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Archive for the ‘School funding and finance’ Category

Might Colorado’s school funding picture change?

Wednesday, June 1st, 2011

Paul Teske is Dean and University of Colorado Distinguished Professor at the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver.

(These views represent the personal opinions of the author and may not reflect the position of the University of Colorado Denver or the University of Colorado system).

As we start summer – the real, post-Memorial Day, school is out, summer – it is worth reflecting on the near-term future of education funding in Colorado.

The legislature recently finished its session, which focused mainly upon budget cuts.  Both higher ed and K-12 took cuts, but in the end, these cuts were somewhat less than some feared (higher ed), or less than the original level of cuts (for K-12).  Remarkably, as the session ended, the fact that that cuts could have been worse seems to have been spun as mainly good news.

EdNews recently linked to new U.S. Census data that ranks Colorado’s per pupil K-12 spending (all revenues divided by number of students) as 40th among the 51 states (including DC).  That 2008-9 data is now two academic years behind  – two years, by the way, full of deeper cuts in Colorado (and some cuts in some other states, too, to be sure).  Consistent with other data on this subject, the Census Bureau shows Colorado spending about $2,000 per pupil below the national average.

I will leave it to others to figure out more precisely what $2,000 per pupil could buy.  It would seem, in a single class of 25 students, even if only two-thirds of funds were spent in the classroom, it would buy $33,000 worth of extra instruction for the students in that single classroom – a para-professional, lots of useful technological aides, or whatever students need most.

As we look ahead to fall 2011, districts and schools will face the legislature’s budget cuts, and it will be interesting to see the reactions.  In the meantime, a few noteworthy events will occur.

First, the Lobato lawsuit, about whether Colorado’s K-12 funding is “adequate” under the “thorough and uniform” clause, should be heard in August.  While court decisions are somewhat unpredictable, it is possible that the Colorado Supreme Court will rule K-12 revenues to be inadequate.  Should they make that decision, the next step would be somewhat unclear – as courts have limited enforcement powers (not zero powers – the New Jersey Supreme Court, after several rulings on school finance, and legislative inertia and stalemate, eventually forced budgetary actions).

Second, State Sen. Rollie Heath’s (D-Boulder) proposal will likely be put on the ballot. Heath proposes to to roll back tax rates to the rates of the late 1990s, a period of a major economic boom in Colorado (yes, that rolling back involves a tax increase from current levels).

While passage may not be likely, no tax increase proposal in Colorado is ever likely.  There is a self-fulfilling prophecy element here as well – many potential supporters are not yet on board, because they fear defeat or believe that voters have “no appetite for new taxes,” but all that could look different in November, if the Lobato plaintiffs win, the economy continues to improve, and parents see the results of the latest budget cuts as their children return to school with larger class sizes, fewer programs, fees for buses, fees for extracurriculars, etc.

Third, the lawsuit against TABOR (the Taxpayer Bill of Rights), started by Herb Fenster, will move forward, now with lots of signatories from both parties.  This argues that TABOR has gutted the representative form of government for the state of Colorado.   While also perhaps a long-shot, there is logic to the argument.

I have previously proposed consideration of the hypothetical CIBOR –the Citizens Bill of Rights.  Under CIBOR, the legislature could not cut any programs that affect Colorado citizens (where cuts are defined in real dollar terms, per affected citizen), without a vote of the citizens.

Most people would say that CIBOR is ridiculous – how could the legislature be bound by such constraints, as it needs to balance the budget?  And yet TABOR pretty much does the same on the spending side.  So, as silly as CIBOR might seem, it is just the symmetrical, mirror-image of TABOR. In either case, the power of the legislature is substantially restrained.

Fourth, a committee made up of key foundations, non-profits, and other stakeholder groups is examining the school finance act, with a potential “reform and resources” agenda. While past legislative commissions on school finance, in 2005 and 2009, were unable to come to actionable consensus, perhaps this outside group can move such an agenda forward.

So, the legislature is done for 2011, but funding issues will continue to evolve.

Popularity: 20% [?]

The real-life impacts of budget cuts

Sunday, May 8th, 2011

Hurray!  We will receive an extra $3 to $4 million dollars from the state for our school district.  Now we only have to cut $27 million, about 10 percent, from our budget.  This after cutting 7 percent last year.

Much has been made of the macro effects of the drastic cuts to education:  Increased class sizes, layoffs of both certified and classified staffs, cutting popular programs like outdoor education, and so on.  Our district was forced to layoff 12 elementary librarians—this as more and more people demand that our students become wiser consumers of electronic information.

There is no doubt that these cuts will impact student learning. But I think we need to talk about the micro-impacts of cuts to education if we are to make any headway in ensuring that education is funded adequately.

For example, in my building we now have two deans for over 2,000 students. What does this mean? It means that teachers now have to assume many of the responsibilities that once were done by deans. With over 150 students in my classes, this has a detrimental impact on my ability to help students learn. One of my students has over 15 unexcused absences so far this quarter.  Not school year, nor even so far this semester, I am talking about this quarter. In the past, deans working with counselors (we lost a counselor last year and now have four), would review attendance weekly and proactively respond to absent students. Not so this year.

We need to talk about the micro-impacts of cuts to education if we are to make any headway in ensuring that education is funded adequately.

The student’s family was going through an ugly divorce and the student was now under the care of a legal guardian. The student continued to miss class, so I wrote up a referral. I am not a big fan of writing referrals, but it is important to have a paper trail on students so future incidents can have some context. What was the consequence of the referral?  Work detail and a phone call home. As well as a student pissed off at me because I had the audacity to write the referral. Since the referral the student has missed three out of four days.

The deans are overwhelmed. There are four weeks of school left and they just want to make it to the end of the year. To start the attendance matrix process would monopolize time that needs to be spent on other discipline issues; time spent monitoring the halls since we lost three campus supervisors last year; time spent on other duties picked up after losing clerical help in the office; time spent working with seniors who are in danger of not graduating.

I get it. But I also get the fact that this freshman, who is struggling to make it through my class, will be the senior struggling to graduate in three years.

This is but one incident of what the cuts to education mean to me and my school community.  So educators, let’s see other stories. Stories that personalize and bring to life the impact that budget cuts have on our schools.

Popularity: 24% [?]

A plea on behalf of Manual’s students

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

Editor’s note: We are publishing two blog posts about new developments at Manual High School because of the extraordinary place the school holds in Denver Public Schools’ education reform landscape. In the late 1990s, Manual was one of the first comprehensive high schools transformed under  the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s small schools initiative. Manual was split into three separate high schools in a failed experiment that ended when then-Superintendent Michael Bennet closed the low-performing school for the 2006-07 school year. It reopened in August of 2007 to great fanfare. But last year’s departure of Principal Rob Stein left the school facing new challenges. This has been a tough year at Manual, and the possible departure of Assistant Principal Vernon Jones, a popular figure, has touched a nerve in the Manual community. EdNews has invited incoming Manual Principal Brian Dale to submit a post as well.

The following post was submitted by Vernon Jones.

Last night I was moved by the show of support from the Manual High School community and the students that I have served over the last eight years of my life in a number of capacities.

They heard that budget cuts and a restructuring of Manual’s administrative team were going to force me to look for new employment. The budget cuts that most schools are faced with are unbelievable and dare I say shameful. If we really believe that our children are our future then we should invest in them like our future depends on it.

Our schools should be fully resourced with the staff, the tools, and the facilities that they need to serve our students well. That’s an entirely different issue, but one that requires courageous action as a state immediately.

Let me first say that Mr. Brian Dale, who will serve as Manual’s principal next year, was dealt a very challenging deck. He was hired to lead next year but so many decisions had to be made today before we could even talk about next year. A major decision was how to deal with budget cuts. He had to come in and decide what his administrative team would look like and make these decisions based on limited if any interaction with our existing team.

A very difficult position to be in, but one that often comes with the territory. I did not envy his predicament, but that’s why he was hired, to make the tough decisions that would ultimately help Manual to move forward.

That’s what this is about, and has always been about for me and so many others, moving Manual forward. Even in difficult budget times we must keep our eyes focused on where we want to go. Mr. Dale, when being introduced to our staff as our new principal, remarked to Herb, a community member who had served on the search committee that he “wanted Manual to be the best high school in the city.” I genuinely believe that to be Mr. Dale’s desire for Manual.

In my few interactions with him he does not strike me as one who will settle for being less than the best. I hope that I am correct in my assumption. I respect that he came in and took the bull by the horns and made a tough decision. I told him as much after our conversation on Friday, April 8.

Leadership is not simply about making a decision, it’s about making the right decision. Being a school leader is not about making the budget drive the school but letting the priorities of the school drive the budget. Even in crunch time we can’t shrink back from what we know to be the right things and/or people to continue the forward movement of a school. Pay cuts are a reality. Staff reductions are a reality. Yet those pay cuts and staff reductions should be driven by the priorities of the school and the number one priority of the school should be what is best for students.

An administration that is 100 percent Anglo, a teaching team that could be 90 percent Anglo, serving a 99 percent minority student and family population isn’t what is best for students. I fundamentally believe that in a majority-minority school district we should see minorities serving in more influential school leadership positions.

We must have diverse faces in front of our students that are all culturally competent and highly capable of providing high quality differentiated instruction or high quality leadership and stewardship. We must have folks who speak their languages and can provide them excellent academic and social supports. We don’t compromise quality but we must be sensitive to the needs of our students.

I listened from a distance last night as our students, whom I have grown to love and respect, spoke up. They were frustrated because it seemed that the budget had more say than them. They were frustrated (angry) because in our attempts to balance budgets we often ignore what matters most, our students. We cut staff. We cut programs. We cut elective offerings and then after the dust is settled we try and piece back together a plan that is focused on students.

It seems backwards to me. If we are all about students, shouldn’t it be all about students? If we are honest, too much of our adult priorities color the lenses through which we make decisions.

This is about my students. I hear their voices each day. I take note of their frustrations, their pains, and their struggles. I see their anger, their outbursts, and many immature choices and I seize those moments to educate them, to equip them, and to empower them for better. I heard them, and our community, loud and clear tonight and I will not ignore them. I will affirm to them that their voice matters with my decision.

Mr. Dale has a challenge in front of him and I want to help. I told him when we first met that I am committed to Manual and seeing it become the success that many of us dreamed about when we re-opened and that T-Bolt nation longs to see again. My wife attended our community meeting tonight and when I arrived home she said to me, “I am honored to share you with those students. Knowing that your time away from us is spent investing in their lives makes it all worth it. You have to keep fighting for and investing in those kids because if you did anything else, it wouldn’t be who you are.” An amazing woman indeed!

The budget challenges are what they are so I’m not asking Mr. Dale to do anything more for me. I don’t even want Mr. Dale to pay me because I know the constraints he is under. Resources are tight and we need every penny to serve our students well in the classroom. I trust that Mr. Dale wants me at Manual because he knows that it is the best thing for students. I know that he knows that he needs all of the talents on our existing administrative team, and others, to grow Manual and to develop a middle-years program that will help Manual thrive for years to come because it is the best thing for students.

I know that there are other people within our district, foundations and philanthropic community who are committed to what is best for students and that’s who I am asking to step up. I know that the district is working to see what is possible, but really I want Mr. Dale to be able to take whatever he was going to pay me and use it to fully resource our existing team for the work in front of us.

Manual is at a critical juncture and the last thing we need is a chopping of critical dollars and people. If we all want to see this “flagship innovation school” thrive then we need to be creative with how we resource it during these difficult times.

I am looking for a courageous sponsor (or collaboration between the district and our partners) who will help Manual by sponsoring me, in my existing administrative designation, for the 2011-2012 school year so that I can continue my direct service and be at the table to move Manual forward. I cannot yield a position of influence when I know that me serving in that position is the best thing for students and for our community.

Who is willing to help us continue to do what is best for students? Who will invest in an innovative neighborhood school so that the right people can continue to do the right work for students? Don’t let difficult budget times cause us to shrink from doing the right things for our students. They spoke. Did we listen? Did we hear?

Popularity: 30% [?]

A different take on a $332m budget cut

Monday, April 4th, 2011

This post was written by Douglas Bissonette, superintendent of Elizabeth School District C-1.

I am writing to ask for your help to minimize cuts to public education.

In recent years, at the district level, we have become good at cutting spending while also communicating the wisdom of those cuts to gain community support for our actions.  But we’ve past the breaking point. Our children have already been denied the education they deserve, and now we are depriving them the education they need. As a state, at least, we have completely lost sight of what matters. It’s a slow death by a thousand cuts.

I’m in my eighth year as a school superintendent, having spent six years in Ridgway and two in Elizabeth. The proposed cuts ($332 million) are the equivalent of closing 109 of the state’s smallest school districts serving 39,040 students. Picture the impact of each of those 109 school districts shutting their doors. The students in those schools would have to attend neighboring districts, and those neighboring districts would not receive additional funding to educate those additional students.

Imagine that, if you can. A list of the districts is provided below.

Elizabeth School District is the eastern neighbor of Douglas County Schools and a southern neighbor of Cherry Creek Schools. The proposed cuts are also equivalent to closing Cherry Creek, with Total Program Funding of $333 million. Cherry Creek’s students would have to go to school somewhere else. Imagine CCSD’s 40,396 students flooding into Elizabeth, Douglas, Littleton, Aurora, Denver, and Jefferson districts next year. Again, without a dime going to the neighboring districts.  How would that affect the quality of education kids receive in those districts?

Imagine the outcry if the state did either! Outright revolt, I’m sure. But with the cuts so spread out, people are crying rather than fighting.

If neither of these ways adequately convey the crime being committed against our children, the cuts equal 48,770 students that would not be funded. Thought about THIS way, it is a crime. Since we spread it out, people accept it.  Why?  We are hiding the real cost with everyone suffering equally.

The list of the 109 districts is below, starting with the smallest. Take a look…

Please use every ounce of energy, intelligence and resolve to find a way to adequately fund K-12 education.

  • CAMPO
  • AGATE
  • KIM
  • PRITCHETT
  • SILVERTON
  • PLAINVIEW
  • HINSDALE
  • LIBERTY J-4
  • CREEDE
  • KIT CARSON
  • ARICKAREE
  • PAWNEE
  • HI PLAINS
  • WOODLIN
  • LONE STAR
  • AGUILAR
  • MOUNTAIN VALLEY
  • BETHUNE
  • PLATTE VALLEY
  • IDALIA RJ-3
  • KARVAL
  • ARRIBA-FLAGLER
  • DEBEQUE
  • WALSH
  • BRIGGSDALE
  • EADS
  • GENOA-HUGO
  • PLATEAU
  • PRAIRIE
  • CHEYENNE
  • STRATTON
  • DEER TRAIL
  • FRENCHMAN
  • MANZANOLA
  • OTIS
  • PRIMERO
  • NORTH PARK
  • CHERAW
  • COTOPAXI
  • WELDON
  • LA VETA
  • WILEY
  • GRANADA
  • EDISON
  • MOFFAT
  • CENTENNIAL
  • MCCLAVE
  • HOLLY
  • ELBERT
  • SPRINGFIELD
  • HAXTUN
  • SIERRA GRANDE
  • SOUTH CONEJOS
  • HANOVER
  • OURAY
  • NORWOOD
  • DOLORES
  • BRANSON
  • SANGRE DE CRISTO
  • BUFFALO
  • SANFORD
  • HOEHNE
  • MIAMI-YODER
  • BIG SANDY
  • VILAS
  • SWINK
  • WEST END
  • GILPIN
  • AKRON
  • KIOWA
  • MANCOS
  • RIDGWAY
  • FOWLER
  • RANGELY
  • CRIPPLE CREEK
  • SOUTH ROUTT
  • WESTCLIFFE
  • PLATEAU
  • HAYDEN
  • LIMON
  • SARGENT
  • BYERS
  • WEST GRAND
  • WIGGINS
  • LAS ANIMASv
  • PARK
  • CROWLEY
  • HOLYOKE
  • DEL NORTE
  • HUERFANO
  • CENTER
  • CALHAN
  • DOLORES
  • WRAY RD-2
  • MEEKER
  • PEYTON
  • BURLINGTON
  • IGNACIO
  • ROCKY FORD
  • YUMA 1
  • AULT-HIGHLAND
  • TELLURIDE
  • CLEAR CREEK
  • BUENA VISTA
  • STRASBURG
  • ELLICOTT
  • NORTH CONEJOS
  • SALIDA
  • BENNETT

I used figures from the worksheet on the CDE website (http://www.cde.state.co.us/cdefinance/SchoolFinanceFundingFY2011-12.htm) and used Adjusted Total Program Funding to determine the schools that would need to close.  The numbers were confirmed by Vody Hermann prior to her retirement from CDE, and provided to Bruce Caughey at CASE in response to a message I sent him.

Popularity: 20% [?]

Tough budget decisions demand context

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

I admit that math was never my favorite class in school, though I did well enough on various tests. But the recent reporting around budget cuts in Denver Public Schools positively has me scratching my head. Sunday’s Denver Post featured an article about a Greenwood Elementary teacher whose class size allegedly is expected to jump from 20 to 28 as a result of current budget cuts:

[Teacher AJ] Staniszewski says he doesn’t mind a larger class, so long as his support systems, such as paraprofessionals, intervention teachers and the technology that helps keep children focused, aren’t cut.

Greenwood principal Devin Dillon is not planning to cut those support systems but plans to cut classroom supplies, field trips and two teachers.

I get that cuts are being made… but a 40 percent increase in class size? This morning an email message went out from Superintendent Tom Boasberg explaining that of the $35 million in anticipated budget cuts facing DPS:

  • $15 million will be realized in savings from the 2008 pension refinance; and
  • $10 million will be cut from the central office;
  • leaving (by my lights) about $10 million in school-level cuts.

The current year DPS budget shows a total of $886 million in operational expenses, including almost exactly half given directly to district schools. Combining charter and contract schools, along with school support, brings the total to 94 percent ($837 million). Ten million represents a roughly 1.25 percent cut against projected 2.2 percent enrollment (nearly 1,700 more students), about $350 less per pupil.

How does this all add up to class size growth of 40 percent (along with fewer field trips and requiring parents to buy copy paper)? The answer is it doesn’t come close, at least not on a district-wide scale. What’s happening in one Greenwood classroom then appears to be an extreme outlier (a less plausible explanation would be evidence of widespread misappropriation of funds). In another Sunday story, the Post‘s Kevin Simpson gives us a clue:

Denver Public Schools will trim administration, transportation and support services and use that and other savings to fend off cuts to individual schools. Most buildings will have a budget almost equal to last year’s, with slight variations based on enrollment.

Still, schools that project lower enrollment are bracing for reductions….

Is Greenwood defying the district’s trend of anticipated enrollment growth? Are the school’s demographics expected to change in a way that would additionally reduce funds to be received through student-based budgeting? How many classes at Greenwood are expected to get smaller next year? What impact do negotiated employee compensation schedules and formulas have on the projections? What does research have to say about the strategy of smaller class sizes as a factor in improving student learning (ranks 40th out of 46 options in effectiveness)?

Tough decisions are being made, but they cry out for context. And Stretching the School Dollar rather than scratching our heads.

Popularity: 19% [?]

Get teacher-leaders involved in big decisions

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

Mark Sass, a teacher since 1994, teaches at Legacy High School in the Adams Five Star School District.

The Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ) has just released a white paper “New Student Assessments and Advancing Teaching as a Results-Oriented Profession.” The paper is is co-authored by CTQ president Barnett Berry, director of research and policy Alesha Daughtrey, and Renee Moore, Dave Orphal, and Marsha Ratzel of the Teacher Leaders Network.  This description is from the CTQ website:

The paper raises cautions about the use of value-added models (VAMs) as “the preferred method” to estimate the effects of individual teachers on student achievement. Even highly accomplished teachers who embrace accountability, the authors say, “are skeptical of using VAMs as a central measure of their effectiveness,” citing the narrowness of what the models measure and reports from researchers of significant and high error rates.

However, the paper supports “the strategic use of value-added data, with the models’ limitations in mind” and urges the engagement of expert teachers in efforts “to sharpen those models and their underlying student assessments to improve accountability systems in ways that support more effective teaching.”

As educators are confronted with new standards and accountability measures, implementation of these new “realities” will not be successful without identifying teacher leaders and putting them to work in their schools.  As budget cuts loom, it is important to recognize the role of teacher leaders at the school and district level.  We need to be very thoughtful about removing teachers from these positions as a way to increase the number of teachers in the classroom.

CTQ has also published a new book, “Teaching 2030,” co-authored by Barnett Berry and 12 accomplished U.S. teacher leaders.  I have not read the book but I am intrigued based on a short animated clip that spotlights some of the themes of the book.  I was especially impressed by their challenge to teachers’ unions to behave more like professional guilds.

CTQ has embraced the notion that teachers can do more than react to what is being done to them and is proactively articulating what needs to be done.  Good for them.

Popularity: 17% [?]

In budget crunch, don’t cut cost-efficient reforms

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

Adams 12 Five Star School District is facing $30 million in cuts for next year.  Unlike Gov. John Hickenlooper who portrayed the more than $340 million in cuts to education as a one year issue on ABC News this past Sunday, those of us in Adams 12 know that it won’t end next year.

We have to look at how we can be as effective as possible with limited operating expenses.

The biggest fear among some is the loss of teaching  jobs.  And as usually happens when various factors vie for limited resources there are already calls by teachers to cut the “fat” at the district offices.  And in some areas I’d agree.  But I am not so fast to protect teachers at the cost of negatively impacting teacher effectiveness.

This puts me at odds with many of my colleagues.  The claim is that you have to limit the impact of budget cuts in the classroom by cutting teacher-coaches, or cutting release time for teachers who work on leadership or reform issues in the school or at the district level before you cut classroom teachers.  But what if these reforms, led by teachers with release time, or led by district personnel, have improved the effectiveness of the teachers?  We have to look at how we can be as effective as possible with limited operating expenses.  I hope that decisions can be made with effectiveness in mind.

Many of the reform movements in schools and districts have a limited impact on expenses.  In other words these innovations don’t cost much.  But, even with that said, many innovations and reforms are first to go.  This has more to do with an emotional cost than with a monetary one.  So, kudos to the Roaring Fork School District for moving ahead with its standards-based learning model even as the district make massive cuts to its budget.  The entire district went to a standards-based grading model a few years ago and now they are implementing what they call the “Moving On” concept.

The idea is that students who are proficient with skills in reading, writing, or math can move on to the next level without putting in more seat-time waiting for the next semester or school year.  Students would also need to exhibit proficiency before they could move on.  As Re-1 assistant superintendent Brad Ray puts it:  “The schools we have now are built on the assembly line model of the 1920s, where time is fixed and learning flexible, and you move students along just because they’re a year older,” he said. “What we’re moving toward is that, now time is flexible and learning is fixed based on the standards.”

I will be the first to fight for more resources for schools.  We still operate off of the old paradigm of ranking and sorting students versus ensuring every student is academically successful.  Our funding system is based on this antiquated model.

I will also lead the charge to cut ineffective operating systems and personnel, using data that reflects their impact on academic achievement.  But as we shake off the effects of a recession and regain our priorities to our children, we need to make sure our budget decisions are sound and rational.

Even “[a]fter three years of conversation and more than 18 months of intense planning, the essential elements of Moving On are scheduled to be implemented throughout the district next school year.”  Way to stick with it Roaring Fork!

Popularity: 17% [?]

A chronic shortage of revenue

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

Paul Teske is dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver.

(These views represent the personal opinions of the author and may not reflect the position of the University of Colorado Denver or the University of Colorado system).

OK.  So, while the Joint Budget Committee and the legislature still need to work on the budget a lot – they don’t have loads of options – and based upon Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed budget yesterday, we are now looking at the likely magnitude of cuts for Colorado in fiscal 2011-12.  And it ain’t a pretty picture.

I am usually the one commenting on resource issues on this blog, and I guess I’ll be happy to maintain that role for awhile.  But I suspect that we will be hearing a lot from districts, schools, teachers, and parents about what these cuts mean, and what $497 less per K-12 pupil means in the classroom, and what $877 less per higher ed student means.  At a minimum, lots of cuts in jobs, programs like breakfasts and counselors eliminated, larger class sizes, etc., all at a time when we were already near the bottom of the nation in spending and programs.

Some on this blog think we have enough money for K-12, and just need to spend it smarter (like a game of limbo and “how low can you go,” I’m curious if those folks believe that there ever comes a threshold point where, yes, “money matters” (?)).

But, I’ve never seen a post or a comment that suggests we have enough money for higher ed.  And, somehow, so far, I don’t see the nascent development of more for-profit private institutions of higher education (you know, the ones that have been in the news, of late) as an encouraging sign of the private sector’s ability to deliver higher quality at lower cost in higher ed.

If we are going to have a discussion about cuts and education budgets in Colorado, let’s get a sense of where we are right now.

I think the answer is pretty simple – we have a shortage of revenue.  Our general fund budget in 2012 is almost the same as it was a decade ago, despite 700,000 new Coloradans getting services. Cuts don’t have to be the entire solution to budget-balance, over time.

The Associated Press reported last week that federal taxes are the lowest, as a percentage of personal incomes, since 1950, during the Truman administration.

In 1950, of course, we were fighting a pretty consequential and costly Cold War.

So the current, widespread notion that we are historically “overtaxed” by Washington, D.C. is simply not supported by facts. (I know there are other elements to federal spending, such as Social Security, but those involve direct and specific benefits in return for payroll taxes withheld).  And income/wealth inequality has not been at the levels we see in the U.S. today since before we had a federal income tax, and with the extension of the tax cuts for higher income Americans late last year, their deal got even better.

In Colorado, taxpayers are fortunate to have very low taxes at the state and local level – 44th lowest in the US, in fact (and 49th as a percent of personal incomes).

So in historical and comparative terms, a Colorado resident in 2011 has some of the lowest combined federal, state and local taxes in the country and in the past half century.  What we don’t have are very impressive K-12, higher ed, transportation infrastructure, health or other public services.  Such lack of public infrastructure investment may partly explain the fact that our per capita personal income rankings have actually dropped over the past decade, from seventh in the US to 15th among the 50 states.

If we want an infrastructure that supports growth and economic development, in a state economy of $250 billion per year, we probably need to talk about raising taxes to pay for it.  And, despite so much of the rhetoric on this issue and the slowly-recovering economy, now is a reasonable time, when our tax rates are historically and comparatively low. (And lots of other states are raising taxes to balance their budgets – in Oregon and Arizona by votes of the people, and in Illinois by the legislature, with lots more yet to come).

For a discussion of all this, and more, Dr. Mark Fermanich of the Buechner Institute for Governance has recently authored a report that assesses Colorado’s fiscal situation, and presents some options to consider.

Popularity: 22% [?]

Try the ‘Backseat Budgeter’

Friday, January 28th, 2011

Mark Sass, a teacher since 1994, teaches at Legacy High School in the Adams Five Star School District.

Want to know why it is so hard to find revenue for education? Why Higher Ed usually gets the fiscal ax first?  Why our constitution needs some fixin’?

Colorado Public Radio ran a story this morning about the backseat budgeter, an interactive “game” that allows you to attempt to balance the state budget.  Listen to the story and then try your hand at balancing the budget.  Let us know what you tried to cut and what tax you tried to increase.  You will get a first hand feel for what our legislators are going through.

Popularity: 16% [?]

No breakfast for you, kid

Friday, January 21st, 2011

Paul Teske is dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver.

Today’s Denver Post story about the Joint Budget Committee not approving more funding for school breakfasts for low income kids is emblematic of where we are with the state’s fiscal position.  Cuts will be made, to education, higher education, and other areas, even though we know that many of the things being cut are important to achieving broader educational goals.

Parents have been told, repeatedly, by all forms of research and media, that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day for kids” – so that they can learn without being hungry.   But, I guess we don’t want to pay the 30 cents for kids whose families can’t afford it –so it must not be that important.  In our $250 billion gross state economy, we can’t find $124,000 to pay for 56,000 eligible children for the period from March–June 2011.

The Post article quotes JBC member Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen: “I honestly felt like asking parents to spend 30 cents per meal was an appropriate vote,” Gerou said. “If we did not have a revenue shortfall, my vote would be different than it is.  Nobody wants to charge children for those breakfasts, but we are where we are. We just don’t have any money.”

No, we don’t.   We are where we are.

Mainly this is because we tax ourselves at the 48th lowest overall rate in America.

And, this is hardly the only impact of under-funding.  At the higher ed level, research is strong and solid that student retention and eventual graduation are greatly enhanced if freshmen are taught by full-time faculty who have offices, with whom they can make a real connection – but, because of budget cuts, the vast majority of our Colorado higher ed first-year classes are now taught by “one-off” adjuncts or lecturers (many of whom are terrific teachers), who can’t fill that mentorship role.

More broadly, this illustrates the extreme disjuncture of Colorado’s services and revenues.  While everyone agrees that they are out of balance, as Rep. Gerou notes, the only thing the legislature can do is to cut services.  “The people” don’t get to vote this week on a new tax (which would be between 2 and 3 cents for each Coloradan) to pay for those kids’ breakfasts for the rest of the year.

This is true, even though there is polling out there that suggests that citizens would favor raising revenues before making more cuts to education services.  And, in other states like Arizona and Illinois, voters and/or legislators are increasing taxes, sometimes a lot, to pay for critical services.   But, in Colorado the legislature can’t raise revenues, and the soonest it could possibly be done by the people, with a ballot initiative, is next fall, well after fiscal 2012 cuts are already made by the legislature.

To demonstrate the disjuncture and asymmetry of our situation, imagine a hypothetical alternative: Say that homeless advocate Bruce Douglas gets petitions for a ballot initiative to require that the citizens vote on all cuts to state and local programs – where cuts are defined as decreases in spending on any specific program, when accounting for inflation and the number of service recipients.  This might be called the “Citizens Bill of Rights” or CIBOR.

I would imagine that newspaper editorials and other forums would immediately condemn the irresponsibility and ridiculousness of CIBOR – “it would take representative government away from the elected legislators,” and “it would provide no flexibility in balancing an annual state or local budget.”

But, it is not clear to me how CIBOR would be any different from, or asymmetrical to, our current situation with TABOR – the legislature can and will only cut services (totaling $3-4 billion over the past 3 years), while the citizens, who might want to support some of those services, don’t get a say, unless someone launches a big ballot initiative, 9 months later.

Popularity: 30% [?]

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