A large crowd assembled at Paonia Town Hall last Saturday morning for a public meeting on education hosted by Sen. Gail Schwartz and Rep. Millie Hamner, who chairs the House education committee. At the end of the hour-long discussion about education, time was given for opinions on Colorado's new gun safety regulations.
Joining the legislators was Tessa Kirchner, who is with the Student of the Year initiative. She spoke about educational funding and other challenges.
Rep. Hamner has been working on the state budget the last couple of weeks. The proposed balanced state budget from the House prioritizes economic development and job creation, K-12 and higher education, mental health and child welfare. "Colorado's economy is starting to come back," Rep. Hamner said. "It is not where it was before the recession, but this is one of the first years in many years that the legislature has had additional revenue to work with to start to rebuild some of the cuts that have been made in previous years."
This year there is a 6.2 percent increase in the budget which equals $1.2 billion. Colorado's reserve will be increased by 25 percent to build the state's funds for critical services during future hard economic times. Loans are being paid off.
"There were no good choices the last three years," Sen. Schwartz said. "We had to cut one good reasonable need versus another. It's been a very difficult time. Because of some of the federal tax laws, we have looked at a bit of a windfall for some of the state when it comes to capital gains."
The state received approximately $900 million of new revenue. That is a one-time source of revenue.
"The $1 billion we already took out of education, and all the money we took out of higher education, and all the money we took out of our programs, and all the money we took out of our services and the fact that our hardworking state employees, CDOT workers, State Patrol — none of them have seen any increases. So, this year we can play a little bit of catch up," Sen. Schwartz said. "I'm the vice chair of the capital development committee, and fortunately we have been able to address over one-half billion dollars of capital needs, especially when it comes to our higher education campuses."
The state has not built a new building for higher education since 2008. Students pay a fee in their tuition to fund new buildings.
This year some capital improvements and maintenance will be addressed.
Sen. Schwartz is very excited about hemp being a viable crop for Colorado.
Voters will have to approve sales and excise taxes on marijuana use in Colorado. Those taxes are targeted to help rural schools.
Rep. Hamner is putting forth two bills in the House that concern education. The School Finance Bill will give more resources for the next school year. She expects to fund the inflation rate of 1.9 percent and fund new students coming into all of Colorado's schools. "We are also hopeful we'll be able to get bipartisan support for funding that will help off-set some of the school district costs related to special education, English language learners and some other kinds of challenges," Rep. Hamner said.
The second bill she is carrying restructures the entire way schools are funded. The School Finance Act has not been revised for two decades. If the bill is successful in the State Legislature, it will be on the ballot asking voters for a slight increase in the state income tax to fund more money for education.
If voters approve the increase, funding per pupil in Delta County would increase from $6,277 to $7,022. The county would benefit from full day kindergarten for every family that wants it, preschool funding for all at-risk three- and four-year-olds, an additional $451,792 in special education funding and additional resources to support gifted and talented programming.
Rep. Hamner noted that under current funding calculations, wealthier districts receive more funding than smaller, rural schools. "We are hoping with the revision we are better able to fund our smaller schools, better able to fund our at-risk students and our English language learners so there isn't this huge discrepancy in what I call equity."
Tessa Kirchner lives in Eagle County and speaks about education funding. "Over the last few years it has become increasingly important to look at the funding of education," Kirchner said. "We do have a problem."
She shared that Colorado invests $2,500 less per student than the national average. Colorado is in the bottom 10 nationwide regarding student to teacher ratios, technology and achievement gaps. "We are lagging behind in our great state of Colorado," Kirchner said.
Historically, the state was a little above the national average until the Gallagher amendment in 1982 which was followed by the TABOR Act and Amendment 23. From 1991 to 2011, Colorado dropped from 35th in education funding to 49th. Students today must compete internationally, not just statewide or nationally.
Rep. Hamner said common core standards are better for Colorado. The national standard says, for example, that multiplication will be taught in all third grades. But, the local school boards still make decisions on the curriculum and text books used in the classroom.
Sen. Schwartz said that studies have proven that if a child cannot read by the third grade they are not successful in school or in latter life.
Rep. Hamner said studies also show that the earlier there is intervention in the education of at-risk children, the more they succeed.
A citizen said there are great teachers and programs in Colorado, but they need funding.
Regarding teacher accountability, Senate Bill 91 from four years ago sought to elevate teacher performance and accountability. Sen. Schwartz said students must have adequate instruction in the classroom. Colorado has put in place standards to create more accountability for the school systems.
A teacher said that people don't know what teachers are doing in the classroom, and that is leading to misconceptions.
Regarding PERA, the retirement program for teachers, the state put funding into the program to keep it solvent. Recipients gave up part of their retirement to also help make the program solvent.
In response to a citizen's comment that the school districts are under policy set by the federal government, Sen. Schwartz said decisions are made at the state level. "We [legislators] are accountable to the people in Colorado not the federal government."
A citizen criticized the State of Colorado for being opposed to oil and gas development which is causing college graduates to leave the state. Sen. Schwartz responded that the state does understand the need of oil and gas development here. But, she added, the state recognizes that there must be controls in place regarding spills and emissions. The state supports the oil and gas industry operating responsibly.
The rest of the discussion centered on the recent gun safety legislation. Signed into law was a bill prohibiting large-capacity ammunition magazines to 15 rounds, payment of background checks for gun transfers and background checks for gun transfers. Also passed were bills prohibiting online training for concealed handgun permits and prohibition of domestic violence offenders from having firearms.
Rep. Hamner said the bills passed were about public safety.
Sen. Schwartz supports the second amendment, but the bills passed are reasonable limits and do not infringe on the rights of law abiding citizens. The new bills are an effort to keep guns from those who intend to harm the public. She pointed out that the limiting of the rounds of ammunition was due to police reports. For example, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, 11 students escaped while the gunman reloaded his weapon.
Sen. Schwartz also noted that the rate of taxation in Colorado is 49th in the nation. "We are doing a lot with a little," she said.blog comments powered by Disqus