The Colorado House Education Committee today passed and sent to the House Appropriations Committee two important education funding bills – the 2014 School Finance Act (HB14-1298) and the "Student Success Act" (HB14-1292). Because these bills will help set the future course of public education in the state, we believe important changes still need to be made for the bills to best serve the needs of the state and local communities.
Specifically, we agree with superintendents from throughout the state that the bills do not do enough to reduce the funding shortfall faced by public schools. We also agree that the bills would micromanage how districts use funds to address the needs of at-risk students, divert funding from an important program addressing health and safety issues in school buildings, and direct scarce funding to low-priority reforms. As these bills continue to work through the process, we urge legislators to take a long-term view and to consider the following factors.
Don't piecemeal reform
In 2013, the legislature passed a new school finance act that significantly changed how the state could fund public schools. Central to that effort was the recognition that implementing major reforms without additional funding to pay for them could be disruptive and damaging. In November, voters soundly rejected one option for funding these reforms. It would be ill-advised now for the legislature to try to implement major parts of those reforms based solely on a modest improvement in state revenues and without any significant new funding. The new finance act is a package, not a laundry list – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Therefore, legislators should be very cautious about implementing provisions of the new school finance act piecemeal. They certainly should not try to impose these reforms without adequate funding or the support of local school officials who must implement them.
Restoring recessionary cuts should be the top priority
The most significant fact about education in Colorado today is that funding is $1 billion below the goal set by Colorado voters when they passed Amendment 23 in 2000. While funding is not the only factor affecting education outcomes, it is among the most important.
As Colorado rebounds from the recent recession, the state now has some revenue to begin to reduce this $1 billion shortfall. This should be the top priority. When cuts were necessary, the legislature relied on local districts to make decisions that reflected community needs and minimized the damage to students. The state should now trust these same officials to apply the same considerations in restoring funding where it is most needed for their communities.
Therefore, the legislature should maximize the resources used to restore funding and reduce the $1 billion shortfall (i.e., "buy down the negative factor"). We believe recent revenue projections justify reducing the shortfall as much as 20 percent – or $200 million – in FY 2014-15.
Narrowing achievement gaps should be the only reason
for earmarking any funding
Colorado's achievement gap between low-income and minority students and their classmates is among the worst in the nation, with troubling implications for students, families and the state as a whole. Preschool, early literacy and programs targeting lower-income at-risk students are the kinds of programs proven to help narrow these gaps. The appropriateness of specific expenditures depends on the unique circumstances of each community and the students it serves.
Therefore, if the state does earmark any of the renewed funding, it should do so only for programs known to narrow the achievement gap. Such earmarks should be broadly targeted so that districts can choose interventions that make the most sense for them, while still meeting statewide goals.
The bills direct some funding separately for programs that address the achievement gap, such as preschool, early literacy and English language learning. To the extent possible, these resources should be combined into one flexible package so that districts may apply them based on their own local circumstances. And districts should have the flexibility to use these funds to meet the needs of all at-risk students, not just English language learners.
Hold off on lower priority reforms
until significantly more revenues are available
Although the legislature has passed and the state is implementing significant education reforms, it is doing so without new resources. Among these is a major new emphasis on literacy in the early grades, which should remain a major priority for the state.
Therefore, the legislature should be very cautious about imposing any new reforms or requirements until resources are available to adequately implement reforms that have already been enacted.
Specifically, legislators should:
- Delay implementing new student-count requirements until higher priority items are adequately funded.
- Redesign the proposed accountability provisions to recognize and build on existing efforts, and delay any required implementation until higher priority items are adequately funded.
- Abide by the intent of Referendum AA for the use of marijuana tax proceeds by providing these funds first to the Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) program.
After years of cuts, restoring some lost funding to the state's schools is a welcome opportunity. The way we go about doing so will have profound effects both on our children and our state. We believe that if the legislature takes a long-term view with the above principles and proposals in mind, they will help shape a better future for us all.