First Person

Commentary: Options for higher ed funding

Robert Reichardt, the former director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at CU-Denver’s School of Public Affairs, is president of R-Squared Research, LLC, a local research firm.

The Lobato case is a win for Colorado K-12 education. It adds weight to the call for increased funding to K-12. But it is probably a loss for higher education in Colorado. If we need to add money to K-12 education then it must come from somewhere.

Over the past decade, higher education has been the place to cut when money is needed for K-12, healthcare, human services and corrections. And in some ways this makes sense: higher education has access to another source of funding (tuition) which makes it easier to maintain operations. However, the trend is clear (with or without Lobato): unless we find a new sustainable source of money for higher education, state support for higher education will drop to near zero within the decade.

What we need

We need a new, increased source of funding dedicated to higher education. We need a funding stream $750 million to $1 billion per year to replace the current, but dwindling, $650 million that comes from the state’s general fund. This new source of funding will not occur without legislative and voter approval. Key to voter approval is a conversation about options for funding higher education, and I hope this blog adds to that conversation.

In October 2011 Tim Foster, president of Colorado Mesa University (CMU, formerly Mesa State College) put forward his “A Public Good” plan to create a funding stream for CMU. This basic plan is for the state to borrow money to create an endowment for CMU and a (hopefully) secure stream of funding from investing this endowment in the bond and securities market. This plan essentially locks the state into a 20-year obligation to pay off the bonds. When the bonds are paid off, the state ends its financial obligations to CMU.

If applied to the entire state, the yearly cost of paying off the bonds is close to the current level of state funding for higher education. Challenges with this plan include it is risky to higher education institutions (relying on the market for funds) and reduced taxpayer control over the institutions as they “own” their endowments.

Connecting money to control

I suggest another idea that builds off of the recommendation of the Higher Education Strategic Plan published in 2010 as well as the performance contracts and College Opportunity Fund (COF) that are currently in place. Key to these plans is connecting money with a sense of public control over how the money is used: people want to know what they get for their money. I propose a combination of governance (i.e. elected boards) control over institutions and dedicating funding to particular activities in exchange for higher property and severance taxes.

On the activity side, we should explicitly link the majority of new funding (70% or so) to student scholarships so that people know where the money is going. The scholarships would build on the COF but have more flexibility in terms of requirements for students to get the money (maybe higher stipends for higher ACT scores) and matching scholarships to institutional goals (maybe higher stipends for engineering students). The remaining funding should be split between contracts for graduate services (medical and veterinary schools, research, and service) and funding for capital infrastructure.

A very back-of-the-envelop calculation suggests an overall state increase in property taxes by two to three mills should raise between $170 million and $250 million for two and four year regional institutions (i.e. community colleges and regional institutions such as Fort Lewis, Mesa, Adams, Western and CSU Pueblo). The property taxes should be linked to a governance change through locally elected boards each region. This board would have authority over the how the funds are used, determining:

  • How people qualify for scholarships and their amounts;
  • What are the contracted services (few are expected); and
  • The nature of the infrastructure investments.

And each board should have the authority to ask to raise property taxes in its region.

The statewide institutions (CSU, CU, Metro, Mines and UNC) should also have a dedicated pot of funding that is a combination of property taxes and severance taxes. Another two to three mills of property tax should go to these statewide scholarships. An increase of three percentage points on the severance tax could raise another $200 million for contracted services. Here the amounts and contracts would be negotiated between the state (Colorado Commission on Higher Education) and each university’s governing board.

Taken together, these are big changes that will face a lot of political headwinds. The goal is to increase higher education funding while giving voters more control over the use of those funds. It upsets the current governance structure of higher education institutions, adds a new statewide property tax (which would increase statewide property revenue by about 7 percent) and significantly increases severance taxes. But the size of the fiscal problem is huge and it will require big solutions.

A wide-ranging conversation about solving the higher education funding problem is needed if we hope to actually reach a solution. Hopefully, the conversation will continue.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.