The State of Education: Lessons from Colorado on Education Funding and the Challenges it Faces

When the 2018-2019 school year kicked off in late August, a number of students across the state of Colorado enjoyed a gentler transition from summer freedom to chartered days in classrooms,courtesy of the new four-day school week. The practice of eliminating one day from the traditional five-day school week is an approach that has gained traction across the country, especially in Colorado. This year, the state’s  School District 27J, located just northeast of Denver, announced that it too had adopted the four-day week. District 27J, which served 17,000 students last year and is expected  to serve 18,000 this year, is one of the largest districts in Colorado to implement the measure. Through the adoption of this new policy, the residents of 27J have joined a growing trend occurring in their state and spreading rapidly throughout the country. According to the Colorado Department of Education, 104 school districts across the state have been approved to shift to a four-day school week for the 2018-2019 school year.

A school calendar that makes three-day weekends a weekly occurrence is certainly unconventional, bordering on radical. Although the practice has been approved in more than half of the 178 school districts in the state, it has been criticized enough for the Colorado Department of Education to defend their decision. “The Four-Day School Week Information Manual,” last updated in July 2018, serves as the manifesto justifying the state’s decision.

Drawing on general sentiment, satisfaction surveys, and a 2011 study by CDE researchers that compared test scores between four-day-week and five-day-week schools, the “Four-Day School Week Information Manual” argues that the shorter week is well-liked and no less effective than the traditional schedule. The document reaches the following conclusion: “Among districts which have implemented the concept, the practice of the four-day week is very popular among students, parents, and teachers . . . The opposition seems to come from members of the community not directly associated with the school, and from those who feel that school employees should work a traditional week.”

Source: Getty Images

Source: Getty Images

However, the manual makes a critical concession in the next paragraph. “Even if the primary motivation is financial,” the authors write, “careful attention is usually given to addressing questions and concerns of parents and teachers.” This statement, which comes five pages into the twelve-page document, belatedly acknowledges the primary motivation for the four-day week. School districts implementing this measure — which, as the manual states, “tend to be rural and sparsely populated” — turn to it when faced with financial difficulties. As the manual goes on to report, the four-day week can cut down both transportation and food service costs by 20% apiece. It can also generate savings by reducing utility expenses, as well as the amount of money going to hourly workers.

In District 27J, the arguments put forth in defense of the four-day week echo the financial benefits of the practice. District officials expect to save around $1 million this year, $700,000 of which will come from running fewer school buses alone.

Financial benefits aside, current trends in American education suggest that the shift to a four-day week is a move in the wrong direction. The most progressive schools in the country endeavor to promote academic engagement by increasing contact time between teachers and students, as well as their families. This, for example, is one celebrated aspect of the upstart I Promise school in Ohio, which applies all the best practices across school districts in Akron, in combination with a suite of benefits furnished by the Lebron James Family Foundation. A social justice argument can also be made for students spending more time in school. Data shows that, in more and more households nationwide, both parents work full time. More time in school can relieve some of the pressure on working parents to arrange supervision for their children. Another way of looking at it: schools that run longer can provide structure and stability that may be lacking in a household where the adults are frequently at work.

As evidenced by statements from district officials, Colorado District 27J’s move to a four-day week is, above all, a financial decision. However, the decision-makers argue that the move will not, as one might imagine, hurt the quality of education. Rather, they expect the quality of their programs to improve. But how? They claim that they will do that by enabling district schools to attract and retain talented teachers, who would normally pursue higher pay for the same work in other districts.

The schools of Colorado District 27J are by no means alone in their struggle to provide satisfactory teacher pay; wage stagnation, especially for educators, is a hot-button issue nationwide. Over the past  year, frustration with low teacher pay and general political lethargy resulted in teacher walkouts in Arizona, Kentucky and multiple other states, as well as a flurry of media investigations into the issue. In its September edition, Time magazine shared the stories of thirteen public school teachers from ten different states. The teachers all painted different pictures of financial struggle, largely determined by the state they teach in. Collectively, their stories illustrated that a public school teacher’s salary, at best, fails to provide financial stability. At worst, interviewees reported that they had gone to extreme measures such as skirting medical procedures they could not afford and selling blood plasma to pay for gas.

While the personal accounts featured in Time offer an anecdotal look at the state of teacher pay nationwide, other trends support the consensus among teachers that pay is too low. Teachers are overrepresented in the so-called ‘sharing economy,’ serving as drivers for Uber and Lyft and comprising one-tenth of all Airbnb hosts nationwide. Similarly, American public school teachers are nearly five times more likely than the average working American to hold a part-time job. Despite all of this, teachers are also known to often tap into their own financial reserves to provide for their students. The overwhelming majority of public school teachers - 94 percent - report spending their own money on school supplies for their classrooms. On average, each one spends just shy of $500 per year.

Colorado teachers echo their peers across the country. Writing to The Denver Post, one Colorado public school teacher shared that he has had to work a second job during the summer in every year of his 29-year teaching career in order to pay bills and provide for his family,. Last April, over 6,000 Colorado teachers demonstrated their frustration by rallying outside the state capitol in Denver.

The four-day school week, in theory, presents a solution to the problem of teacher pay - or, at least, to the problem of teacher dissatisfaction. Colorado District 27J, for instance, plans to use the relaxed schedule, which allows far more time for preparing lessons, as a selling point when recruiting teachers.  At the same time, schools on the four-day week provide the same number of instructional hours that students would receive under a traditional school week. (By Colorado law, all schools must meet a minimum number of teacher-pupil instruction hours; schools that meet on fewer days accomplish this by running longer hours on days they do meet.)

The four-day school week may be better for teachers and administrators, but it remains to be seen what long-term consequences it carries for students in terms of academic performance, college admissions, and career prospects. At present, the greatest problem with the four-day school week lies not in the practice itself, but in the problem it represents: the failure to prioritize education funding and address the challenges it faces.

Geographically, Colorado sits almost exactly in the center of the Continental United States. In terms of educational expenditures, as well, it lives in the middle of the pack. The Centennial State ranks 31st among states in average salary for instructional staff ($52,768 in 2017); it comes in slightly higher, at 28th place, in expenditures per student ($11,692). Given its centrality, as well as the increase in media attention thanks to the four-day week phenomenon, Colorado serves as a focal point in the debate over teacher pay and education funding more broadly. At the heart of that debate is an ideological conflict over what takes precedence: the concerns of individual taxpayers or the needs of the institutions that their taxes support.

In Colorado, as in all states, the vast majority of education funding comes from state and local taxes. (The Federal Government provides only seven percent of Colorado’s education budget.) But two pieces of legislation, both woven into Colorado’s constitution, restrict the amount of tax revenue the state’s government can both generate and actually use.

The Taxpayer Bill of Rights (1992) - also known as TABOR - is the first such piece of legislation and the more explicit in its ideological motivations. As its title suggests, TABOR endeavors to put taxpayers in the driver’s seat by setting a cap on the amount of tax revenue the state can spend without explicit taxpayer approval (accorded through voting). That amount is determined by a formula involving a sum of the annual inflation rate and the annual percentage change in the state’s population. All revenue that exceeds the limit dictated by that formula must be refunded to the taxpayers. TABOR effectively shrinks the pool of money the state can tap into to fund its agencies and services, public schools among them. At the same time, a law titled the Gallagher Amendment (1982) limits government revenues from property taxes by regulating property assessment. In doing so, Gallagher shuts down the possibility of using local taxes to compensate for low state funding when it comes to financing schools.

Rigid as these restrictions are, school districts have found at least one way to bolster their budgets. Through something called a mill levy override, districts can raise more money (within limits) from property taxes than the state dictates - money that stays within the community and flows to local schools.

This past summer, I taught middle schoolers in Denver through an organization primarily funded by Denver Public Schools (DPS), thanks to a mill levy override. Generation Teach is a non-profit that works to reverse summer slide for middle-schoolers - mostly students of color and students from low-income families - in Denver, as well as in several locations across the Northeast. Generation Teach also helps DPS face the same challenge that the four-day school week seeks to address: recruiting and retaining quality teachers. The summer academies run by GT work to attract college students like myself to go into education by putting them in the classroom for four to five weeks during the summer. At the same time, the program helps DPS grow talent from within by giving professional teachers the chance to gain leadership experience as teaching coaches and site directors.

Although effective in some instances, the mill levy override does not resolve the larger issues with Colorado’s education funding structure. The mill levy approach fails in that, like state expenditures that exceed the TABOR limit, it requires voter approval. Because the vote occurs at the local level, it is possible to garner the support necessary to carry a mill levy override, as opposed to a measure that asks taxpayers across the whole state to sacrifice a portion of their refund. Even still, some districts fail to raise enthusiasm for an additional tax measure, even one that supports local schools. The result is a state where school systems differ drastically by district, with some running on four-day weeks, and others offering extra programs in the summer.

On the upcoming midterm ballot, Colorado voters will get the chance to weigh in on a measure that would supplement the education budget by imposing a new tax. Amendment 73, as the ballot measure is titled, would raise income taxes for Colorado residents earning more than $150,000 - in essence, targeting the wealthy to subsidize public schools. The proposed amendment, which arrived on the ballot thanks to a petition that won more than 170,000 signatures, is expected to raise over $1.6 billion for K-12 education.

While that figure is certainly promising for Colorado’s public schools, the legislation itself does warrant some skepticism. Amendment 73, if successful, would go directly into the Colorado Constitution, a significant position for such a specific policy. This concern led the editorial board of The Denver Post to publish an op-ed, advising Coloradoans to vote “No” on the measure. “Amendment 73 is a sizeable and complicated tax increase that would be added to the state Constitution,” the authors write, “where it would be difficult to fix should it not work as proponents intend it to.” Former Democratic speaker of the Colorado House, Dickey Lee, and former Boulder County Treasurer Bob Hullinghorst, also co-authored a statement (published in The Denver Post as well) opposing Amendment 73.

For all its practical concerns, Amendment 73 does merit praise in its intention to establish public education as a priority, as something worth paying for.

In their defense of the four-day school week, the authors of the manual assert that “Colorado has a deeply ingrained tradition of local control.” The state of fiscal policy in Colorado testifies to that fact: from TABOR, which puts the government at the behest of taxpayers, to the four-day week itself, which is the accepted consequence of legislation that cuts the state’s budget and forces government agencies to operate at the lowest possible cost to citizens.

For its part, the Federal Government has demonstrated no interest in interfering with Colorado’s tradition of “local control.” Under Betsy DeVos, the Department of Education has turned towards higher education, focusing on amendments to Title IX policy. The Department has only touched K-12 education so far as to advance DeVos’ pet policy - ‘school choice’ - which leans towards the TABOR end of the ideological spectrum in upholding the rights of citizens to see their tax dollars go towards their own best interests.

In a nation predicated on the notion that individuals, regardless of background or identity, can succeed through hard work and self-improvement, educational institutions carry the weight of great expectations. They must aspire to be instruments of the country’s core values: liberty and justice for all. At the same time, they must survive - and thrive - on limited resources, often reduced further by politicians and policies with different priorities. Colorado, in favoring the four-day school week over reworking its legislative objectives, testifies to that fact. But in the Midterms, the state’s prized political body will have the chance to change that. Voters, citizens, and taxpayers, the prime benefactors of the Constitution, will get to choose what they prefer: taxes (for some) or three-day weekends.

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