Volunteer lobbyists aim to teach legislators

The Colorado Statesman

Clad in bright, lime-green T-shirts, some 200 volunteers fanned out across the Capitol on Wednesday to deliver a message to lawmakers: Don’t adjourn without a plan to fix how Colorado funds education.

The 2013: Year of the Student Project, organized by school-funding advocacy group Great Education Colorado, recruited parents, students, teachers and business owners to distribute packets that included the plea backed by a petition and letters inquiring about legislators’ positions on school funding.

“It’s time to let folks in the legislature know that it’s time to support education, that we’ve put education on the back burner too long, and the public is willing to support them if they’re going to make the hard decisions,” said Great Education Colorado board member Vicki Mattox, pausing for a moment in a third-floor committee room as supporters munched bagels and tried to determine the locations of lawmakers.

Kate and Zoe Pettersen pause after delivering a petition on Jan. 30 to state Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, asking that lawmakers figure out how to adequately fund education in Colorado. — Story and additional photos on page 14.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

The organization isn’t backing any specific legislation yet, she said, but instead wants a commitment from the legislature that addressing persistent school-funding shortfalls — estimated at $1 billion in K-12 funding this year — will be a top priority.

Year of Student volunteers prepare to fan out across the State Capitol on Jan. 30 to make their case that legislators should fix school funding before they adjourn this year.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“We saw the real support for education come through this year when we saw the massive amounts of mill levy overrides and bond issues that passed locally,” Mattox said, pointing to November election results. “What we saw was a real grassroots effort in those local communities because people finally realized how far things have been cut.”

Year of Student volunteers fill a third-floor committee room at the State Capitol on Jan. 30 as they prepare to deliver packets to lawmakers.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

The coalition counts some 150 organizations — including supporting resolutions from 30 school boards across the state — in its corner and has gathered 8,600 signatures on its petition.

Liane Morrison, Great Education Colorado’s executive director, said the message to legislators cuts two ways: it’s a call to action and a guarantee that the public stands behind bold measures.

Boulder Valley Board of Education member Jennie Belval and political activist Angie Layton of Louisville discuss education funding with state Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, on Wednesday at the State Capitol.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“We really want to communicate that, not only do we have high expectations, but we want to support our elected officials who do this. When they step out to lead on this, we have their back,” she said. “We know it’s a very deep hole, it’s not going to be done all at once. But to really, seriously address the various measures to start to pull us up, to walk us up the ladder.”

Even as legislators consider how to allocate expected revenue increases — the House and Senate education committees convened jointly on Wednesday to discuss options for K-12 and higher education budgets — the Year of the Student supporters are urging lawmakers to aim high.

“After four years of cuts in both higher ed and K-12, we feel like the state is in a place where we can start looking to improve the situation,” Morrison said. “In addition, the vast majority of mill and bond elections in the fall were passed, the TBD process that the governor sponsored came out with education as a top priority — all of this is pointing in the same direction: it’s really time to dig out. With the economy slowly — granted, it’s slow — with the economy slowly reviving, the state’s looking at a little shoring up of revenues, we can take our eyes off the very narrow path we’ve been on and be expansive about, where do we want to go and what do we want the state to look like.”

The effort comes amid what could be a massive overhaul of the way the state allocates school funding, led by state Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, with an anticipated fall ballot measure asking voters whether to increase taxes by $1 billion to pay for education.

State Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, Johnston’s cohort putting together the plan and the chief sponsor of a failed 2011 school-funding initiative, said Wednesday to expect a draft proposal in a couple weeks.

“We’re going to make sure we have all the accountability in it, and we’re going to ask the citizens of our state to fund our schools,” Heath said, adding that supporters are assembling a bipartisan coalition to back the measure. “Certainly the business community seems to be fully behind it,” he said. “We passed 35 out of 38 school bonds across the state, which basically says, if you make the case, citizens are going to fund schools. We need to make the case, and we think we have a case that we can make.”

Mattox said the legislature should chart a course toward restoring funding “to what’s adequate, to make sure every child achieves,” invoking freighted word at the center of a lawsuit challenging whether Colorado is providing adequate funding for education, as the state constitution requires. The so-called Lobato lawsuit is under appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court with oral arguments scheduled to start on Mach 7.

“Legislators could free up more funds besides what may come from an improved economy,” she said, and then threw out possible revenue sources available to lawmakers. “What are the kinds of things we exempt from the sales tax? What we want them to do is take a look at those and not just say ‘our hands are tied.’”

It’s not like the state has all the time in the world to figure things out, Mattox added.

“Kids don’t get do-overs,” she said. “You’re only a first-grader once. You only get to meet that third-grade benchmark once. We need to start at it now, but we all realize that we may not get there next year. But we’ve got to make that down-payment and at least get start-ed now, because we’re going to have kids who’ve spent their whole academic life in an underfunded system.”

Kate Pettersen and her daughter Zoe, a fifth-grader in the Denver Public Schools, handed a packet to state Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, along with a first-hand account of the difference that school funding makes. The Pettersens moved to Denver about a year and a half ago from a well-funded district in Michigan and, she said, “noticed a difference in the ability of the school district to deliver a 21st Century education.”

Zoe’s elementary school employs a part-time music teacher in a school of 500 students, so students get just one music class a week. In addition, Pettersen said, parents fundraise and pay for teachers underwriting “a significant chunk” of the cost of a gifted-and-talented teacher and a humanities teacher.

“I’d like to see a comprehensive look at the state of funding in the state of Colorado. Ask what is an adequate education,” she said. “I see a real lack of co-curricular activities, particularly at the middle school, because that’s where that drop-out process begins. We need to ask, is fine arts education important, how important is foreign languages, cultural literacy, technology to our public education, and are we providing those things as a state. How do we compare to other states in resourcing kids with learning disabilities?”

After receiving her Year of the Student packet, state Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, a member of the Senate Education Committee, said she wasn’t sure that more money for schools was the answer.

“Right now, the biggest problem I see is we have all these kids who have invested in an education and they get out and there’s no job,” Marble said. “We need to look at our business community and the high regulatory climate in the state of Colorado, and we’re not serving them well if they get out and they can’t get a job.”

She lamented that Colorado already spends billions of dollars on education funding and yet still has a weak economy.

“All I’m looking for is, where’s the results? ‘We need money, we need money,’ and yet, where are the results? We spend so much money on education, and where are the results? That’s where I’m focused,” she said. “What I’m looking at in education is success. We may be successful at graduating them, but how are we going to be successful at placing students in jobs if we keep regulating and over-regulating businesses? We’re lying to our kids about education if we can’t guarantee them a job.”

One of the volunteers who talked with Marble, one-time legislative candidate Angie Layton, said that the lawmaker had it backwards.

“Education is the foundation of small businesses. Developing our education system is the best fuel for our small businesses. We’re hoping that she will support this effort to create more education opportunities for our young people so they can create small businesses,” Layton said. “People who are smart and have degrees and credentials create jobs. Education creates jobs — it’s an absolute fact.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com