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Colorado begins education cuts: teacher loan forgiveness, mentor grants, scholarships

Governor Jared Polis gestures with his hand while speaking.
Gov. Jared Polis has announced $228.7 million in budget cuts just for this fiscal year, as state revenues plummet.
Andy Cross/The Denver Post

An educator loan forgiveness program that was seen as a key tool in reducing Colorado’s teacher shortage is among the education programs identified in $228.7 million in state budget cuts announced this week.

Gov. Jared Polis announced the budget cuts, which apply to the current fiscal year, as part of a series of executive orders released late Thursday. In a letter to legislators, Polis’ budget director, Lauren Larson, said pessimistic revenue forecasts mean that without cuts, the state would run through half or more of its reserves just to cover planned spending before June 30.

State revenues have plummeted as people have lost jobs and businesses have closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The effects are not expected to be ameliorated by a partial reopening currently underway. Historically low prices for oil and gas, which generate tax revenues, are also hurting the state budget.

“It is imperative to act quickly to reduce unnecessary spending,” Larson wrote, adding that the cuts were designed to have “the least possible impact.”

More than 80% of the budget cuts are coming from the Medicaid program, which covers health care for low-income people. Officials said the human impact is limited because the program has saved money from people not seeing their doctors and canceling elective procedures.

Similarly, most of the identified $2.8 million in education cuts are to new programs that were not fully implemented yet or relate to activities that schools aren’t doing because they closed to in-person instruction in March.

For example, the state education department’s budget is being reduced by almost $500,000 because it didn’t administer standardized tests, officials didn’t travel to visit schools, and the department isn’t paying benefits on vacant positions.

Money for a summer student leadership institute and a conference for parents of students with disabilities was also cut as public health authorities continue to recommend against large gatherings.

But the cuts still will be felt. The governor took back $200,000 that would have gone to college scholarships for formerly incarcerated youth. Five students might still get funding.

And several programs policymakers hoped would make a dent in a teacher shortage that is particularly acute in rural areas won’t get off the ground. Education advocates and rural superintendents had cheered the passage last year of a loan forgiveness program for teachers who go to rural districts with hard-to-fill positions. More than 1,300 educators had applied for the program. Now the state won’t spend $500,000 that had been set aside for that program.

Federal legislation means those teachers will still get some temporary loan relief, but rural districts will lose a tool to attract candidates to what are often low-paying jobs in isolated communities.

Also canceled: $1.1 million for a teacher mentor grant program designed to provide more support to early-career teachers so that they would stay in the profession — it would have been shared among five to seven teacher training programs — and $330,000 for a rural teaching fellowship that never attracted as many candidates as backers had hoped. That money would have paid for 66 fellowships. Eighteen fellows who were accepted earlier this year will still get their money.

All of those programs were part of a multi-year, incremental effort to increase the number of teachers in Colorado. This year, lawmakers had planned to consider legislation that would consolidate many of those programs and allow for more flexibility in how funds could be used.

But with lawmakers facing a budget hole of $3 billion or more for the 2020-21 fiscal year, there’s no room for new spending.

In budget documents published this week, legislative analysts recommended suspending or delaying dozens of new grant programs in an effort to avoid cuts to base education spending next year and said much deeper cuts than that ultimately may be necessary.

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