After news of higher-than-expected state revenues, legislative leaders announced early this month how those new funds will affect public schools: for the first time in four years, per pupil spending will not be cut.
But while this news may inspire a sigh of relief among school districts, as the Associated Press reflected, it’s not cause for celebration; when it comes to funding schools in Colorado, the good news is relative.
Schools’ money from the state isn’t being cut for the first time in years as the state slowly recovers from the Great Recession — a relief to public school districts that have let go of teachers, cut extracurricular activities and increased class sizes.
But the extra money lawmakers put into K-12 education this year hasn't quelled frustration from some who believe the state is still massively underfunding its schools.
The restoration of what was to be a cut (about $130 per student) is, without question, a welcome development. However, it should be viewed in context:
- Inflation last year was clocked at 3.7%. That underestimates double-digit increases in health care, transportation and energy that many districts have encountered. As the Colorado School Finance Project has documented, “flat funding” in the face of higher costs still translates to cuts.
- This year’s average per pupil funding level ($6,474) is almost $200 lower than it was five years ago — and that’s without adjusting for inflation.
- Colorado’s K-12 funding is now $1 billion below what Amendment 23 requires. That’s underfunding to the tune of $100 million in DPS, $37 million in Colorado Springs (D-11) and $98 million in Jeffco, to name a few.
- Colorado has dropped from 23rd to 36th in resources for preschool (unsurprising, as preschool funding is tied to per pupil funding). In inflation-adjusted dollars, we spend $150 less per preschooler today than we did in 2002.
And so, it is because of all this that the Garfield district is moving to a four-day week just to close a portion of their budget gap. The Canon City district is closing two schools and increasing fees. The Eagle district has eliminated all foreign language instruction except for Spanish.
Even after the new budget numbers came out, the Adams 12 Five-Star School District (Northglenn, Thornton) announced that it will have to cut another $12 million this year. Cuts proposed include furlough days (i.e. reducing pay and shortening the school year), increased class size, increased fees, and the loss of 50 teaching positions (in addition to the 352 positions lost in the previous two years).
Superintendent Chris Gdowski sums up the bleak future outlook, absent bold leadership and action at the state level:
“I really don’t see any change to this until we get more revenue into the system,” he said. “We need to get beyond just flat funding and substantially increase the money into public education for this to stop.”
That’s when the legislature will have earned a victory lap.