Mid-Session Legislative Update: Education & Equity

Believe it or not, the 2020 legislative session is approaching the midpoint. While headlines have been passing by fast and furiously, it is important to take stock of what has happened and what is on deck for the second half of the session. 

The Bell Policy Center has been laser focused on moving Colorado forward toward greater economic mobility. That means addressing our upside-down tax code, lowering barriers to important programs — like health care, retirement savings, child care, paid family and medical leave, and higher education — and working towards an equitable and adequate budget that helps all Coloradans. 

Another area that has gotten a lot of attention this session is education. And while there are too many education issues and legislation to count — let alone write about — there are a few that go directly to economic mobility and the ability of working Coloradans to get ahead.

For Part 1 on fiscal, tax, and budget issues, click here. For Part 2 on retirement savings, health care, and paid family and medical leave, click here.

Early Childhood

Child care access is critical for families to enter and remain in the workforce. Nationwide, approximately two million parents of children under the age of five had to opt out of the workforce in 2016 due to challenges with child care. In Colorado, approximately 256,000 children between birth to age six have working parents who depend on some form of child care, but the state only has enough licensed capacity to care for 45 percent of these children.

As a part of his budget proposal, Governor Polis is addressing some aspects of this statewide need. The governor’s submitted budget includes $27.6 million to expand the Colorado Preschool Program to expand access to high-quality preschool for 6,000 more children, new scholarship and loan forgiveness programs for early childhood educators, and $10 million in new investments to improve child care quality and facilities across the state.

A major factor contributing to a shortage of child care is the inadequate supply of qualified early childhood educators. HB20-1053: Supports for Early Childhood Educator Workforce offers one strong step forward in addressing the recruitment and retention of early childhood education educators. The bill will alleviate many hurdles that prevent potential educators from entering the early childhood workforce, creates a recruitment and retention grant program to help educators enter and remain in the workforce, and creates an apprenticeship program that uses an innovative model of work-based education to help potential educators receive the proper credentials.

Higher Education

This session, Colorado legislators have been grappling with how to support all Coloradans be prepared for the future by ensuring greater access to postsecondary options by increasing affordability. Across the state, high costs keep students from enrolling and completing postsecondary credentials. Those that pursue higher education often find themselves cost burdened by student debt. Alternatively, some adults may need to develop the foundational skills to succeed before considering other types of postsecondary education or higher wage jobs. Here are some of the solutions that legislators are considering to better support all learners in our state.

A significant share of Coloradans have student loans, totaling $26 billion in debt across all Coloradans with student loan debt. SB20-004, the “Get on your Feetbill, is based on an existing program in New York and aims to help Coloradans manage the acute issue of student loan debt by covering the first two years of income-based repayments of a Coloradan’s student loans. Further, by incentivizing individuals to enroll in income-based repayment plans, as a prerequisite for the program, it helps ensure that individuals are taking advantage of public service loan forgiveness options and that debt payments aren’t overly burdensome for Coloradans.

HB20-1002: Credit for Work will help address college completion. This bill aims to lower the costs of college, and increase the likelihood of completion and credential attainment, by tasking the Colorado Department of Higher Education with developing a mechanism to award academic credit to students pursuing a degree for experience and knowledge that individuals gain through work. By not having to pay for classes for skills that individuals may already have, a degree becomes more affordable, and less time consuming.

Further, some Coloradan’s lack the basic skills needed to access postsecondary education or better paying jobs. Adult education covers a broad array of programs that help adults gain the skills they need to these options. Adult education is a growing need as Coloradans require continued learning and upskilling throughout their lifetimes. In Colorado, the focus of the adult education and literacy grant program has been on workforce development. SB20-009, a proposed bill to expand adult education, grows this program to include eligibility for providers of other skills that will allow adults to continue to learn, such as literacy. This is a critical step in ensuring Coloradans are lifelong learners, prepared for the jobs of the future. Beyond expanding the programs that are eligible for grants the bill would increase the overall funds available for adult education by providing an additional $500,000 for grants.

Uniform Mill Levies for Schools

Over the last 30 years, Colorado’s education system has become incredibly unequal, leading to a situation in which a child’s zip code too often determines whether they will receive a quality education. Colorado currently ranks 37th in the country in per-pupil funding, with huge disparities between low-income and wealthier communities.

Because of constitutional constraints that have hamstrung our system, a uniform tax rate that was passed in the 1980s was undermined in the 1990s and early 2000s as local property taxes for education were automatically reduced due to TABOR’s revenue limits. As local tax rates automatically went down, the state began to pick up the costs of education as many communities decided not to go to their voters to raise tax rates for education. The system that evolved is one in which the state is subsidizing wealthier school districts — ones that do not necessarily need state funding — at the expense of lower-income communities, many of whom have increased their tax rates over the last decade.

A proposal being debated in the legislature would create a renewed version of uniform mill levies: All districts should contribute to their community’s education at equal tax rates and state resources shall be used to supplement districts that do not have as large of a local tax base. The proposed solution would require communities with high property values to pay for education locally and all other communities tax themselves at a minimum tax rate in order to be eligible for state funding. Ensuring equity in our school funding system is paramount to ensuring that all children — regardless of zip code, ethnicity, or wealth — receive a quality education.