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Carman: Colorado has run out of excuses for its decades-long failure to support education

The kids are heading back to school across Colorado, some with bulletproof backpacks along with their No. 2 pencils and spiral notebooks, and once again we face the challenge of educating children on a shoestring.

Colorado has a long history of starving schools. Since voters passed the TABOR amendment in 1992, per-pupil spending for K-12 education in the state has dropped to an embarrassing level that is more than $2,500 below the national average, leaving the state ranked a dismal 42nd in the nation.

Diane Carman

This is the case despite the fact that Colorado ranks 12th in the nation in terms of household incomes.

We’d rather buy our kids iPhones and smart speakers than a decent education.

Now, in case you’ve conveniently bought into the fantasy that money doesn’t matter when it comes to schools, several new studies have been released recently to demonstrate that, yes, in fact you do get what you pay for when it comes to education. 

Let’s start with Wisconsin, which went through a dark period of tax cutting that dramatically reduced state funds for K-12 education. A study compared student achievement in districts that passed referenda to add about 5 percent more to their school budgets to those that didn’t.

The results were dramatic.

The additional money, which was spent primarily on teacher salaries, hiring more experienced teachers and reducing student-to-staff ratios, resulted in a 25 percent reduction in dropout rates, a 30 percent increase in test scores and a 15 percent increase in enrollment in post-secondary education.

OK, so maybe Wisconsin is an aberration. Let’s look at the research from Texas.

A complicated formula for school funding there provides more money for some school districts and less for others based on enough factors to confuse anybody.

The districts getting the extra cash, which amounted to about 10 percent more money in their budgets compared to other districts, resulted in higher reading and math scores on standardized tests, lower dropout rates, higher graduation rates and higher rates of students enrolling in college.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Additional studies, one of school spending in California and another comparing patterns in seven other states, confirm the relationship between per-pupil spending and student achievement, with particularly strong evidence that it improves outcomes among students from low-income families.

The research also consistently shows that paying teachers a living wage — maybe even something close to a competitive salary — results in better outcomes.

Here, recent figures showed average starting salaries for teachers in Colorado are around $33,500, well below the national average of $39,250. The average salary overall for teachers in Colorado is $46,155, which ranks 46th in the country and is $7,000 below the national average.

Other benefits, including pensions, have declined as well. 

It explains a lot.

It’s why the Colorado Department of Education considers the teacher shortage a “crisis” and why districts are forced to hire people without teaching certificates just to have a warm body in the classroom. It’s why districts across the state can’t afford to keep schools open five days a week. 

It’s why teachers can’t afford 95 percent of the housing across the state and why they can’t afford to send their own kids to college.

It’s why teachers end up working second jobs selling cars or delivering pizzas just to pay off their student loans. Then they show up in classrooms exhausted.

I know facts no longer matter to a lot of people, but for those who did learn the concept of cause and effect, the findings are indisputable.

This year, Colorado decided to invest in free full-day kindergarten across the state. That suggests a small crack in the political resistance to supporting public education.

It signals an opportunity.

Several proposals are being floated to clean up the mess of overlapping and conflicting tax policies that have been codified in the state’s constitution. It won’t be easy. There’s no quick fix. 

But the kids going back to school right now have every right to expect us to follow the rules posted on the walls of elementary classrooms everywhere. 

Show respect for everyone. Be all you can be. Dream big. Do your best. Take responsibility for what you’ve done.

No excuses.

Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.


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