Education cuts could be even more damaging than advertised

At 4:30 p.m., Governor Bill Ritter has scheduled a news conference to talk about the rest of his budget proposal for the 2010-2011 fiscal year, following his Monday submission of digits relating to the Public Health and Environment, Agriculture and Transportation departments. And according to a piece in this morning's Denver Post, state funding for public schools could be sliced by as much as 6 percent in 2010-2011.

That number is worrisome to Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. After all, he says, "1.93 percent has already been set aside by all the school districts" for the 2009-2010 school year. "They were mandated by the legislature to set aside that amount of money in case the economic forecast would not show evidence of an economic recovery." If there's an additional 6 percent cut for the next year, Roman notes, "it would have a compounding effect."

The 1.93 percent, which could be subtracted in January, may not sound like much, but it definitely adds up. "In the case of Denver, it's the equivalent of $10.5 million," Roman says.

Complicating matters further is Amendment 23, which was passed in 2000. As explained by ColoradoBudget.com, the amendment "requires the state to increase the base per pupil funding, and funding for certain specified programs (called categoricals) for K-12 by at least inflation plus one percent each year for ten years, and by at least inflation thereafter." For the 2009-2010 school year, that meant a bump of 4.9 percent, according to Deborah Fallin, spokeswoman for the Colorado Education Association.

If a portion of that amount -- the 1.93 percent figure -- isn't delivered, wouldn't that violate Amendment 23? Here's how Fallin answers that question:

"The legislature is in a very difficult situation, because TABOR doesn't allow them to raise taxes and they don't have enough money to pay for the services needed in the state. Now, Amendment 23 is in the constitution, and that's why legislators worked so hard to get the 4.9 percent in there. They said that it was their obligation, and it was what voters wanted. But if they don't have any money, we have a serious problem in this state. Look at what they did with higher ed already. And can we take higher ed down to zero? No, we can't. Are we going to let the bridges fall down? No, we can't. Are we going to throw the disabled out on the streets? No, we can't. So these people have a horrible situation."

It gets worse. If that 1.93 percent in 2009-2010 isn't delivered, or if the legislature signs off on a 6 percent education cut in 2010-2011, Fallin says, "ultimately, we may have somebody who says, 'You're violating Amendment 23.' And somebody -- not necessarily us, but somebody -- may tell them, 'We're going to court about that.'"

What to do? Lobby, for one thing.

"I do know there are legislators who are not fully convinced this is the route we should take," DCTA's Roman says. "We will be working with them closely to let them know it's important to maintain current levels of funding, so our schools don't have to decrease the services we provide to students. Because funding cuts can have an impact in multiple ways. For example, it might mean we could hire fewer teachers, which can increase class size, and I don't think anyone would benefit from that, especially at the K-3 levels, which are so vital and important in terms of us reaching our educational goals. That's another reason we need to honor Amendment 23."

As for Fallin, she says, "I think it's really important that the state, the governor and the legislators look at every place where they're giving money back to companies, individual taxpayers, whatever -- close every single tax loophole in the state. We're past the time of being able to be benevolent and offer all these nice little pieces. We've got to say, 'We need every penny the state collects for basic services, the essential services this state needs, in order to make Colorado a desirable place to live.'

"We need to talk about much more than education," Fallin concedes. "But education is critical. Any poll that anybody ever does shows that K-12 education is at the top of the list in terms of what people want to have funded. That's why Amendment 23 passed. It's important for everybody to keep that in mind."

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