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Colorado’s schools shouldn’t be some of the nation’s poorest in this wealthy state

By Rob Stein, Roaring Fork Schools Superintendent, and Rhonda Tatham, Roaring Fork Community Education Association President

School finance needs and is finally getting a serious look in this legislative session. The recent forecasts by the governor’s office and the Colorado Legislative Council project a significant revenue increase of over $500 million more over the next two years than previously expected. This unexpected budget surplus presents the first real opportunity in recent history for Colorado to prioritize education by increasing funding for our schools. We hope you will join the statewide coalition of parents, educators, and education leaders in calling on lawmakers to ensure Colorado’s financial growth is used to invest in the state's future through increased funding for education.

As readers know, the Roaring Fork Schools, along with every school district in the state, are committed to providing a world-class education for our children. However, we are being asked to do it with fewer resources than other states, and with fewer resources than a few years ago. Colorado currently ranks 42nd in the nation in per pupil spending. And, the per pupil spending gap between Colorado and the national average has been growing since the early 90’s from less than $500 per student to $2,700 per pupil in 2013

This dire funding situation forces Colorado schools to make choices about what to fund and what not to fund. These choices require sacrifices and make it hard for our state to keep up with other states in terms of educational achievement and, ultimately, long-term student success. In the Roaring Fork Schools, our teacher salaries are not competitive, and some critical services and programs are limited or not available to our students.

The nation’s teacher shortage is exacerbated in Colorado because of inadequate teacher salaries. Although teachers are continually being asked to do more, the average Colorado teacher’s salary is $7,000 below the national average. Adjusted for cost of living, Colorado’s average teacher salary ranks 44th--behind both West Virginia, where teachers recently went on strike over salary and benefits, and Oklahoma, where teachers are threatening to strike if their salaries are not increased by early April.

Colorado’s average teacher salary is particularly challenging for our staff when you consider that U.S. News and World Report ranks Colorado the 8th most expensive state to live in. In the Roaring Fork Valley especially, the costs of living, particularly housing and health insurance, are rising far faster than wages, making it increasingly difficult for teachers to stay in the profession. Looming increases in contributions to PERA, the state retirement association, which have already increased 76% over the past decade, could cost teachers another 5% of their total paychecks in the near future. This is going to make it harder and harder to retain and recruit teachers and other talent for our schools.

The education funding situation in Colorado also makes it difficult for schools to provide a full scope of services and programs to meet student needs. In light of recent concerns about school safety, there are differing approaches to addressing the problem; however, everyone agrees on the need to provide more mental health services for our students. More than 15% of Colorado children have some form of mental health issue, and, alarmingly, one out of five children in Colorado has considered suicide. Schools are under increasing moral and political pressure to provide more mental health support for our students, but the funding isn’t following.

One of the most frequent requests the district receives from parents is to adequately fund favorite programs such as the arts, STEM labs, and athletics. While our district, thanks to generous local support, has been able to preserve these programs, many districts in the state have been forced to cut programs such as the arts and physical education altogether. Roaring Fork Schools cut athletic and other programs after the 2008 recession and, due to state funding cuts, have still not been able to restore programs to pre-recession levels.

Colorado is severely underfunding special education services. The federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) requires that states provide special education services, but funding only covers somewhere between 16% and 33% of the cost of providing them. Only two states (Arizona and Oklahoma) spend less than Colorado for students with special needs. State and federal funds for students with disabilities are falling behind the increasing special education costs, leading school districts to put more and more of their general funds towards those services.

Colorado is a relatively wealthy state, ranking 14th in the nation in terms of per capita personal income. So, regardless of what is said about the importance of education in Colorado, our budget and national ranking in education funding show that education is not currently a priority in Colorado. Colorado’s strong economic growth should benefit all families and communities. Certainly all students--even those in Colorado schools--deserve the opportunity to thrive and reach their full potential. Fortunately, as the state expects a budget surplus, lawmakers have an opportunity to take steps toward relieving some of the financial shortages in our schools.

To help ensure this happens, legislators need to hear from voters now about the importance of funding our schools. There is always more need than resources, but we need to prioritize our children’s future and remind lawmakers that kids matter too. Please check out the Kids Matter Too website (kidsmattertoo.org) to connect with other Colorado students, parents, and teachers and join in the cause.

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