Great Education Colorado wants to make 2013 Year of the Student

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When District Judge Sheila Rappaport handed down her (now appealed) decision in Lobato vs. Colorado, the word she used to describe Colorado's education-finance system was "unconscionable." That harsh description is backed by stats provided by Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit that describes itself as "a statewide, nonpartisan, grassroots organization that is focused on improving education in Colorado through wise, increased investment in our schools, colleges and universities."

When adjusted for regional cost differences, according to Lisa Weil, director of policy and communications for the organization, Colorado is $2,500 below the national average per person in K-12 education funding. That puts the state in the bottom three for higher education funding.

In the past, one-third of the total education cost fell on the family. Now, it's two-thirds -- and Colorado also ranks in the bottom ten in class size and classroom technology. The state identifies the fewest students with special needs and reimburses schools the least for these students' special education. And across the state, schools are cutting down on science labs, foreign languages and other critical skills, as well as electives -- the classes that get students excited about their education.

In order to address these problems, seven-year-old Great Education Colorado is working with more than eighty organizations in the Colorado community in a push to quit passing the education buck and instead make 2013 the Year of the Student -- the year the state finally commits to funding education. The Year of the Student initiative was announced at a student-run press conference led by Hayley Stromberg in June. A wide range of groups already supports the cause -- everything from the Autism Society of Colorado to the Colorado Association for Gifted and Talented, Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives and the Colorado Council of Churches. Weil says their efforts have been indispensible, but more help is needed.

"Every year, a few thousand new kids come into our system and too many of them didn't get preschool," explains an impassioned Weil. "Every year, students get their one chance at that grade level and every year that we delay is hurting them. And that's why we decided to create a backstop, a deadline. It's time to do right by our kids. We can't kick this down the road anymore, and it's not going to get any easier."

As Weil sees it, the problem is not the schools themselves, but the politicians whose job is to make sure schools get the resources they need. "I think that schools have been doing a remarkable job, in the colleges and early childhood, with the resources that have been made available," she says, "but we've got teachers who are having students added to their classes every year. They're having coursework added to their classes. They're getting very frustrated because they know what they could do if they had one-on-one time with kids, and they just don't have it."

According to Weil, many of Colorado's education funding problems stem from one poor policy direction: a 2009 reinterpretation of Amendment 23 that reallocates state money guaranteed by the amendment to fund education based on several "factors." But Amendment 23's provisions also get tangled up in TABOR and Gallagher provisions, which complicate the issue and make a solution difficult to find.

Voters passed Amendment 23 in 2000 with a goal of reversing budget cuts imposed on Colorado school districts throughout the '90s. The amendment requires the state legislature to annually increase K-12 funding by "inflation +1 percent," and also requires funding for special education and transportation to increase by the same percentage. The amendment reserves 33 percent of Colorado's income tax for the State Education Fund, which is exempt from TABOR limits that had restricted spending increases in the past. But the way the Colorado Legislature reinterpreted Amendment 23 three years ago was to acknowledge the increases in base per-pupil funding, but ignore the "factors," variables such as school district size, local cost-of-living and the number of at-risk students in a district. "It's an absurd argument," Weil says. "It absolutely flies in the face of the voters' intent, but they have a legal interpretation [and] there has not been a lawsuit about it yet.... I would say they didn't want to reinterpret it, but what happened was the recession.... At the same time the revenues plummeted, the number of people who were eligible for Medicaid skyrocketed. You imagine the pie shrunk, [but] Medicaid expanded."

At the same time, the Gallagher Amendment stipulates that there must be a constant ratio between the property tax revenue that comes from residential property and from business property. But since Gallagher passed decades ago, increases in residential property values have significantly outpaced the increases in the value of commercial property. Because property tax is one of the primary sources of funding for education, this, coupled with the problems of 23 and TABOR, creates a perfect storm for education funding.

For a small, rural, poor school district with an at-risk population -- such as the San Luis Valley districts from which the Lobato case emerged -- this has had disastrous effects that provide strong evidence against the state in the Lobato case, Weil argues, because legislators are not supporting schools in the way our state constitution requires.

But Weil stresses that the Year of the Student is not about Lobato. Whether or not the courts side with legislators, she says that 2013 must be a year focused on education. And the timing could be just right.

Page down to read more about the Year of the Student initiative. "I think there are some stars aligning," Weil says. "Education came up as a very high priority in TBD meetings" with civic leaders across Colorado. With the TBD campaign, Governor John Hickenlooper's administration has been conducting surveys across the state to determine what Colorado residents hope to accomplish in the coming years in areas ranging from tax reform to transportation. In Montrose, for example, more than 92 percent of respondents indicated that they were strongly in favor of "assessment and future modification of the Gallagher Amendment, TABOR and Amendment 23 and how they interact."

Weil also sees hope in the "Colorado School Finance Partnership "...where the business community and the education community had a handshake and said, 'We need reform and we need resources.'...Over the last ten to fifteen years we've done a lot of reforms to make sure all kids are being successful, that's what the law requires," she notes. "And at the same time that we've been increasing those mandates and really implementing some important reforms about teacher quality, we've been cutting the funding. So there's a complete mismatch." The Colorado School Finance Partnership just released "Financing Colorado's Future," a proposed redress of Colorado education finance in the face of budgetary woes, in which the group states, among other things, that "now is the time to create a system that is equitable, innovative and sufficiently funded."

The Year of the Student is less a map for change than a shot in the arm. There is no strict timetable and no rigid plan; Great Education Colorado does not back any specific politician or legislation, beyond the laws already on the books. The approach is to use both traditional and nontraditional (Twitter, Facebook) grassroots methods to raise public awareness about the problem and pressure the state legislature to take action.

"Let's create an expectation," Weil says. "Just like there's expectations created for schools, let's create an expectation that [politicians] are going to do their work, and this is what we believe their work should be.... We hope to use social media. We hope to use online tools. We're just going to keep pushing the information back through the folks who said they want to be a part of this and say, 'Here's who's doing it. Here's who's not.'

"This coalition is saying, 'Get in that room. [Education] is the priority for this legislative session. Get in that Capitol and work something out.' And each of our individual organizations can say where they stand on those particulars, but we're standing together in saying, 'The time is now.'"

The first step, she says, is to build support -- by encouraging people to come to 2013forstudents.org and sign this Call to Action: "We, the undersigned Coloradans, respectfully demand that the General Assembly make 2013 the Year of the Student, using the legislative session to create and find funding for a P-20 public education finance system that matches reforms, mandates and accountability measures with the resources necessary to ensure that every student is successful."

After you sign, Great Education urges you to get your friends to sign. Signers don't have to be eighteen, so this is a way for young students to become politically active in a way that directly affects them.

The Year of the Student organizers hope to have enough momentum to make a presentation in front of Colorado legislators in January -- that is step two. Step three is keeping the support base informed, excited and involved: "Write letters to the editor," Weil says. "Write letters to the legislature. Call them and say, 'Hey, we expect this to be the Year of the Student and we're not seeing enough progress.'"

With enough support, Weil says, the Year of the Student will accomplish its goal and put itself out of business before 2014. "I think it is reasonable to expect our legislators to make this a priority," she concludes, "to recognize that these issues are not going to fix themselves.... We recognize that it's not easy. If it was easy, it would have been done by now. And so the people have to be a part of that, and that's why we're trying to bring as many organizations in, as many individuals together to say, 'If you have the courage to stand up and say, we're gonna do this, we've got your back. If you're gonna provide leadership, we're there for you.'"

Follow Great Education on Twitter at @2013YOS.

Get additional information from this Great Education Colorado video.

More from our Education archive: "Iraqi Student Project sending first student to Colorado."

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