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Noonan: Bill envisions high quality education for Colorado … But where’s the money?

Author: Paula Noonan - March 29, 2017 - Updated: March 27, 2017

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Paula Noonan
Paula Noonan

A new bipartisan bill, Achieving a Vision for Education in Colorado, HB17-1287, sets up an advisory board to create a strategic plan for public education, preschool through college, for implementation up to 2030. The bill recognizes that the 21st century world is “fiercely competitive” and that a “world class highly effective twenty-first-century learning system is the key to Colorado’s economic success.”

The bill also says, “in recent elections, voters have been unwilling to balance local funding with increased amounts of state resources for education.” School districts could argue the opposite — that the state has been unwilling to ask for adequate resources to fund local schools.

The bill states that the current public education system, overall, is mediocre. Educators, bottom to top, can say that public school funding is mediocre. TABOR tax limitations have steadily reduced Colorado’s financial support of its institutions of higher education, leaving students to cover ever-increasing tuition bills and state colleges and universities to seek out-of-state students to bolster revenues.

Public school K-12 students over the last eight years have lost about one year of school funding to the Legislature’s so-called “negative factor,” the amount of money the state should give to public education but can’t because of limited revenue. This underfunding especially affects rural districts and districts with lots of poor kids, such as Aurora School District, which has recently been pummeled by A Plus Colorado for its poor achievement results.

Currently, the state is in a multi-hundred million dollar budget crisis, mostly of TABOR’s making, putting a whole slew of state responsibilities at risk, including rural hospitals, housing support and much abused roads, bridges and highways. The Legislature might get a bill through to increase the state’s sales tax to put more money into transportation. But some tax averse Republicans say the Legislature should be able to pay for transportation out of current revenues. Others ask, “and what might those be?”

Does the education vision bill recognize that Colorado is at a critical tipping point? Our education system can either end up like Kansas or Massachusetts. Currently, Kansas public schools are going bankrupt due to tax cuts that gutted funding. Massachusetts has a dynamic economy and a highly competitive public education platform — from its universities to its urban schools — due to strong public financing.

Maybe it’s time to turn the money conversation on its head. Instead of talking about taxation, it’s time to talk investment. Here is an example. Back in the sixties, former Gov. Pat Brown of California invested in the University of California and the California State College, now University system. UC added UC Santa Barbara, UC Santa Cruz, UC Irvine and UC San Diego. It recently added UC Merced in the central valley.

Until recently, these public universities provided low-cost, high quality education. California’s community college system, until recently, offered college courses at $20/credit.

Like Colorado, California’s public spending on education was severely constrained by Prop 13, a property tax precursor to TABOR. Unlike Colorado, California’s current governor, Jerry Brown, took the investment issue to voters. California’s citizens authorized billions of dollars in tax increases to spend on transportation and education, a reinvestment commitment bound to pay off for decades.

Colorado likes to grab companies from California. How long will that continue with our “mediocre” public schools? Certainly, there’s a tax point between where we are now and where California is that will provide enough re-investment to reinforce our dynamic economy and end our very poor funding of state responsibilities.

Paula Noonan

Paula Noonan

Paula Noonan owns Colorado Capitol Watch, the state’s premier legislature tracking platform.