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Voices: If education is too expensive, continue to support

Project VOYCE Co-training director Shelby Gonzales-Parker argues that Amendment 66’s increased investment in education will pay off down the road.

In just over 24 hours, we will know if Coloradans were able to make the bold move of implementing the newest education reform initiative, “Amendment 66,” which would change the entire formula for how Colorado finances education. There will be an increase in state taxes, creating almost one billion dollars that would go directly into education the first year. Reporters, legislators, business leaders, school-board members, parents, and educators have all taken sides on Amendment 66 and have provided their input on why they do or do not support it. By November 5th, their votes will be counted. However, we haven’t heard much from students and how they feel about this piece of legislation, which will impact them more directly than anyone else involved. That is where I come in.

My name is Shelby Gonzales-Parker. As the first member of my family to attend college, I am currently a junior at Metropolitan State University of Denver, majoring in English, Secondary Education. My goal is to become a teacher in the Denver Public Schools. In 2010, I graduated from Denver Justice High School as the first valedictorian the school ever had. I became an advocate for education reform as a sophomore in high school when I was hired with Project VOYCE (Voices of Youth Changing Education) in 2008. Alternative charter schools and Project VOYCE are the two places that not only saw leadership potential in me, but also helped cultivate the leader would become.

In May of 2004, one of my older brothers, whom I looked up to all my life, Levi, was killed in a car accident when he was only 17 years old. My life and the view I had on life changed forever. After only a year of Levi passing, I was expelled from my middle school, put on probation for multiple offenses, and was told I was an “at-risk” student. Although I always excelled academically, my behavior and lack of resources labeled me as a student that was destined to fail. After being sent to an alternative school, two educators told me I could be the change I wished to see, if I took my education seriously and made a difference in my community. I was never suspended again. Shortly thereafter, I decided to become a teacher and was hired by Project VOYCE. I also became a single mother, at the age of 17, to a beautiful baby boy who I named Levi after my brother. In 2010, Governor Ritter appointed me as the first and only student on the Colorado State Council for Educator Effectiveness, leading the work and recommendations around SB-191. For the two years I served, I represented all 840,000 Colorado students.

So what does this have to do with Amendment 66? Well, I’d like to say, EVERYTHING.

If passed, Amendment 66 would increase taxes from 4.63 percent to 5 percent and 5.9 percent after the first year for anyone earning $75,000 or more a year. Although Colorado would still be one of the last states in the country for the amount we pay in state taxes (eighth lowest), people are still skeptical about putting additional money into education. Although education has one of the highest rates of return on investment, the fear remains, about putting additional money into something and not being guaranteed any change.

However, in a state with barely half of all students graduating on time, and a growing number of students entering juvenile systems every day, this investment is a risk we need to take. The success of our children and our future economy is well worth the additional amount each individual will have to pay annually.

With this amendment comes a new financing formula that will finally take steps to level the playing field for all children in Colorado. Cost of living will no longer be accounted for, and the amount of low income students and English Language Learners will be the main factor in determining how much money each district NEEDS. Therefore, districts with the highest amount of poverty and English language learners will benefit the most. The money will be directed specifically to education initiatives such as early childhood education, full-day kindergarten, charter schools, smaller class sizes, etc. Districts and principals will have more autonomy over the additional money they receive and a public website will be created to be transparent about how each school is allocating their dollars.

As a former Denver Public Schools student who experienced the struggle of attending multiple underserved schools, I believe this is something we desperately need to improve the quality of our education system.

The intention is not to take opportunity away from people, but instead to give it to those who have very little. If it were not for the alternative education I was able to receive or the outside resources my school introduced me to, I would not be where I am today. I know more people dead, in jail or in prison than I know who graduated or made it to college and I don’t want that future for my son.

It isn’t fair that I made it while so many others didn’t. Currently in Colorado there are more than 1,600 youth locked up in juvenile facilities which costs on average $161 each day, per youth. That equals about $260,000 per day we are spending to lock up our youth. Now let’s look at adults. According to a recent study done by the VERA Institute of Justice, in Colorado it costs an average of $30,000 per year to incarcerate one inmate. Colorado taxpayers are paying $606.2 million a year to support prisons and to keep people incarcerated. And yet, when it comes to education, we are among the last states for the amount we spend per student (about $6,600 compared to the national average of $10,700 per student.)

Is this what we want to be known for in Colorado? Is it the American thing to put more money into prisons than schools and to stand silent while children from low income families begin their lives and education way behind the starting line? Speaking for the students and my son, I say no. Under-funding education hurts all students and every taxpayer for decades to come. Providing children with a quality education and the resources they need, will prevent them from entering the juvenile system, and would therefore mean less money that would need to go into prisons.

If we want to teach our children to be caring, responsible, critical thinkers, successful at whatever they do, than we need to set the example and give them that opportunity. If we want schools and educators to be effective, they need the resources to make it happen. According to a recent report by A+ Denver, in Denver Public Schools, 50 percent of white students scored a 23 or higher on their ACT while only 6 percent of Latinos and 7 percent of African Americans scored a 23 or above (in 2012.) Clearly, there is an achievement gap that needs to be closed and without giving more resources to those truly in need, we will never see that happen. With that said I am voting YES on Amendment 66 and encourage you to do the same.

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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