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Voices: Money for education

Colorado education researcher Robert Reichardt explains why higher education and preschool need to be funding priorities in the 2013 legislative session.

Money for education will again be an issue in the upcoming legislative session. Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, has signaled his intent to raise this issue, the governor has floated plans to create local community college funding sources and the Lobato case continues to wind its way through the courts. Colorado does need more funding for education. We are near or at the bottom in the country for K-12 and higher education funding.
Those of us who support more funding can give taxpayers some evidence that increases in Colorado education spending will be a good investment. A relatively recent report from Eric Hanushek and colleagues indicates that Colorado is the most efficient state in the union in terms of translating new money into student growth (sadly we are in the middle of the pack in terms of overall growth in student learning). Our Boulder neighbors at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) have consistently ranked our higher education system as one of the nation’s most efficient in terms of translating dollars to degrees.

But where should the money be allocated? I am on record arguing higher education should be our first priority. And our new and innovative performance contracts require a substantial increase in funding to be fully implemented.

If there are new funds, should they be targeted to individual programs or be increases in overall funding? The efficiency research suggests overall increases in funding may be the best idea, let institutions allocated as they see fit.

In higher education system targeting is often in the form of need-based or merit scholarships, which would fit well with our current College Opportunity Fund. However, the key higher education policy challenge is to increase persistence of minorities, low-income and first generation students. This suggests targeting of new funds towards student support services.

There is also a broad array of targeting options for K-12 targeting. Recent work from the Buechner Institute for Governance at UCD has again shown that Denver’s investment in preschool has had a pay-off. The research from BIG reinforces what we have seen with the Colorado Preschool Program and other national research. The implementation of SB 10-191 is going to require significant investments in observation and feedback, particularly if the primary growth measures come from student learning objectives (also known as student growth objectives).

The new time and learning pilot will add to the evidence that more instruction means more learning. It may produce additional targeting options. More importantly it should also help us figure out how to better use our primary resource in education: people’s time. Hopefully it will also help us figure out how to start school later and let those teenagers sleep in a little more (this will require some collaboration with Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA) and transportation departments).

We will probably need to ask Colorado voters for more education funds. The politics of funding increases may require targeted funding. Colorado voters seem most willing to increase funding if they know where the money will go and if there are accountability mechanisms in place. The last three election cycles indicate education tax increases fair better during national elections: we may want to wait till 2014 before we go to the voters. That means the work of the legislature this session should be to highlight (and maybe tweak) our existing accountability structures setting the stage for a vote in 2014.

The path to increased education funding will be perilous and complex. Higher education, followed by pre-school investments, should be top priorities. But, the path to these investments may lie in increased K-12 funding that broadens the pie and continues to build our P-20 system.

The bottom line is our education system serves the unified purpose of building our community and should be treated as a whole instead of competing parts.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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