Noonan: Poor school funding over eight years leads to low four-year state graduation rates

Author: Paula Noonan - June 6, 2017 - Updated: June 16, 2017

Paula Noonan
Paula Noonan

Colorado’s four-year high school graduation rate is bad. That should be no surprise. According to Education Week, Colorado achieved a 77 percent graduation rate in 2016, seventh from the bottom. Neighbor New Mexico has the lowest rate at 69 percent and Nebraska has the second highest rate at 90 percent.

It’s interesting that road quality in this region follows graduation rates. New Mexico’s highways and back roads are worse than Colorado’s and Nebraska’s highways and back roads are much better.

Money talks when it comes to roads and highways. When it comes to public education, policy discussions are often sidetracked away from money to a different set of issues such as district versus charter schools, academic standards, retirement funds, unions, testing, teacher preparation, etc. But just like with roads, money has to be the starting point for quality.

According to Governing, New Mexico spent $3,595 in 2014 (updated in 2016) per student on instruction employee salaries; Colorado spent $3,620 per student; Nebraska spent $4,938. Kansas spent $3,833 per student on instruction salaries in 2014 and had an 86 percent graduation rate in 2016.

Colorado’s Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights should not be an impediment to the state’s prosperity investments. Republican members of the state Senate Finance Committee killed a bill to allow Colorado’s citizens to vote on a tax increase to improve transportation infrastructure. The initiative probably would have won. The Senate GOPers killed the right of the people of Colorado to have their say. TABOR was their inexcusable excuse.

In 2013, voters turned down Amendment 66, a hodgepodge initiative sponsored by governor candidate Michael Johnston, D-Denver, to increase public school funding by $950 million in order to ‘reform’ public schools. The initiative tied school funding to messy legislation that included implementation of controversial academic standards and Common Core testing for students and performance metrics for teachers.

Fast forward to today and it’s clear academic standards, standardized testing and performance metrics have not achieved their objectives.

The Legislature has set up an off session committee to explore school finance. There’s a lot of bad news to talk about in addition to graduation rates. State test scores remain flat including results from both district and charter schools, and both teacher retention and recruitment are down. Low starting salaries and a slow income recovery from the Great Recession are challenges. A constant berating of the teaching profession is demoralizing.

Very soon, citizens of Colorado must pony up more money for public education. The 23 percent of students who didn’t graduate this year and an additional 33 percent who will need remediation for college have missed out on over eight years of roughly $8 billion in school funding ostensibly promised by the constitutional Amendment 23.

Graduation with higher academic achievement happens for kids from good preschools, which costs money. Students who receive early intervention with reading and arithmetic learning problems; have effective career and college counseling; get into challenging classes with enough support; enjoy sports, music and arts; and get necessary social services stick around in school. That all costs money.

TABOR is not the most significant impediment to school funding. A crisp, well defined initiative for roughly a billion dollars a year is what citizens should have an opportunity to vote on. A solid funding proposal can put the state on the right road.

Paula Noonan

Paula Noonan

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