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Dems, GOP, Go to the Mat 

Teacher salaries, Amendment 23 implementation at stake

click to enlarge Senate Majority Leader Stan Matsunaka
  • Senate Majority Leader Stan Matsunaka

With both parties declaring public education their chief priority for the 2001 legislative session, state Republicans and Democrats are gearing up for a showdown over who decides how the increased funding for K-12 education provided by Amendment 23 will be spent.

Republicans, led by Gov. Owens, are calling for legislation that would require the funds to be spent exclusively on seven specific areas stipulated by the governor early last month.

Owens wants the lion's share spent on reducing class sizes in grades K-3. He initially asked for legislation that would cap class sizes at 17 by the year 2010, but he backed off when observers pointed out that doing so would cost more in classroom additions, new school construction and teacher hirings than the total amount Amendment 23 will provide in funding.

Besides class-size reduction, Owens wants A23 spending limited to textbook purchases, charter schools construction, all-day kindergarten for low-income students and expansion of certain special education programs. His plan also allows for cash bonuses to teachers willing to take jobs in inner-city or rural school districts, and to new teachers in hard-to-fill subjects like math, science and special education.

Owens says that restrictions on A23 funding are needed to prevent the money from being "frittered away" on teacher salaries and administrative costs.

Democrats, led by Senate Majority Leader and Education Committee chair Stan Matsunaka (D-Loveland), say the things Owens wants the money spent on are laudable, but the plan is too restrictive.

"Both parties want higher student achievement, and both want accountability to taxpayers," said Sen. Matsunaka in an interview last week. "The governor wants to accomplish that end by micromanaging public education from the Statehouse, but Democrats think every one of the state's 176 school boards are in a better position than the statehouse to address their local needs."

Matsunaka submitted a bill last week that would allow school boards to decide how A23 funds are spent in their district. Each board, though, will have to submit a 10-year plan for how the money will be used.


The burr in the saddle

Approved by voters last November, Amendment 23 was presented as a way to reverse the 10-year, downward spiral in public education funding that plunged Colorado to near-bottom of the nation in per-pupil spending.

There are two parts to the amendment. One part obligates the state to increase funding at an annual rate of inflation plus one-percent for the next 10 years, and at a rate keeping pace with inflation thereafter.

The State Office of Planning and Budgeting predicts that this portion of the amendment will increase per-pupil funding by approximately $50 per year, which, after 10 years, would restore education funding to late-1980 levels (in inflation-adjusted dollars). The present per-pupil funding rate of $5,175 would rise over that 10-year period to around $8,037 per pupil -- the approximate national average.

"Every school district had to cope with the 10-year funding shortfall the best it could," said Amendment 23 co-author Julie Phillips in an interview. "In our district, we enlarged class sizes and cut art and music programs at the middle school. Other districts froze teacher salaries, postponed technological programs, cut back on special education plans and the like.

"The purpose of the inflation-plus-one-percent part of Amendment 23," said Phillips "is to help schools restore whatever cuts they had to make during those years, and the intent was for school boards to decide how the funds allocated to their districts are spent."

According to fellow Amendment 23 co-author Cary Kennedy, the inflation-plus-one-percent portion of the measure would generate an average of approximately $200 million per year for the next 10 years, depending on what the rate of inflation ends up being.

Amendment 23 also requires the state to channel one-third of 1 percent of the state's annual income tax revenues into a newly created State Education Fund. This fund, says Kennedy, will end up generating an average of around $300 million per year for the next ten years.

Because Amendment 23 language specifically stipulates what the money generated by the Education Fund can be spent on, the present debate is solely over the inflation-plus-one-percent portion of A23 money.

Governor Owens and the Republicans adamantly insist they don't want A23 funds "frittered away" on raising the salaries of already-overpaid, under-worked and under-performing administrators and teachers.

The rationale for the spending restrictions they're calling for is most sharply articulated by conservative radio personality Mike Rosen, a longtime public school critic and outspoken voucher proponent who refers to tax-supported public schools as "government schools."

Rosen asserted in a telephone interview last week that "educrats" -- by which he means "the entire public school establishment from boards of education on down to superintendents, principals, teachers and employees in general" -- "are in the back pocket of the teachers unions.

"The teachers unions," he said, "helped to bankroll the Amendment 23 campaign in hopes of getting taxpayers to fork over more money for pay and benefits to teachers and school employees. If the educrats are allowed to get their way, a good 85 percent of the Amendment 23 windfall will go the same people -- primarily teachers --responsible for the same under-performing education system."

Asked whether his fear is based on any specific school district, school board, superintendent or past incident, Rosen replied: "No, no, this is a matter of principle, pure and simple. School boards are dominated by the teachers unions. If they're given a blank check with no strings attached, they'll make members of the teachers unions -- teachers, in other words -- the primary beneficiaries of A23 largess.

"It's not that I have anything against individual teachers, mind you," he added. "It's more that I hate the teachers unions, and teachers are the constituency of teachers unions."

Phil Fox of CASE (Colorado Association of School Executives) agrees that animosity to teachers unions is at the bottom of Owens' attempt to cut school boards out of the A23 loop.

"Much of Republican animosity to the unions stems from the fact that they almost always endorse and campaign for Democratic candidates," Fox said. "They insist that school boards are at the unions' beck and call. Gov. Owens and the Republicans would starve the teachers just to spite the unions."

Dick Wadham, Governor Owens' press secretary, also defends front-end restrictions on A23 money as a way to prevent a "teacher union grab."

Wadham declined to say whether the governor mistrusts school boards, but he, too, conceded that Owens' position on the issue is not predicated on any past incident or board misbehavior.

Sen. Matsunaka, though, believes the governor's plan stems from a political orientation driven by deep-seated, far-reaching mistrust. "The Republican party is so fractured," he said, "that they don't trust anybody -- not school boards, not teachers, not even parts of their own party. That's why they want to regulate everything with top-down mandates from the Statehouse. The Democrats put their faith in the educational system at the local level. We believe in elected local boards working in concert with parents and teachers to do what's best for their classrooms."

District 20 superintendent Ken Vedra also insisted in an interview that Republican mistrust of school boards has little basis in fact.

"The state constitution requires every district to form a District Accountability Advisory Committee to review and monitor every expenditure and budget decision," he said.

"That committee is made of parents and citizen taxpayers who work in tandem with the board to identify district needs and decide how and where funds should be spent, and they take their responsibility very seriously. It's all part of the District Accountability Law in the School Finance Act. School boards operate with a ton of built-in accountability to parents and taxpayers."

Harlan Else of District 12 said much the same, arguing that "the best accountability is the local people in the local districts who elect the board of education. The people of our district hold us minutely accountable. The state government needs to get out of this issue. I feel very strongly about this."


The salary quandary

Several local superintendents report that raising teacher salaries is indeed one of the top priorities in their district, but for fundamental, nuts-and-bolts reasons of educational improvement, not teachers union agendas.

"We're facing a very serious teacher shortage," said District 11 superintendent Norm Ridder. "Teaching is no longer an attractive profession to college students. They can't support themselves on the typical entry-level salary, especially if they have families. The rampant teacher-bashing we see these days doesn't help either. The pool of teachers today compared to five years ago is like night and day.

"This is proving to be a serious problem because research shows that, next to parental involvement, the biggest factor in student achievement is teacher quality," he added. "The teacher shortage is growing, and it's serious. The competition is fierce to hire the best and brightest teachers, and other states are raising teacher salaries and benefits significantly. If we can't even offer living wages, the best teachers will go elsewhere."

Responding to recent studies projecting that the United States is going to have hire 2 million new teachers in the next decade, states are scrambling to keep abreast of need. Something akin to a bidding war is surfacing in the scramble for advantage.

New York has proposed legislation that subsidizes tuition for college students who commit to teach in New York public schools. California governor Gray Davis has proposed a measure offering $10,000 home-purchase loans to teachers who agree to teach in low-performance schools. Baltimore is offering starting special education teachers the same salaries as teacher with four years experience, and reimbursement for moving expenses. Texas has passed legislation giving new teachers minimum starting salaries of $31,000, plus signing bonuses of up to $10,000 in certain fields.

District 20 superintendent Ken Vedra and District 12 superintendent Harlan Else agreed with Ridder that teacher salaries have to be beefed up, but Nancy Spence (R-Aurora), chair of the House Education Committee, said she fully shares Owens' desire to keep A23 money from being used for teacher salaries.

"I don't believe that teachers salaries have lagged," she said. "Teaching is a neat job. People should go into it prepared to forego higher salaries. I think teachers enter their profession for the same reason doctors and lawyers go into theirs -- for love of it, not for the money they get from it."


Shifting winds

Some influential Republicans are quietly breaking ranks with the governor on this issue.

One is Rep. Keith King (R-Colorado Springs), vice-chair of the House Education Committee, a key player in the state charter school movement, and a former member of the District 12 school board.

"To tell the truth, I was surprised by the governor's plan to restrict A23 expenditures," he said. "It was my understanding when Amendment 23 passed that school boards would decide how funds in their districts would be spent.

"The problem with those restrictions is that there are enormous variables from one school district to the next," said King, who represents portions of District 11, District 2 and District 12 in Colorado Springs. "One size simply doesn't fit all. I'm a little concerned about this tendency to issue broad policy mandates from the Statehouse. School boards, principals and teachers need flexibility to address the problems unique to their schools."

Rep. Richard Decker (R-Fountain) agrees.

"To me, being conservative means being for local control, but I'm finding that's not always the case in my party," he said.

"School boards are closer to the problem than the Statehouse, and we need to let them do their job. I served on the Fountain Town Council for 11 years and on the House Education Committee for a number of years, and I never saw an indication in all that time of school boards failing to do what's best for their schools."

The impending battle over Amendment 23 implementation could prove to be a barometer for how the 63rd General Assembly will shape up. For the first time in 40 years, Democrats hold a majority, albeit a slim one, in the Senate, which creates a significant shift in the balance of power of recent years, when Republicans controlled both sides of the aisle.

"Democrats have far more a voice at the bargaining table this session," said Matsunaka. "We have more leverage, more influence on outcomes. Both parties have declared education their most important issue, and I think Democrats are a little more teacher-friendly than Republicans.

"The governor is going to have to work with us," he added. "He's going to have to compromise. He's already backed off from certain aspects of his educational agenda that he highly cherished, like removal of tenure and letter grades for the School Report Cards. There's no way that would have happened if the Republicans still controlled the Senate."

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