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Voices: Year of the Student

Lisa Weil, director of policy and communications for Great Education Colorado, says contrary to conventional wisdom, the legislature’s hands are not tied when it comes to school funding. 

In a world of rapid technological change and international competition, Colorado students face a landscape considerably more challenging than previous generations.

Unfortunately, our students’ road to success is being hindered by a series of homegrown obstacles, resulting from three fundamental “disconnects” in education policy: aspirations and resources; innovation and commitment; conventional wisdom and reality.

The legislature has the opportunity, not to mention duty, to address these policy mismatches in the current session. As discussed below, there is a growing movement – the 2013: Year of the Student Project – that is joining together to encourage, enable and empower the legislature to take on this critical work.

Aspirations and resources

The first disconnect is between aspirations – as defined in law by the General Assembly – and resources. Like the rest of the nation, Colorado has moved from an educational system that aspired only to ensure educational access to one that now mandates universal proficiency. This welcome trajectory of education policy over the last 30 years has been one of increasing inclusiveness and a growing recognition of the importance of meeting the specific needs of students, no matter how they learn, what their background or where they live.

But our state has never matched this vision with the resources necessary to meet our aspirations. Instead, our funding decisions – for preschool, K-12 and higher education – have been dictated by “what is left in the budget,” a dollar amount that is completely divorced from the educational needs of students.

Though this has been true for decades, this mismatch has never been more evident than today. Our current level of K-12 funding is calculated using the “negative factor” – a mechanism that was created for the sole purpose of reducing K-12 expenditures in order to balance the state budget. As a result, we are $1 billion behind just keeping up with enrollment growth and inflation from four years ago when our schools were already funded at a level far below what was necessary to meet legislative requirements.

As usual, Colorado students are paying the price. For many, their access to individual attention, advanced coursework, technology and support services is not comparable with either their national or international counterparts, putting them at a significant competitive disadvantage.

Innovation and commitment

The second disconnect is between innovation and commitment. Colorado is a national leader in the effort to shape state education policy to improve student achievement. And yet, our state has not made a commensurate financial commitment to successful and sustainable implementation of these education reforms.

In 2008, the legislature enacted the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids (CAP4K) to align our standards and assessments from “ready to learn” through readiness for college and/or the workforce. Adequate funding did not follow. And so, five years later, districts are struggling financially to prepare teachers for the new standards, to purchase aligned curriculum and to acquire the technology necessary to conduct the online assessments that are at the heart of CAP4K.

Likewise, in 2010, Colorado pushed the national envelope in passing teacher effectiveness legislation. Senate Bill 191 requires meaningful (rather than so-called “drive-by”) evaluations every year, with the very real consequence of dismissal at the end of a three-year process.

Unfortunately, once again, we failed to match innovation with a commitment to successful implementation. Many cash-strapped districts have little capacity to invest in programs to continually improve the skills of their teaching corps or to take on the task of the new annual evaluations, which add significant administrative burden to staffs that have been reduced significantly because of cuts.

Expanded learning opportunities

Promising reforms in expanded learning opportunities are similarly running into resource barriers. Though research indicates the benefit of expanding learning time (e.g., longer blocks, tutoring, summer school, before- and after-school programs), Colorado districts have been forced to reduce student-contact days and dismantle successful programs.

The third disconnect, which reinforces the first two, is between conventional wisdom and reality. It has become a generally accepted “truth” that there’s nothing the legislature can do to improve education funding without taking funds from other parts Colorado’s overstrained budget. The reality, however, is that the legislature has numerous options, including referring a measure to the ballot,  exploring “tax policy changes” authorized under TABOR by a 2009 Supreme Court ruling, and, potentially, pursuing options that could be made available should the Supreme Court uphold the Lobato decision (in which the district court found Colorado’s school funding system to be not only unconstitutional but “unconscionable.”)

The path forward is clear, albeit challenging. It requires acknowledging the gulfs between aspirations and resources, innovations and commitment, conventional wisdom and reality and then exploring and pursuing options to bridge them.

It’s a path that will undoubtedly require political will and courage. That’s why more than 140 diverse organizations and 8,000 individuals (so far) have joined together through the 2013: Year of the Student Project to convey the urgency of the issue and to stand with leaders who are willing to take on this critical work.

The energy behind Colorado’s education policy debates of the past several years demonstrates that we are eager to launch Colorado’s students successfully into the 21st century global economy. We will not achieve that goal, however, until we, as a state, move from “there’s nothing we can do” to “we must do this for students now.”

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.