Despite a booming economy, Colorado's school funding lags well below national average
DENVER – As hundreds of educators from across the state plan to walkout Monday to fight for increased school funding and teacher pay at the state capitol, data shows that despite Colorado's booming economy, our public schools are still struggling.
Colorado's economy is red hot. The unemployment rate is just 3 percent. New skyscrapers and apartments are going up everywhere as more and more people throw cash at downtown bars and restaurants, but no one invited Colorado's public schools to the party.
The National Education Association's (NEA) annual report found Colorado ranks 46th in the country for teacher pay, with an average annual salary of $46,155; seven-thousand below the national average. Wyoming teachers, which ranks 16th for teacher pay, earned an average annual salary of $58,140.
Colorado public schools are serving more students
Colorado's rapid growth has also resulted in more students in the classroom. The Colorado School Finance Report found public schools added 9,000 new students in the last two years, which should mean increased funding, but not in Colorado.
The latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, Education Week; Quality Counts, and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) show Colorado ranks 42nd in how much it spends per student, roughly $2,500 less than the national average.
Which means despite being the nation's 12th richest state, our public schools land at the bottom of the list for both per pupil spending and teacher pay.
"The starting salary in some districts is $29,000. We have educators paying 80 percent of their take home pay just on basic housing costs, student loans, buying food for the table. That is not okay," said Kerrie Dallman, a high school teacher and president of Colorado’s state teacher's union.
Teachers are fighting for increased pay, funding nationwide
As a result of what Colorado and other states are experiencing, teacher pay has become one of the biggest issues in 2018. Teachers and unions from West Virginia and Oklahoma are rallying. Some have even gone on strike to get their message out, and won historic raises and increased funding.
"Our spirits are buoyed by what West Virginia, Oklahoma has (sic) accomplished thus far," Dallman said. "It's time to step up for Colorado's kids and their educators."
Dallman said the lack of school funding has left some teachers with few options and many are having to work multiple jobs just to pay their bills.
She also said some districts, especially in rural communities, are being forced to teach with decades-old textbooks and use outdated technology, while other services like mental health are left unstaffed.
"This is really about ensuring our students have the best teachers in front of them. This is about ensuring that there are mental health services throughout the district to support kids," Dallman said.
What about all the time they get off?
Other views are critical of increasing school funding and teacher pay. They point to the fact teachers have summer and holidays off. Most teachers in Colorado have their annual pay distributed over a 12-month period, but are still only paid for the days they work.
There are also those who argue teachers have PERA, the public employee retirement account, but that fund is also short about $32 billion.
Others view the teacher's unions as getting in the way of progress.
Dallman points to the data and believes until Colorado's teacher pay and school funding is competitive and in line with the national average, the students are the ones who are losing.
"We have to increase investment in our schools across this state or the educator shortage that we see right now will only grow, and that will harm our students," she said.
Colorado policies impacting school funding
At the center of the issue are two Colorado policies that school funding advocates say have negatively impacted lawmakers and school district's abilities to increase school funding.
"It is frustrating. We have one of the best economies in the nation yet our schools are so underfunded here in Colorado," Susan Meek, with Great Education Colorado, said.
TABOR or the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 1992, takes away state lawmaker's power to increase taxes without a vote of the people.
Some argue TABOR is the reason Colorado's economy is booming, but Meek said it has crippled school funding.
"Colorado's the only state in the nation where our lawmakers cannot set tax policy," she said. "I would say we're at a crisis point right now in Colorado when it comes to teacher pay and school funding."
Then there's the Gallagher Amendment, also approved by voters nearly three decades ago. This puts a cap on property tax revenue which limits how much money school districts can raise locally.
"As our communities are struggling with less local revenue coming in, it adds a huge burden to the state budget so the state tries to backfill," Meek said.
As a result, some local school districts have successfully passed mill levy increases while Meek said others have fallen further behind.
"What you're seeing are these growing inequities across the state depending on whether that local community has the wealth and ability to pass a local election," she said.
School advocates like Meek point to initiative 93, a state ballot measure, voters will likely be asked to vote on this November, as the necessary solution. The initiative would increase school funding by $1.6 billion in Colorado.
"It is absolutely time to say, 'we need to take a stand. We need to make sure we are paying our teachers a livable wage. We are funding our schools so they can deliver on the education they need to deliver on.'"
Teachers want state lawmakers to act now
Dallman also said there is money in the state's budget this year to invest in Colorado's public schools and plan to demand lawmakers take action on Monday.
She explained public schools are currently underfunded by $830 million. Teachers are asking lawmakers to buy down that number, and take care of what's called the "negative factor."
"We want to see the legislature buy down the negative factor by at least $150 million this year and pay that negative factor off by 2020," Dallman said. "We also want the legislature to freeze corporate tax breaks until such time that the negative factor is paid off and we are funding our schools at the national average."