National, local officials go back to school

Learn about lack of school funding in Colorado
The Colorado Statesman

Education was in the spotlight in Colorado this week, as local politicians and school leaders joined with federal education and health officials on Monday to tout the state’s progress. The event at Denver’s Lowry Elementary came just prior to a Great Education Colorado luncheon on Wednesday when elected officials were told to do more to raise money for education reform in the state.

The event on Monday was part of the U.S. Department of Education’s annual back-to-school bus tour, which included U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, as well as Democratic U.S. Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet of Colorado and Gov. John Hickenlooper. The bus tour also included a stop in Limon.

Lowry was highlighted mostly for its work improving healthy school lunches and increasing exercise during the school day. The elementary school has developed a “Garden to Cafeteria” program, in which the school grows its own vegetables at the school and then supplies the cafeteria with the produce.

“If kids are healthy, they can be better students,” Sebelius praised the Denver Public Schools program. “They can focus on learning because they’re not suffering from hunger pangs.”

Following a tour of the school’s cafeteria — in which the high-profile politicos actually sampled some of the fare, including Bennet, who is the former superintendent of Denver Public Schools — they headed outside the building to investigate the elementary school’s fitness program. What ensued was an awkward yet hilarious demonstration of the school’s so-called “Cupid Shuffle,” or a line dance used as a warm-up for gym class. All the politicos participated — as best they could — along with Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

“I went home and showed my daughter, and… I’m used to the big eye rolls, but this one was just a look like, ‘No,’” Boasberg joked on Wednesday when he explained showing his daughter the line dance. “I need to work on my ‘Cupid Shuffle.’”

“They actually made me dance,” added Duncan following the dance spectacle.

The education secretary did, however, take a serious moment when he applauded Denver Public Schools for its efforts at school reform and school turnaround. The district has emerged as a national leader with its Denver Plan, which places an emphasis on student progress through early intervention, teacher effectiveness and holding schools accountable, while also offering choice through charters and non-profits that operate schools within the DPS system.

“As Denver moves, as Colorado moves, so moves the country,” Duncan said in remarks to reporters. “The national spotlight has been here and will continue to be here… The courage, tenacity and spirit of reform here has been remarkable.”

Boasberg on Wednesday took a moment to bask in the secretary’s praise, stating, “We’ve been a real leader nationally in a number of areas… it was nice when they say these guys are really the leaders nationally.”

More to be done

But the uplifting messaging and accolades on Monday were shadowed by a desperate cry for school funding in Colorado, highlighted at the Great Education Colorado luncheon just two days later at the Denver Athletic Club. The fundraiser honored State Board of Education member Elaine Gantz Berman for her service to education.

During the event, Hickenlooper acknowledged the funding cuts over the last several years, pointing out that schools have had to find ways to do more with less.

“I don’t think there’s a school anywhere in the state that hasn’t ratcheted down and looked for just about every efficiency they can find,” the governor addressed the crowd of education supporters.

The state was able to avoid cuts to K-12 education this fiscal year thanks to a rosier budget picture. But Hickenlooper said school leaders should take a moment to re-evaluate as funding is restored.

“In that growth and expansion, it’s a wonderful time, as we begin to restore funding, to figure out what worked and what didn’t work,” said Hickenlooper.

The governor has been criticized at times for a perceived lack of commitment to education. He never publicly endorsed a ballot question in 2011 that voters rejected, which would have temporarily raised taxes for education. And he has been critical of a Denver District Court decision last year — known as the Lobato case — that found that the state’s school finance system violates constitutional funding guarantees and is being underfunded by estimates of more than $4 billion per year. Hickenlooper is apprehensive because he doesn’t know how the state can come up with the shortfall.

Education stalwart Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver — who was not at the Great Education Colorado event — has said that he plans on introducing legislation next year that would address the fallout from the Lobato case, as well as overall school funding issues. He has not released details of that proposal yet.

Douglas County 9th grader Hayley Stromberg, founder of the Douglas County Kid Campaign, placed the burden of school funding on the legislature, imploring lawmakers to find solutions and agreement on raising public funding for schools.

“What can the legislature do?” Stromberg asked the audience. “Well, you can do the same thing my parents and teachers have told me to do when I’ve got a tough assignment to figure out. They can take responsibility, be a problem solver, think outside the box, ask lots of questions, listen carefully, don’t make excuses, and most important, don’t give up just because something is hard, especially if it’s the right thing to do.”

Her comments came as part of an effort by Great Education Colorado to make 2013 the “Year of the Student,” which is a lobbying effort to encourage the legislature to create and find funding for P-20 education.

When asked by The Colorado Statesman, lawmakers who attended the luncheon responded following Stromberg’s remarks, but none seemed to have concrete proposals.

Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, said she might introduce a bipartisan resolution calling for a solution to the school funding problem, but she doesn’t have specific plans yet. She is also frustrated by per pupil spending in Colorado, which ranks one of the lowest in the nation.

But Guzman said that while the legislature should work to find solutions, the issue is with the community as a whole.

“The community at large buckled when they didn’t support the amendment… which would have brought more funding… So I don’t think you can just place it on us,” said Guzman. “But I do think that we need to be bold and hold strong to a certain commitment about increasing those goals.”

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, who spearheaded the 2011 ballot initiative, said he is not giving up on building a coalition of supporters for a tax increase in the name of education. Heath said he hopes to one day have the governor’s support.

“What we didn’t have with [Proposition] 103 was a broad coalition, and what I’m trying to do is to make sure we have it,” said Heath. “We’ve got to get everyone behind it.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com