I’ve been thinking about Colorado’s future. What will make Colorado a great place to live, raise a family and prosper? Many ideas immediately come to mind. I’ve seen many ideas tried through legislative action and government programs. These efforts are not necessarily all bad, but many have been misdirected, ineffective, overly complex and over-regulated.
Democratic women vote. Pay attention. That’s the biggest message from the recent Colorado primary. Democrats and Dem-leaning unaffiliated voters as a whole outvoted the GOP 56% to 44% by the numbers. Democratic women outvoted Democratic men 60% to 40%. Democratic women outvoted GOP women 58% to 42%. Democratic women outvoted GOP men 56% to 44%. It’s unprecedented.
Once again, Colorado’s public education system will both re-vision and offer new standardized tests. It’s useful that the two projects happen at the same time, but only if fresh eyes and minds are put to the task. Let’s hold our breath.
Probably no surprise that an informal online survey of Grand Junction citizens would point to public schools — specifically, the need to reform K-12 education — as the top priority for locals. Quality education is the bottom line not only for parents but a whole lot of the rest of any community, from homeowners shoring up property values to employers recruiting qualified new hires to economic-development types — like the ones who authored the 2030 VISION poll, conducted last week — seeking to lure new businesses to a community.
What might arch at least one of your eyebrows, though, is that education was the first pick for the plurality of people participating even when when they could have chosen some other fetching and viable options often associated the their bustling West Slope hub community. From a press release issued this week by survey partner Grand Junction Economic Partnership:
Nearly 400 community members voted on 10 topics that included growing the outdoor recreation and tech industries; developing an arts & culture district; building a community recreation center in Grand Junction, adding more direct flights at the airport; revitalizing North Avenue and Horizon Drive; and improving public safety overall.
OK, not much sexy about building a rec center, but the point is Grand Junction is the opposite of the kind of down-on-its-luck community sometimes associated with worries about fundamental services like public education. It’s at the top of Colorado’s fruit belt and in the middle of the state’s established, growing and respected wine country; it’s increasingly regarded as one of those quality-of-life destinations you see on places-rated lists; it lures empty-nesters with its mild winters and outdoor-rec hipsters as a gateway to Colorado’s natural wonders — including as a mountain-biking Mecca; of course, it offers a higher-learning institution whose status was upgraded a few years ago to Colorado Mesa University. The kind of place that could draw in both tourists and the tech sector, right?
And yet, people’s top concern is improving schools. Though it wasn’t a scientific survey, it’s a reminder of the staying power of education as a policy issue. What will the survey’s sponsors do with the information? Says Kristi Pollard, the economic partnership’s executive director:
“Armed with this information, GJEP and our community partners can prioritize the issues we should champion over the next few years. It’s not a matter of this initiative over that initiative, it is a matter of which one do we tackle first.”
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.
Sick and tired of your boss making bad decisions? Think you could do better? Here's your chance, hot shot. A bill, sponsored by Democratic state Rep. James Coleman and Republican state Sen. Jack Tate, was approved by the Legislature and sent to the governor to require the Colorado Office of Economic Development to
Believe it or not, plenty of Colorado K-12 students owe fines for overdue library books, damaged or missing textbooks, and the like. If you are a parent, you already know this.
Especially for some households of modest means, forking it over can amount to more than just an incidental expense. And even if paying the fines isn’t that big a deal for other families, the question arises: Is failure to pay them a big enough deal to warrant withholding a student’s transcripts?
Before you answer, know this: Gov. John Hickenlooper thinks the answer is no, and he made that clear by signing House Bill 1301 into law today. (OK, now you can go ahead and answer the question.)
What’s HB 1301? The state House Democrats thought you’d ask. From a press release the House Dems’ press office issued today:
HB17-1301 prevents a school or school district from withholding records required for enrollment in another school or institution of higher education, such as a transcript or diploma, for failure to pay any fine or fee assessed by the school. This includes fines related to returning or replacing textbooks, library resources or other school property.
So, is it a get-out-of-jail-free card? Perhaps, a blank check to run up the tab on overdue books or missing texts because, by statute, there now will be no meaningful consequences? The press release addresses that, too, quoting House sponsor Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City:
“We must give every student access to a free public education … That includes access to their grades and transcripts if they need to change schools or reenroll. Grades, transcripts and academic records belong to the student and no student should be prevented from receiving or continuing their education because of inability to pay.”
And it noted this:
Testimony during the bill’s hearing before the House Education Committee pointed out that the policy of withholding transcripts can lead to low-income students dropping out of school. Martin Schneider with the Community Prep School in Colorado Springs said that half of the students at the school each year are new students and 35 percent of those students have unpaid fines from previous schools—most fines are less than $30.00. Many students and their families don’t have an ability to pay those fines which acted as a barrier up until now for students seeking to continue their education.
It probably didn’t hurt the bill’s chances that it was bipartisan. No less a no-nonsense conservative than Senate Republican Majority Leader Chris Holbert, of Parker, was the Senate co-sponsor along with Aurora Democrat Rhonda Fields.
Gov. John Hickenlooper takes first place, with his signature, as currently the most bipartisan politician in Colorado. He has signed 137 bills in the 2017 General Assembly. Of those, 111 are bipartisan, 15 are Dem-only sponsored and 11 are GOP-only sponsored. He has clearly set a basis that he prefers both chambers to work collaboratively.
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.