The search goes on for answers to inequality in Colorado's schools 

Greater than, less than

Amendment 66 was more than a tax.

Certainly, the ballot issue that voters soundly rejected in November would have raised nearly $1 billion annually for Colorado's schools. But it was also tied to Senate Bill 213, legislation that — had voters approved 66 — would have completely revamped the way that the state funded schools. One of its main goals: Create greater equity by contributing to schools with the highest-needs kids (and tiny rural districts) at higher rates.

The issue of underfunding in Colorado's schools is hardly new. Back in 2000, voters passed Amendment 23, which required the state to increase education spending by inflation plus 1 percent from 2001 to 2011, and by inflation after that. (It was later "reinterpreted" in a way that reduced those increases.) In 2005, voters passed Referendum C, allowing the state to take a five-year timeout from the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights provision that would have tamped down tax collections. The additional revenue collected was dedicated to K-12 education.

There was even a legal challenge that attracted national attention. Earlier this year, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in the case of Lobato v. the State of Colorado that the state was not required to increase its education funding in order to meet requirements in the Colorado Constitution.

Meanwhile, the problem has endured.

'F' for effort

The 2012 report by the Education Law Center and Rutgers Graduate School of Education, "Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card," explored funding inequality in schools. Analyzing data from 2009, and attempting to account for variable costs in education funding, it made the assumption that funding should increase with student poverty levels — or that funding systems should be "progressive," not "regressive."

The report found Colorado's adjusted per pupil state and local funding to be $8,727, or 35th in the nation. The funding system was found to be regressive — it received a "D" grade — meaning the poorer a child was, the less money went into his education. What's more, by comparing the state's gross domestic product to its spending on eduction, the report found that Colorado wasn't simply too poor to fund education; it just wasn't willing to pay. Colorado got an "F" for effort.

Report co-author David Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center, says via email that the problem in Colorado can be summed up this way: "Heavy reliance on [local] property taxes, with inadequate state aid to support low wealth."

Schools are funded by a combination of local property tax revenue and state "per pupil" funding. Districts can raise additional funds by asking voters for extra dollars through a mill levy override (for operations) or bond election (for capital). Fundraising by communities or private entities, as well as grants, can further subsidize budgets.

Various legal controls on state taxation have degraded local property taxes over the years. That's put more pressure on the state, which has not fully met the need even as thousands of children have moved to Colorado. Additionally, a shifting population has left some districts with fewer children, and thus less state "per pupil" funding. As Great Education Colorado's website notes, "With each less student, the district loses in excess of $6,000, but the district's costs don't decline by that much. For example, a loss of five students will cost a district well over $30,000 — the cost of a district teacher."

Needless to say, districts in wealthier areas are more likely to get mill levy overrides, bonds and additional funds that can help meet the needs of schools. And that's a problem, because education experts agree that it's schools in poorer areas that most need additional resources.

The nonprofit Colorado Children's Campaign's 2013 Kids Count report found that in 2012, "the reading achievement gap between students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and those who were not was 29 percentage points." In math, the 2012 gap was 28 percentage points. Those gaps actually persist across all subjects, at all grade levels, and in all years for which Colorado's standardized test scores are available.

In Colorado Springs, 70 percent of children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch in Harrison School District 2, and more than 54 percent qualify in School District 11.

"Colorado can be a great place to grow up, and a lot of students in this state are doing very well," says Chris Watney, Children's Campaign president and CEO. "The problem is, especially over the last 10 years, the disparities between the kids who are doing well and the kids who aren't is growing."

Even in El Paso County, the numbers can be startling. In Lewis-Palmer District 38, she notes, total state and local per pupil funding is $17,106. In Falcon District 49, it's $8,422.

Bargain hunting

Interestingly, just up the road from Falcon, Peyton School District 23 Superintendent Tim Kistler says he wishes he could provide his students with all the programs that Falcon has. It's not that Peyton is particularly poor, but it is rural and small, which can lead to struggles.

You wouldn't know Peyton has money issues by looking at its schools. Its elementary was built in 1998 and its junior/senior high school, a few years ago. The high school features a stunning gym with cathedral ceilings and a sprawling mezzanine workout area. Both schools were built with bond money approved by local voters.

But day-to-day operations can be a struggle. Because it's rural, Peyton School District must pay for things that most other districts would never consider, including digging wells for its water and managing its own wastewater treatment plant. And because the district is tiny — it counts its kids in the hundreds — it gets less support from the state than a larger district.

That means getting creative. The district has been on a four-day week for decades to save money. It has an IT worker who builds all its computers from cheap and free parts. A full-time bus mechanic works out of a garage in the administration building, fixing buses that must travel the 122 square miles of the district along washboard roads.

Lower funding also means it's unlikely that modular classrooms used at both the elementary and high school are going anywhere anytime soon. Kistler must also make use of the old K-12 school — a 1950s cinder-block structure that was added on to decade after decade. Kids still practice sports in the old school gym, and Kistler hopes to open the rest of the building soon for extracurricular activities, alternative programs and even office space for local companies.

He'll have to do a little work first — aging cabinets and counter tops need rehab, ceiling tiles sag, and old doors are bubbled from the effects of weather. The place is also packed full of stuff.

"I don't want to say that I'm a hoarder," Kistler says, smiling under his big mustache, "but I don't want to throw this stuff away and have to buy it again."

Kistler prides himself in getting equipment and furniture free or at a low cost. He's stored desks from a closed Blockbuster, and shelves that were discarded by Northrop Grumman Corporation. One room in the old school is full of stadium lights that he and a troop of parents salvaged from a Salida school that was updating. They hope to install them in their own field.

A lot of the stuff Kistler's gathered is already in use, like the weight equipment he bought at a bargain from a closing gym in Denver, and the cushy chairs he scored at an auction.

"Our teachers have been very good about not needing brand-new," he says. But secondhand shopping can only take you so far. So we asked Sen. Michael Johnston, the guy behind Amendment 66, to talk about inequality in our schools and what it means for our future; here are some excerpts from that interview.

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, is in his second term at the Colorado Senate, where he chairs the Finance Committee and is vice chair of the Education Committee.

Johnston co-sponsored 2010's Senate Bill 191, which changes the way teachers are evaluated, linking student achievement to performance reviews. He also co-sponsored this year's Senate Bill 213, the companion legislation to the failed Amendment 66. Together, the bill and legislation would have raised nearly $1 billion a year for K-12 education and completely reformed education funding in the state.

The 39-year-old Johnston grew up in Eagle County, where he attended a small school run by his godfather. Both his mother and grandmother were teachers; his grandfather was a principal. Johnston received his undergraduate and law school degrees at Yale University and a master's degree in education policy and school leadership from Harvard University.

Early in his career, he taught for the Teach for America program in a Mississippi high school. He later returned to Colorado, where he was the principal at three schools, including two alternative schools. Johnston also served as an education policy adviser to President Barack Obama's campaign and founded a nonprofit to train urban principals.

He and his wife, Courtney, Denver's deputy district attorney, have twin 5-year-old boys and a 2-year-old girl.

Indy: How did your own experiences as a teacher and principal in underprivileged environments influence your thinking?

Michael Johnston: I think everything I care about and am involved in [regarding] policy now were a direct result of the experiences I had being a teacher and principal. ...

I started work in Mississippi, and I'd come home to Colorado to see family and they'd say, "Oh, you teach in Mississippi. It must be crazy there; they must have ridiculous inequality. It must be such a terrible place for low-income kids and kids of color. It must be like living in the 18th century."

... [But] if you were a 5-, 6-, 7-, or 8-year-old child of color, and you wanted the simple dream of [graduating] from college, if you wanted to know what state in the country gave you the worst chance of ever graduating from college, that's not Mississippi. It's not Arkansas. It's not Alabama. That state is Colorado. Colorado has the highest college achievement gap of any state in the country. [Editor's note: A September 2013 analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data by I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS found that the gap in college graduation rates between blacks and whites in Colorado — indeed once the largest in the nation — had narrowed slightly, pushing Colorado from No. 1 to No. 3.]

So it was those kinds of things that ... made me inspired to come home, and inspired to try to help where I thought I could make the biggest difference. And for a while that was in alternative schools that served kids that were in state custody. ... And then I ran a school for a while in the national juvenile jail in south Denver called the [Marvin W. Foote Youth Services Center]. ...

From there I had this great offer to take over a high school in Mapleton, so I spent the last four years as a principal there.

Indy: What was that school like?

MJ: It was an amazing opportunity. We had this amazing superintendent Charlotte Ciancio, who won Colorado Superintendent of the Year [in 2012 by the Colorado Association of School Executives], and is still superintendent in Mapleton. ...

She took the one comprehensive high school that we had in the district, and one of the lowest-performing high schools in the state, and said we wanted to phase this high school out, and close it, and start three or four new small high schools ... so I had the chance to hire a new team of teachers and start one of those.

We were actually a middle and a high school, so grades 7-12. It's called MESA, which stands for Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts ... [W]e used art as a strategy to try to engage kids in school who aren't normally engaged in school.

Indy: When you were doing this, what did you notice as far as inequality?

MJ: There are so many dramatic inequalities that we saw. One was just the access to high-quality instruction and the amount of time that kids have access to that. So whether it's early childhood education or full-day kindergarten, or whether its high-quality after school programs, or whether it's summer programs ...

We were really lucky because we got a grant from the [Bill & Melinda] Gates Foundation to help do things. Like, we had slightly longer school days and school years, we got great professional development for our staff in the summer so they could all learn the same curriculum and instructional strategies. We would take our students on what's called field work, which is a chance to get out of the classroom and go to try to learn from the application of ideas.

So when we're studying the Harlem Renaissance, to go down to Five Points [a historically black Denver neighborhood], visit with jazz musicians, or to visit the Black American West Museum, or to talk to people about political and social activism in Denver in the 1910s and '20s. Those are things that were made possible for us in the early years by the grants, and then the grants run out and you've got to find ways. And what we found out was, we had to start cutting back on more and more things that made the school unique.

Indy: You were a champion for both SB191, which changed the ways teachers were evaluated to put more pressure on them, as well as Amendment 66, which would have created more funding for schools. That's interesting because often it seems like people line up on one side or the other — that teachers are to blame for underachievement, or that money is to blame.

MJ: It's absolutely both. We need to make the system more accountable, more transparent, but we also need to make sure we provide the resources for it to do the work we're asking it to do. We're asking teachers and principals to do a lot right now in terms of new assessments, new evaluations, and new standards. ...

You look at any organization in the country, if it were going to change the metric for every way that it does business ... you'd probably say we should put some resources into professional development and training and support and making sure our folks have the resources they need.

Indy: What do you think the root causes of inequality in education are?

MJ: ... I don't think that was the goal when they were passed — and by "they," I mean [the Taxpayers Bill of Rights] and [the] Gallagher [Amendment] — but they have dramatically expanded inequality.

A quick example ... is that about 25 years ago, when we passed the last School Finance Act, every community paid the same property tax. So if you lived in Aspen or you lived in Aurora, you paid 40 mills on your property tax. But then what happened under Gallagher is ... the residential and commercial property tax rates have to stay in balance at 45-55. And then TABOR said you can't have any tax increase without a vote of the people.

So what happened is, if you had a $200,000 home in Aspen 30 years ago and you were paying 40 [mills] property tax [to schools], if your house increased in value, now went up to $250,000, TABOR considered that to be a tax increase because now you were paying more taxes on that house because it is worth more. So what TABOR forced you to do is, if your property value went up, they had drop your tax rate down to offset it. What happened was, in the wealthiest parts of this state, where the properties rose the fastest, the [base local] tax rates dropped the fastest.

So the universe we're in now is, you take the poorest districts in the state ... [they] are still paying [about 40 mills]. Places like Aspen ... right now pay [4.412 mills] in property tax.

So what you have is, you're saying these poor communities don't want to tax themselves more. They're already paying out the — shoot, seven, eight times more property taxes then the wealthiest neighborhoods are, in terms of the percentage of their income. And then they're oftentimes adding more and more mills after that.

But the problem is ... if you add three new mills in Rocky Ford, it only adds [approximately $92,000] total. If you add [one] new mill in Aspen, it generates [$2.5 million] total ...

So it's not just that there's a deep inequality in what they pay and a deep inequality in what they get, [but] even a deep inequality in what they can get even if they're willing to tax themselves into infinity.

Indy: How big of a factor is poverty, and are we doing what we need to do to address it?

MJ: It's one of the central factors, and we know it has a deep and persistent impact on student performance, poverty does. And we are doing some things to try and impact it. We have some dollars we allocate to kids in poverty, but not nearly enough.

As an example, in the old formula — before we passed Senate Bill 213, which Amendment 66 [would have enacted] — in the old formula we put statewide about [$319.8 million, in dollars not adjusted for Amendment 23] into funding children living in poverty. It's what we would call the "at-risk factor" or the "at-risk rate." Then we have another variable in the formula that is a cost-of-living adjustment, which is an increase we give to districts where it's expensive for teachers and principals to live, which disproportionately are more affluent districts. We spend about [$948 million in pre-adjusted dollars] on the cost-of-living adjustment. You look at the disparity — that factor that's targeted at the highest-need districts is [one-third] the size of that variable targeted at the better-off districts.

Indy: Why do kids that live in poverty require more resources?

MJ: It's just a matter of what those children walk in the door with. Even when you have kids walk into kindergarten for the first time, there's already a two- or three-year achievement gap when kids walk into kindergarten. And that's because you look at the size of the vocabulary that they have, or the number of words that they've been exposed to. ...

If you have a couple of parents that are working two or three jobs, or a single parent working two or three jobs, there's just less time and attention.

Indy: What can be done with more money to fix that?

MJ: Well, a big part of what can be done, as we know, is to extend school days and school years. If we can offer more quality programming to kids after school, you dramatically close those achievement gaps. And if you do more early childhood education.

So Amendment 66 would have provided more early childhood education to every 3- and 4-year-old who we knew was likely to enter kindergarten not yet ready. And it would provide full-day kindergarten to every child in the state. Those things alone would help close the achievement gap by almost three years before kids entered the first grade for the first time.

Indy: Did you make compromises in Amendment 66?

MJ: We did. We were quite conservative still in our estimates. You probably remember there were lawsuits last year — the Lobato [v. State of Colorado] lawsuit — that the advocates for that believed that Colorado was about [$4] billion below what it should invest every year in K-12. That seemed like an unrealistically high number. So we tried to look at what are the most high-priority things that we think we could make a targeted investment in that would make a big difference. So we did have to prioritize, and we did have to leave some things off.

I mean, even under the Amendment 66 proposal, we're still massively underfunding special education costs for districts. We're still not providing full-day early childhood education, we're doing half-day. We're targeting about half the districts in the state that would want to do extended school days and school years. So there's always the need to do more. We thought the first step was to make an investment that we thought we could make a big impact, and then [voters] could decide if they thought that was enough or not.

Indy: Will you propose anything next session?

MJ: That's why we're spending a lot of time sitting with other legislators and teachers and principals and with superintendents and with the governor's office, trying to figure out what's possible.

Indy: Is this a dangerous issue politically? Back when Referendum C passed, that had bipartisan support. But Amendment 66 was sort of demonized by many conservatives. So is this a nonstarter, something that will just come up as a negative in your next campaign?

MJ: There is certainly a political cost to people who took these risks ... I think the political winds have shifted. There are a lot of Republicans at the State House now that are there because they ran a primary against the Republican who was in there who voted for Ref C.

So there were some leaders like Bill Owens, and other Republican leaders, who endorsed Ref C because they thought it was the right thing to do. And now you see fewer and fewer folks on the Republican side that are willing to touch anything that involves a new investment.

So yeah, it's harder to build coalitions now then it was during Ref C, I think. But you know, you can't give up on it. We've just got to figure out if there's another way to look at that, that can get more broad support.

I think there's a lot of things we ran into. But I never found someone, even the most virulent opponents, who said, "No, we think full-day kindergarten is a bad idea," or, "We think taxpayer transparency is a bad idea" ... They liked all the policies. They just don't like the tax bill.


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