Legislature: Schools lose millions in a decade of funding cuts


By Representative McLachlan
Special to the SUN
More than ever, I am hearing about the struggles with Colorado’s school funding formula. Educators want a livable wage, administrators want more safety precautions and students want smaller classes with more personal connections.
During the week, I listened to a large group of Colorado Youth Conference students who spent their day discussing public school funding, options and concerns; their questions were intelligent and on point. I also spoke at length with a gifted student from Air Academy High in Colorado Springs who shadowed me during Gifted and Talented Day at the Capitol.
Last week, I met with southwest Colorado educators who shared their stories with me of low pay coupled with high expectations. I didn’t just listen, I heard.
Finally, I had breakfast with members of the Aspen Institute’s Education and Society’s Senior Congressional Education Program, an education think tank representing the U.S. House and Senate Education Committees, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Colorado Legislature and Gov. Jared Polis’ office.
I have received many passionate emails, most boiling down to “do something.” Coloradans are concerned we’re not putting enough resources into our classrooms to give every student the opportunity to succeed and prosper.
One thing we all agreed on: There is no one single answer to the question about equitable school finance in Colorado.
The system is complicated. Funding from local, state and federal sources is awarded to schools based on the number of students at each school during a certain week of October every year. More funding is allocated for special needs and at-risk children, rural districts, multi-district online and extended high school funding.
For the past three years, a bipartisan interim committee has met to figure out how to change the state’s funding formula to make sure every student has opportunity, teachers are paid and equity is maintained.
Though committee members came closer than ever this year to figuring out what can be done, we are not there yet. We created a framework that puts students first, but lawmakers will have to iron out the details before moving forward.
Here are some of the challenges making it difficult to invest more in our schools:
• The Colorado constitution says we must have a balanced budget. We cannot spend more on education if the money isn’t there.
• Our state’s unique budget laws mean the Legislature is further limited in what we can do to put more funding into K-12 education. As a local control state, the Legislature can budget money for education, but school boards decide how it will be spent.
• During the last budget crisis, Colorado implemented the Negative Factor, renamed the Budget Stabilization Factor. The state essentially borrowed money from education to pay the bills for the rest of the state. The Legislature now decides how much it can spend on school finance, then adjusts the Negative Factor to meet that funding target.
• Colorado borrowed about $822 million in 2010-2011. The Legislature pays some of it off every year, and is prohibited by law from letting it grow again. We currently owe public schools $572.4 million.
• The factors have left Colorado 42nd in the nation in school funding, and teacher pay ranks last in the country for competitive wages, about $2,700 below the national average.
• What does this mean for District 59? After a decade of the K-12 funding cuts between 2009-2019, these districts have lost millions of dollars in revenue: Archuleta, $13,136,344; Bayfield, $11,974,882; Durango, $42,989,755; Gunnison, $16,049,490; Ignacio, $7,709,879; Lake City, $1,616,978; Ouray, $3,012,402; Ridgway, $4,043,159; and Silverton, $1,269,458.
It’s easy to understand the anger and frustration of our educators and students. Solutions are not simple. If we add more to the education budget, or other critical priorities such as transportation, where do we find it? Cuts to health care, such as stripping Coloradans off Medicaid, aren’t acceptable.
At the Legislature, we are looking closely at every dollar, trying to find as much as we can to pay off the Budget Stabilization Factor, one of the most effective and equitable means of putting more dollars directly into classrooms.
In 2019, the Legislature passed my bipartisan bill to buy down the Stabilization Factor by $100 million. This was a significant step forward, but we’re not there yet. I’m hopeful we can continue the progress we’ve made.