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Jared Polis outlines education goals, pandemic recovery in State of State address

Gov. Jared Polis, flanked by two masked officials, stands at lectern speaking
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis speaks at the Statehouse during his 2021 State of the State address on Wednesday.
AAron Ontiveroz/Denver Post

Gov. Jared Polis looked toward Colorado’s pandemic recovery in a sweeping State of the State speech Wednesday that touched briefly on education priorities he believes will improve life for families and students now and into the future.

Polis’ State of the State speech comes a month late because the legislature halted business to allow the coronavirus cases to lower.

The governor focused heavily on health care, pandemic relief, and the state’s preservation of lands and shift to sustainable energy. He renewed calls for paid family leave and affordable higher education, but his speech was short on details.

Colorado needs to restore money to education budgets that faced deep cuts last year, he said, and the state needs to work toward a fairer system of distributing that money, a politically challenging task that has made little progress in the legislature.

Polis thanked voters for passing Proposition EE, a nicotine tax that will help fund his vision of universal preschool, and put his support behind an effort to tackle racial disparities in school discipline practices. Recent Colorado data shows Black and Latino students are more likely to be suspended than their white peers.

Polis said improving education is a key to the state’s recovery from the wide-ranging social and economic effects of the pandemic, including widespread unemployment among women.

He emphasized how women have needed to choose between working and caring for their children amid on-and-off remote schooling. He called on lawmakers to create opportunities for women, especially those of color.

“We have an opportunity for rebirth — for renewal — to rise from the ashes to fulfill the promise of a Colorado for all,” Polis said.

Polis said lawmakers should continue the work of the bipartisan Legislative Interim Committee on School Finance led by Rep. Julie McCluskie, a Dillon Democrat, and Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, to make funding more equitable and student-centered. That committee disbanded without making recommendations in early 2020.

Advocates have continued to press lawmakers to consider changes to the current system in which taxpayers in different districts pay wildly different rates, and well-off districts sometimes get more state assistance than do poorer ones.

Polis said in a news conference after the State of the State that Republicans and Democrats need to move past roadblocks to recommendations. He said he believes there is a way to change how the state distributes money without hurting district budgets. He added there should be a way to link student needs to funding.

Elected officials, Polis said, should also take the opportunity to restore education funding that was slashed last year in response to dire budget forecasts.

Polis highlighted his support for a proposal that he said seeks to stop the school-to-prison pipeline by investing more in school counselors and less in harsh punishments. ​Democrats Rep. Leslie Herod of Denver and Sen. Janet Buckner of Aurora are expected to file the bill.

Buckner has said the bill would require schools to better track and report information about discipline practices and report to the state what they’re doing to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in who gets suspended, expelled, ticketed, and arrested.

“While our first and foremost responsibility is for schools to be safe,” Polis said in the news conference, “It is a much better path to have the counseling that’s needed for some of those kids to be able to get back into the education system, rather than being cut off without a GED [diploma], without a high school diploma, with little alternative but a life of crime.”

He proposed providing up to $600 in tax credits per child to nearly 200,000 families through a Colorado Child Tax Credit.

Polis campaigned in 2018 on a platform of full-day kindergarten and universal preschool. While the legislature agreed in 2019 to fund full-day kindergarten, the pandemic resulted in a dramatic decrease in the number of children enrolled in kindergarten and public preschool. The passage of Proposition EE, though, means Colorado finally has a dedicated revenue source to pay for expanded preschool options.

“Because of your work, and the support of over two-thirds of Colorado voters, we can now combat one of the ​worst​ challenges confronting our children — smoking and vaping — while investing in one of the ​best​ things for our children — universal preschool,” he said.

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