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Education is hot in the Legislature 

click to enlarge Protesters want more money for education. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Protesters want more money for education.
On April 26 and 27, thousands of teachers from across the state, dressed in red (as part of the #RedForEd campaign), rallied at the state Capitol in Denver to push for increased school funding. So many teachers took the day off to rally that school districts across the state closed on Friday.

It would appear that the rally is meeting some of its stated goals.

On April 30, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the long appropriations act (the state budget), which directed $150 million more to K-12 education above enrollment and inflation. The budget was a win for teachers, and their unions like the Colorado Education Association, which recently elected a new president, Amie Baca-Oehlert, a high school counselor from Adams 12 Five Star Schools.

The CEA website notes that schools are currently underfunded by $822 million. That number is based on voter-approved Amendment 23, which required K-12 funding to increase by inflation plus 1 percent from 2001-2011 and by inflation after that. But in 2009, amid the recession, the Legislature reinterpreted the act so that it didn’t have to spend so much on education. The difference between what would have been spent, and what actually has been, is commonly called “the negative factor” or “the budget stabilization factor.”

CEA asked the Legislature to pay down the factor by at least $150 million this year and pay it off by 2022 and to reduce or freeze corporate tax breaks until funding is restored and per-pupil funding reaches the national average. (According to the Colorado School Finance Project, Colorado was 40th in per-pupil spending in the 2012-13 school year, with state per-pupil spending of $8,893 compared to a national average of $11,001. The numbers do not include local taxes that go to schools.) The union also voiced support for Senate Bill 200 which aims to fix PERA, the state’s underfunded pension system.
Meanwhile, teachers at School District 60 in Pueblo may strike following the board of education’s refusal to grant teachers cost-of-living increases. That, and an expectation that more teachers may take cues from strikes taking place in states across the nation, led Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, to introduce Senate Bill 264 (which he pulled before it headed to a Senate committee hearing). The bill would have made it illegal for teachers to strike. Public school employers could not consent to a strike, striking teachers could not be paid for their time away from the classroom, employers could have sought an injunction to stop a strike and those violating it could face fines and/or jail time and would be fired. A strike would also have nullified collective bargaining agreements with unions.

Gardner says he does not feel it is unfair to prevent a strike, and says state employees are already banned from striking. “What it really is, is a bill that requires them to return to work or terminate their employment,” he says.

Like many Republicans, Gardner also says he does not support paying down the negative factor and thinks the money would be better spent on the state’s pressing transportation needs. With so many underfunded areas, Gardner says education has a big enough piece of the budget pie.

But there’s no doubt that K-12 is hurting in Colorado. Legislators from both parties have pushed a package of six bills aimed at addressing Colorado’s teacher shortage. Among them: a bill offering financial incentives to those who work in rural areas where the crisis is most urgent; and others that offer grants to retain teachers or attract and train new ones.

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