School funding push a ‘success’ in the end

The Colorado Statesman

After months of wrangling over a spending package for K-12 education, all sides of the debate came together for a signing ceremony on Wednesday in which stakeholders were able to put the contentious legislative session aside to bask in the reflected glory of dramatically increased education funds.

Gov. John Hickenlooper joined lawmakers, lobbyists, school leaders and teachers at Ponderosa Elementary in Aurora where students watched the governor sign two education spending bills.

The hard-fought Student Success Act will buy-down the negative factor by $110 million, an issue that was the most divisive part of the funding debate. The measure also sets aside $53 million for school construction, including $13 million for charter schools. It also boosts funding for literacy by $20 million and earmarks $3 million for financial reporting so that taxpayers can see how education dollars are being spent.

The annual School Finance Act was also signed into law, as a group of students huddled behind the governor with smiles on their faces and excitement in their cheers. The measure adds funding for preschool and kindergarten and boosts programs for English language learners by $27.5 million.

Gov. Hickenlooper was surrounded by legislators and students at Ponderosa Elementary School in Aurora on Wednesday where he signed two bills that will significantly increase funding for K-12 education in Colorado.
Photo by Peter Marcus/The Colorado Statesman

The two bills combined increase K-12 funding by nearly $500 million, marking a record increase after years and years of budget cuts due to the economic downturn. School funding is facing an estimated $1 billion in cuts from previous years. Per-pupil funding is expected to finally grow in the upcoming fiscal year by nearly $400, offering a bit of relief.

But getting to the bill signing was nothing short of a marathon. Dozens and dozens of lobbyists roamed the halls of the Capitol this year pushing for lawmakers to do even more. School boards and teachers had called for more funding to erase the negative factor, but lawmakers only had so much to work with.

“These legislators here worked long, long hours on this bill, and this is one of the most important bills we do every year is to figure exactly how we get the financing right. How can we squeeze a little more… blood out of a turnip,” Hickenlooper explained to an attentive group of elementary students gathered in the school’s gymnasium.

“We’re trying to make sure that each one of you guys gets every single advantage, every single chance, because your success is the future of our state,” added the governor.

Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, understands all too well the impact decreased education funding can have on students and the state as a whole. She spent a long career in education, serving as the superintendent of the Summit School District and as a teacher.

As chair of the House Education Committee, Hamner sponsored the two funding mechanisms aimed at finally rolling back some of the bitter cuts faced in recent years.

“As you start your next school year, we’ll be able to stop the cutting and the letting teachers go and the cutting of programs that are sometimes your very favorite programs that you as children enjoy,” Hamner addressed the audience.

Another key player was Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, who has also spent a long career in education, serving as both a teacher and as a principal. He helped write the Student Success Act and led many of the stakeholder meetings.

“Thank you so much for being a reminder as to why we do all of the hard work that we do,” he told the students. “We’re very excited to put something back in of what we’ve had to cut with the hopes we’ll be able to put more and more in the years to come to give you all the resources you need to be successful.”

Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, a member of the Joint Budget Committee, pointed out that education is the most expensive aspect of government that the state funds. But he said it is completely worth it for the longevity of the state.

“School finance is one of the most important things the legislature in the state of Colorado does for the people in our state to provide funding for your public schools,” he said.

Rep. John Buckner, D-Aurora, who co-sponsored the School Finance Act and is a former principal, acknowledged the bumpy road taken to the signing ceremony.

“They all had different points of view about how to get there,” explained Buckner. “Well, now that we’ve gotten there, everyone is happy. We did the best we could to cause you to be in a better position than you were last year.”

To be continued…

But not everyone is as happy as lawmakers would like to believe. School teachers, executives and administrators are relieved that they were able to add additional funding and make a dent in the negative factor, but they had hoped for much, much more.

In fact, when they started the discussion, lawmakers were only willing to add $80 million to buy down the negative factor. Education lobbyists had to strike quickly and aggressively to force legislators to consider spending additional resources.

Looking up at the Ponderosa Elementary school mantra hanging in the gym, Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, pointed to the appropriateness.

“It always feels impossible until it’s done,” the mantra read.

“That’s how I’m feeling,” sighed Urschel.

“We’re happy for this year,” she conceded. “The most important thing is that the 100-member body began to acknowledge that there is a negative factor and be willing to talk about it. They’re off to a good start at being able to do something about it. That was the victory.”

But Urschel said the fight is expected to resume next legislative session, as lawmakers will be asked to come up with additional dollars for schools.

“We have a resolution that over the next five years to buy it down immediately…” she explained. “So we will be back next year with that as our top priority.”

The Colorado Education Association, which represents teachers, echoed similar thoughts on the funding bills. CEA President Kerrie Dallman said the legislature took a good first step, but that it has much work ahead.

“This is a good initial step forward to restoring the $1 billion in cuts over the last four years, but we still have a long way to go to make sure that we’re adequately preparing and supporting our children in Colorado,” said Dallman.

She believes that had education leaders not taken a tough stance with lawmakers, the legislature probably would not have voluntarily invested as much in Colorado’s students.

“We moved from buying down the negative factor from $80 million to $110 million. So, we definitely made progress, and I think it was absolutely necessary to engage in those negotiations,” opined Dallman. “We ended up in a better place for our kids across Colorado.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com