whole state, giving children a head start on education, while ensuring parents can work. Finally, the state also extended student loan forgiveness to educators, especially those in rural areas who are harder to retain.

The Bell’s Work on K-12 Education

The Bell Policy Center has consistently advocated for a robust and equitable K-12 system throughout Colorado. Too much in this state is determined by one’s zip code, and the fiscal structure in our state only exacerbates the inequity. Without the ability to spend an adequate amount of Colorado’s yearly budget on education (to the point our state has an IOU baked into the budget), we cannot keep up with other important investments, making Colorado less competitive in numerous ways.

We have an obligation to ensure all Colorado children have equitable and accessible education opportunities. Although we’ve made progress, we still have a ways to go. Federal government support — in a form similar to the Biden and Sanders plans — is an important piece of the puzzle, but our state government needs to continue to do its part, as well.

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