Public Education Advocate to Lawmakers: Enact Reform with Resources

This guest commentary completes our series of politicos, former lawmakers, issues groups and others looking forward to the 2008 state legislative session.

Click the image at left as a link to the OpEds posted thus far.

Today, Lisa Weil, policy director of Great Education Colorado, shares her perspective.With expectations for public schools growing and the 2008 legislative session looming, the stage is set for the most extensive debate on education policy that Colorado has seen for many years.  Already on the Legislature’s radar: early childhood education, teacher recruitment and retention, technology, graduation requirements, school governance, and Colorado’s crumbling K-12 infrastructure.

In light of the woefully under-resourced and, too often, underperforming schools that Colorado students attend, meaningful debate and action can’t come soon enough. Colorado’s kids deserve better.

But if legislators want to have significant and lasting impact on student achievement, they are going to have to break with an age-old political tradition — making reforms without providing the necessary resources. (You may be familiar with Colorado’s most recent experiment in unfunded educational mandates: CSAPs and standards-based education.) 

There is reason for optimism. For instance, Gov. Bill Ritter has proposed an increase in preschool slots and full-day kindergarten funding — critical investments in his mission to cut the dropout rate in half. Rather than saddling local districts with that mandate, he has made room in a tight budget for moderate but steady increases over the next few years.

Likewise, State Treasurer Cary Kennedy and House Speaker Andrew Romanoff have unveiled a proposal to reverse decades of state neglect that have resulted in deteriorating conditions in public school buildings throughout the state. Their B.E.S.T. plan (Building Excellent Schools Today) will use existing state resources to invest more than $500 million into K-12 school construction and repair over the next few years. Although the backlog of capital construction needs is estimated at $5.7 billion to 10 billion, this plan will improve the lives and education of tens of thousands of Colorado kids, and create a mechanism for investing more, should Colorado choose to further prioritize the health and safety of children.

On the other hand, it appears likely that the Legislature will also consider proposals that would impose new requirements on cash-strapped districts, without providing additional resources. Take, for instance, the proposal for statewide graduation requirements, including four years of math and science. Will the Legislature consider whether districts throughout the state would be able to provide mandated coursework, when they can’t afford to hire and retain enough qualified teachers or to provide distance learning technology? Without additional resources, many districts will find it impossible to comply at all, much less without slashing other programs and services to find the funding.

Other proposals — such as those to require English proficiency tests, promote performance pay systems, or to grant certain schools freedom from district and contract rules — would also require increased funding to be successful. In short, unless the issue of resources is acknowledged head-on, Colorado’s kids will be shortchanged and reform efforts will be stymied.

Does this mean that legislators should not consider reforms until Colorado has escaped its budget straitjacket? 

To the contrary — they should consider change and be honest about the cost. Colorado’s children would be best served if state leaders thought more broadly — outside the box of TABOR limits and budget constraints (as the governor’s P-20 Council has been asked to do). They should envision and debate the flagship education system that would prepare Colorado kids for the 21st century, and make our state the most competitive in the nation. They should reach beyond “flavor of the month” reforms and design a system for 21st century schools that is not bound by Colorado’s 20th century budget constraints.

And rather than imposing those reforms without resources, state leaders could instead present that new vision to those who hold the purse strings in Colorado — the voters. That would give us a simple — and honest — choice: invest in the future, or accept the status quo.

State leaders have their own choice for the 2008 session — business as usual or a new day for Colorado’s schools. 

Lisa Weil is the policy director of Great Education Colorado, a statewide, nonpartisan, grassroots organization of parents and other public school supporters that advocates for improved, wise investment in public education in Colorado.