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GUEST COLUMN: The rest of the story on school funding, Colorado minorities

February 12, 2013

Recent reporting that appeared in The Gazette insists Colorado racial minorities are harmed by less school funding than many other states receive. However, the I-News Network’s selective peek at the facts misleads readers and distracts them from real promising solutions.

(The I-News Network is an independent, nonprofit journalism project that creates long-form investigative reports, in partnership with major daily newspapers and has recently accepted significant funding from wealthy Democrat activist Tim Gill.)

In a Jan. 20 article titled “Losing Ground,” the I-News Network’s Burt Hubbard and Ann Carnahan point to U.S. Census Bureau data showing Colorado’s per-pupil education spending fell from 24th to 40th from 1992 to 2010. Yet they neglected to mention the same data show the state’s education spending for each student grew by more than 16 percent in real purchasing power during that span. Most other states happened to increase expenditures even more.

Nor does the Census Bureau offer the only assessment of school expenditure figures. The National Education Association places Colorado at 29th, spending $9,631 for each student enrolled on October 1, 2009. Also left out of the bleak portrait were more recent 2011 numbers from the Colorado Department of Education that show the state’s “current” per-pupil expenditures rest even closer to $10,000.

The recession’s downward pressure on the state general fund and local property values certainly have helped to squeeze many local education budgets. But further heaping the burden of guilt and financial obligations on Colorado taxpayers does not offer a sustainable solution to students underserved by schools.

In fact, that approach ignores other fiscal challenges. Research by the Left-leaning Center for American Progress noted that Colorado spends 3 percent of operating dollars on “master’s bumps” to teacher salaries that have no impact on student learning. Taxpayers also are picking up most of the tab to cover increased contributions to employees’ defined benefit retirement plans. Plenty of mandated bureaucratic programs stay in the budget long after little positive impacts on students can be shown.

Regardless of many individual teachers’ efforts and abilities, the current system often discourages putting resources toward their best uses.

University of Washington researchers spent five years studying school finance systems around the nation. They concluded that “money is used so loosely in public education—in ways that few understand and that lack plausible connections to student learning—that no one can say how much money, if used optimally, would be enough.”

The case to change how Colorado appropriates more than $8 billion in K-12 funds each year grows clearer. The state should fund students rather than district offices. Give flexibility so dollars directly follow students’ choices of schools and courses from different providers. Tie a share of tax money to measured learning success. Make the funding process more transparent and easier to understand.

The best way to help students of color, or any students, is not for school systems simply to plead poverty and clamor for a bigger pot of money. According to the Census Bureau, Florida ranks lower than Colorado in per-pupil spending. Yet the Sunshine State has made great strides in improving outcomes for students, especially its Hispanic population.

Look at the gold-standard national test results. Over the past two decades Florida has caught up to Colorado and raced ahead of the nation in the crucial measure of fourth-grade reading abilities. In fact, Florida’s Hispanic fourth-graders now stand toe-to-toe with the national average for students of all ethnic groups.

Critical ingredients of Florida’s successful formula include wide-ranging choice programs, a rigorous school accountability system that parents and other laypersons can comprehend, and a commitment to ensuring teachers are well equipped to deliver scientifically-based reading instruction.

In all three areas, Colorado has significant room to catch up. It’s time to rethink how education is delivered and funded, and to give families of color — indeed, all families — more power and responsibility.

Ben DeGrow is senior education policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free market think tank based in Denver.

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