National publications highlight school funding emergency in Colorado

Written by: Leslie Colwell
Date Posted: March 29, 2019

Several recent studies and articles have shined a national spotlight on Colorado’s school funding challenges, adding urgency to address a topic that is already on the minds of many state policymakers, educators and community members in our state.

One alarming finding by EdBuild, a national organization that studies equity in school finance: Students in predominantly white school districts in Colorado receive $2,218 more than students in predominantly nonwhite school districts. This gap actually increases when comparing high-poverty districts. The study singles out 21 states, including Colorado, in which these gaps exist when accounting for all local and state tax revenue spent in the 2015-16 school year. Nationally, these inequities amount to a $23 billion funding gap between the schools serving predominantly white children and schools serving predominantly children of color.

EdBuild argues that the problem lies in the way America’s schools have become more and more racially segregated in recent decades and on districts’ heavy reliance on local funding revenue, with the reasoning that a school funding system that is reliant on geography inherits the historical ills of where people have been forced and incentivized to live. We’ve provided Colorado context for both of these issues in our annual KIDS COUNT report and in previous KidsFlash posts.

A second report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities traced funding pressures to the Great Recession, when Colorado, like many states, slashed education funding. Colorado is one of 24 states where combined state and local funding in 2016 was still below pre-recession levels.

Finally, the Washington Post earlier this month drew attention to the desperate funding situation in many parts of Colorado, drawing stark comparisons between several school districts. The article points out that in our increasingly affluent state, with sustained job growth and one of the highest percentages of college graduates in the country, Colorado ranks last for teacher wage competitiveness; school infrastructure needs are estimated at more than $14 billion; funding per student is well below the national average; and more than half of districts have adopted a four-day week (the largest proportion in the country).

As we’ve pointed out, many of these challenges are unintended consequences of constitutional amendments that were never designed to interact with each other – the Gallagher Amendment and the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, specifically. Because revenue limits have put our state budget on autopilot, we simply don’t have what’s needed to fund the school districts and students who need it most. As we have failed to maintain state funding for education, local communities have made up the difference when they can, exacerbating inequities between the educational experiences provided in districts.

A state solution to these challenges is needed. Policies that ensure an equitable distribution of resources for all students are critical to narrowing the gap in educational outcomes between children of color and their white peers. Our state legislators are paying attention, and we are hopeful that, if extended an additional year, Colorado’s School Finance Legislative Committee will agree on recommendations that will raise sustainable revenue and make investments that research indicates improve student outcomes.

Leslie Colwell

About Leslie Colwell

Leslie Colwell serves as the Vice President of K-12 Education Initiatives, leading the Campaign’s work to improve education in the state of Colorado. Before joining the Children’s Campaign in August of 2014, Leslie worked to facilitate partnerships and produce policy agreements, especially in the area of education as an Associate at The Keystone Center. Her professional experience includes working as Legislative Director for State Senator Mike Johnston, managing his education policy portfolio (including his office’s work on HB12-1238, Colorado’s READ Act, and SB13-033, ASSET), and directing a policy fellowship for educators for three summers. Leslie has also worked on Teach For America’s alumni team, and before that taught 6th grade Math and Earth Science as a TFA corps member at Mary McLeod Bethune Middle School in Los Angeles. She currently serves on the board of the Colorado Latino Leadership, Advocacy & Research Organization (CLLARO) and on the steering committee of the Colorado Afterschool Partnership.