Colorado’s battle over school funding

Amy Scott Feb 8, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: Here’s a very faint glimmer of hope from the land of education funding. A report out this week from the Center on Education Policy says cuts to school budgets may be slowing in some places. Slowing. Not stopping.

In Colorado, cuts to education spending have gotten so bad the courts are now involved. Whatever the judges decide, it’s going to be tough to find the money make things right. Amy Scott reports from Marketplace Education Desk.

Amy Scott: It’s lunch time at Helen Hunt Elementary School in Colorado Springs. At one end of the tiny school gym, cafeteria workers serve sandwiches beneath the basketball net. At the other end, a blue velvet curtain hides a small stage.

Glenn Gustafson: This is the lunch room, and gymnasium, and auditorium for a 400-kid school.

Glenn Gustafson is chief financial officer for school District 11 in Colorado Springs. He says a few years ago the district closed two nearby elementary schools, and their students came here. The cafe-gymna-torium is so small, students eat in four shifts. They have 20 minutes to scarf their food before the next group shuffles in.

Gustafson: We’re having to limit the number of P.E. and extracurricular activities in the gymnasium, because we’re having to have more lunch periods. Lunch is important, but instruction is more important.

Gustafson says overcrowding at Helen Hunt is one symptom of chronic underfunding in the state. The district has cut summer school and tutoring. Rural schools often don’t have A.P. and honors courses. Four-day school weeks are common. Though it’s among the richest states per capita, Colorado ranks near the bottom on per-student spending. Gustafson says it has one of the highest achievement gaps between rich and poor students.

Gustafson: If we can’t offer the programs to get these kids to proficiency, these students will be at risk for success in their life.

So in 2010, District 11 joined other schools and parents suing the state, and they won. In December a district court judge declared Colorado’s school funding system “irrational and inadequate,” and said schools can’t afford to meet the state’s own education standards. The state appealed.

John Suthers: The state had no choice.

That’s Colorado Attorney General John Suthers.

Suthers: It doesn’t have $3 or $4 billion that it can contribute to K-12 funding.

And it would be tough to come up with that kind of money, because in Colorado the legislature can’t raise taxes without voter approval. How much do people hate taxes here? In a budget crunch two years ago, Colorado Springs pulled the plug on a third of its streetlights and stopped mowing the medians, rather than raise taxes. When a $3 billion state tax increase for schools came up last fall, voters shot it down. Suthers, a Republican, says more money doesn’t always mean better education. He points to Wyoming.

Suthers: They were able to double the amount of K-12 funding. And about 10 years out it has not resulted in any improved performance.

School reform advocates say it’s all about how the money gets spent. Michael Rebell directs the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College in New York. He says there’s a long history of parents and school districts suing states for more money. They often win. The results have been mixed.

Michael Rebell: The fact that the money is there doesn’t mean that the educational system will give children opportunities that will make a difference. But without it, I don’t think you’re going to make much progress.

To see what money can do, I visit a new school in Colorado Springs. Christa McAuliffe Elementary was built four years ago with a bond issue. It’s not a rich school. More than half its students qualify for subsidized lunches. But inside, it’s got polished concrete floors straight out of Starbucks. A huge gym. Those things alone don’t help kids learn, but they help attract teachers who do.

Denise Rubio-Gurnett: When I do a teacher posting, you won’t find schools with equal challenges, maybe, that have the same number of applicants.

Principal Denise Rubio-Gurnett says this year, for the first time, every grade level — that is 26 classrooms — improved on a district math test. The kids are still far behind, and it could be a long time before any schools in District 11 get all the resources they need. The state supreme court won’t rule on the funding lawsuit for another year. Then it could be up to taxpayers.

In Colorado Springs, I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace.

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