Colorado’s Constitution, adopted in 1876, directed the General Assembly to “provide for the establishment and maintenance of a thorough and uniform system of free public schools throughout the state.”
Ever since, policymakers, the courts and the Legislature have been wrestling with what those words mean — and how to live up to that mandate. It drives the public education debate in its many iterations to this very day.
With the 2019 legislative session underway — under new, theoretically unified, Democratic Party leadership in both chambers — lawmakers will grapple anew with how to fulfill their constitutional duty to the state’s more than 900,000 public school students scattered across 178 school districts.
This time, lawmakers find themselves at something of a crossroads after November’s defeat of Amendment 73, a statewide ballot issue that would have raised taxes on higher-income families and businesses to pump more money into public schools. So now, senators and representatives are faced with squeezing the money out of current revenue.
There will be an effort to reassess the state’s School Finance Act — a hefty chunk of the state budget — in hopes of backfilling at least some of a shortfall dating to the Great Recession at the end of the last decade.
It’s not clear where lawmakers will find the funds to address a range of concerns, from a chronic rural teacher shortage, to inadequate special-education programs, to lagging teacher pay in general.
And as if the money hunt weren’t headache enough in the wake of the rebuke by voters on Nov. 6 — despite a blue-tide year that handed the reins to Democrats — there’s also the continuing debate over what else needs to be done to improve educational outcomes.
Minority Republicans and GOP-leaning advocacy groups once again will be pressing the case that more money isn’t the tonic for what ails public education. As ever, they want more structural reform, from expanding educational options for parents to directing more money to incentives like merit pay.
We sought the input of seven Colorado education policy leaders who toil in the midst of the state’s great education debate. They weigh in with a breadth of philosophies and proposals that defy easy resolution — and appear to reinforce long-standing battle lines.
The head of the state’s largest teachers union tells us at least part of the solution lies in putting “classrooms above corporations” — making those who have the means defer to the need for more school funding. A leading school-choice advocate says that’s the wrong answer — as voters in November seemed to agree — because it would be throwing more money at a fundamentally flawed approach.
The chair of the pivotal House Education Committee says wherever more money comes from, and whatever other proposals are on the table, there will be more unity in sifting through the options than in the past, presumably now that both chambers are led by the same party. That’s assuming Colorado’s new governor — also a Democrat but a reform-minded one who supports the state’s proliferating charter-school movement — goes along.
The superintendent of the state’s second-largest school district, in Jefferson County, meanwhile believes the state has to move past the old, stalemated debates to a whole new paradigm that looks at what aspects of pre-K-through-12 education really make a difference in lifting kids upward and moving them onward.
Read on and see if you can find common threads in these and other divergent views. If there’s one unifying theme, it’s probably the same one that informs so many other policy dust-ups — we cannot put off fixing the problem much longer.
Colorado’s schoolkids aren’t getting younger, and they need answers now.
Note to readers: Some of this week’s essays were edited for space. For longer versions, visit ColoradoPolitics.com.