School districts face cuts

As the legislature meets to balance next year’s budget, nearly $350 million in additional cuts to our children’s education are being proposed. Considering that we spend approximately $6,500 annually to educate a child in Colorado and $30,000 to incarcerate a person, these cuts call for careful reflection. In a fundamental sense the citizens of Colorado should recognize that there is a cost to democracy, a productive workforce and the development of the human race. We can invest now in prevention, intervention and education, or we can pay for it later in crime, unemployment and increased poverty.
Colorado is one of the wealthiest states and yet is at the bottom in terms of our commitment to funding education. Gallagher and Tabor have both further constrained our state revenues. Coloradans pay among the lowest property taxes in the nation. Colorado also has the fastest growing rate of childhood poverty in the nation. Economic shortfalls mean that there is less to work with and the long-term consequences of cutting and eliminating programs and services become the next generation’s problem. It is important that we invest in our young people and educational opportunities that promote growth personally, economically and politically, not just today but in the long run.
Budget challenges also provide an occasion to re-evaluate our priorities. After looking at the education budget there are a few budget cuts I’d like to propose:
In the past decade more emphasis has been placed on online education as a viable alternative to neighborhood schools. However, according to the Colorado Department of Education’s annual online report, the average graduation rate for online schools for 2008-09 was less than half of the statewide average figure (only 34.9 percent vs. 74.6 percent) and the dropout rate was nearly four times that of the statewide average (12.3 percent vs. 3.6 percent). District online programs are funded at $6,228 per pupil. The 3,321 students that withdrew from the online programs represented 20 million dollars paid to those online providers.
The one-size-fits-all model of schooling is long outmoded and perhaps we should consider diversifying and opening the doors to innovation by making every school a charter school. But school districts should have both the responsibility and authority over their own budgets and that includes the decision-making that affects those budgets. Public schools are doing too much accounting and reporting and charter schools aren’t doing enough. Charter schools are funded at basically the same level as public schools but with only a fraction of the mandates. Charter schools aren’t even required to hire licensed and trained educators. Eliminating the Charter School Institute, CSI, would save the state a couple million annually, reconcile the two-tiered system of accountability and ensure that public dollars are accompanied with public oversight.
For the past three years, Representative Judy Solano (Thornton) has carried a bill to reduce CSAP testing. Colorado is one of a handful of states that exceeds the federal mandates for testing. Bringing Colorado into minimum compliance with No Child Left Behind testing requirements would save the state approximately $6 million annually. Yet the state school board not only opposed these reductions in testing but this past summer voted to further expand CSAP testing. After 10 years and billions of dollars with more damage than benefit, perhaps it’s time to eliminate CSAP all together. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, NAEP, is the national test that has been providing state data comparisons since 1991. Teacher assessments are given every day and are more relevant and accurate indicators of how are children are progressing throughout the year.
At the same time class sizes are growing, so is the Colorado Department of Education, CDE. As if districts don’t have enough to do, CDE is on the third rewrite of state standards. Plans are already underway to rewrite and rename the state assessment. Never mind that districts don’t have the money to keep realigning text books with the new standards and the next test. We need to take a look at the return we’re getting on our tax dollars. Instead of the “school view” showing how many points our schools scored according to the CDE points system, parents are looking for small classes; music, art, and PE; foreign language; extracurricular activities, technology, field experience and respectful school cultures.
At the same time districts are faced with massive cuts the bureaucracies continue to grow, including school administration, the state school board, the Colorado Department of Education and the the U.S. Dept. of Education. All this talk of reforming education has only led to closing schools, firing teachers and increasing class sizes. Kids deserve our investment and our future demands it but we also need to take a hard look at where the money is going and who really is benefiting.

Angela Engel is the author of the book, Seeds of Tomorrow; Solutions for Improving our Children’s Education and the director of Uniting4Kids a new national non-profit promoting quality neighborhood schools through parent, teacher and student leadership.