“Mental health, financial stability, support for all students, and a safe school day for everyone.”
This was one Colorado educator’s answer to the question “What would a fully funded education system look like to you?”
She’s not alone in her priorities. In fact, almost every educator who replied to our annual survey mentioned a desperate need for mental health support in our schools.
The need for mental health support in Colorado has never been greater. According to a 2021 study by Colorado Health Institute, one in four Coloradans age 5 and older reported at least eight days of poor mental health in the prior month, a jump from the previous high of 15.3 percent in 2019. Adolescents aged 11 to 18 saw their rate of poor mental health double since 2018, from 8.8 to 18.5 percent. Those are just some of the stats that make Colorado one of the poorest performing states with respect to mental health.
If our schools were equipped with enough mental health professionals, we could turn this trajectory around. Mental health support within schools can have incredibly positive effects for our students — from reduced absenteeism to better mental health outcomes — but these basics can’t be put in place without adequate financial investment.
After yet another tragic school shooting, it’s past time to listen to our educators and our students. We need to do everything we can to make our schools as safe as possible so teachers can teach, students can learn and everyone can go home after school, safe and sound.
Our dedicated educators are unwavering in their commitment to our students’ success, well-being, and potential, no matter their race, gender, or background. Despite all of the challenges and barriers created by a disinvestment in public education, they provide every student with quality learning experiences.
Our schools struggle with teacher shortages and class sizes that are far too large; textbooks and materials are woefully outdated; and in many districts mental health supports are non-existent. Not one Colorado district was fully staffed as the school year began. With fewer educators and counselors in schools, there are more student outbursts and behavior disturbances, which disrupt learning and make schools less safe.
What we’re seeing in 2023 is the inevitable result of decades of underfunding of our education system. This underfunding stands in stark contrast to our state’s overall economy, which consistently ranks as one of the top 10 most robust economies in the nation. For years, the state budget has actually been balanced by “borrowing” from Colorado students, using a loophole called the Budget Stabilization, or B.S., Factor. In fact, since the Great Recession, at least $10 billion has been “borrowed” from the state education budget. Years later, our public education system still has not been repaid.
Coloradans are waking up to the truth: the only way to create the schools we need is to dedicate ourselves to a significant and sustainable long-term investment.
Our vision is a fully-funded and safe public education system in Colorado to ensure a healthy, thriving future for our students, our communities, and our economy.
So what will it take? First, awareness of what stands between us and the schools our students need. TABOR is a singularly unique restrictive tax policy that exists only in Colorado. Enacted in 1992 – when the majority of today’s Coloradans were not yet born or lived elsewhere – TABOR hamstrings our legislators from raising or spending revenue for the public good. This policy has many wide-reaching effects, like a lack of public services, but the neglect of our education system is one of its more dramatic victims.
Even during a year of surplus – like $3 billion in 2022 – that funding cannot be spent on public education.
Our leaders are making some progress. In Gov. Polis’ State of the State speech, he proposed a B.S. Factor buy-down of $120 million, but the final B.S. Factor buy-down will be in the School Finance Act when it’s introduced and debated. The recently passed state’s budget includes an 8.4% increase in per-pupil K-12 spending. This is a good start but the truth is that it barely keeps up with the rate of inflation.
The reality is that TABOR prevents our state lawmakers from raising the funding necessary to achieve Coloradans’ goals. To achieve the future we want, we have to fund it.
Colorado needs a new or increased funding source specifically earmarked for public education and other critical, underfunded services like affordable housing and healthcare. We can no longer allow wealthy individuals and big corporations to shirk their responsibilities through tax loopholes and other maneuvering, especially when the economy that has served them so well requires a well-educated citizenry. An equitable tax structure, where the rich and corporations pay their fair share, will allow our state to fully fund education so our children are prepared to contribute to modern workplaces, compete in the global economy and lead our state in the future.
Every one of us has a role in creating the safe and supportive schools our students, educators, and communities need. Now is the time to demand that our schools have the resources to meet every child’s needs – with well-trained and supported educators – for a safe, sustainable, equitable, and thriving public education system. Our educators’ lives, our students’ lives, and Colorado’s future, depend on it.
Amie Baca-Oehlert, of Thornton, is a high school counselor and president of the Colorado Education Association.
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