Education A Top Priority As Colorado Legislature Meets

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Colorado lawmakers opened the 2022 legislative session by pledging to invest more in education and create more opportunities for students in the state after two years of pandemic setbacks. Legislative leaders say there may even be a way to fully fund K-12 schools for the first time since the Great Recession.

Democrats touted their record – making kindergarten free for families and paving the way for a universal kindergarten – and thanked educators for their work throughout two severely disrupted school years. Republicans, however, have said four years of one-party rule in Colorado has failed students and families who have been left to fend for themselves during distance learning. They asked for more money for schools and for parents to have more power in education.

Colorado is inundated with cash this year thanks to both federal relief and a better-than-expected economic recovery, even as an increase in COVID cases linked to the omicron variant presents new challenges for schools already struggling with staff shortages, student mental health issues, and uneven learning. At higher education institutions, enrollment has plummeted, especially at two-year colleges, straining school finances, while state funding has not kept pace with inflation .

Opening speeches and competing agendas have set up an election year in which Republicans will attempt to argue to voters that Democrats have failed to deliver on important promises and that they should have a chance to take the lead. to be able to.

Colorado House Speaker Alec Garnett, a Democrat from Denver, said the investments over the years have helped create a framework that will allow the Coloradans to successfully weather the pandemic. He highlighted his party’s investment in the state’s universal preschool initiative and proposed record spending this year on education.

“We’re going to save money on child care by expanding the Universal Kindergarten,” Garnett said.

Garnett also praised educators for their work during the pandemic, especially as more teachers are considering leaving the profession due to fatigue from the pandemic.

“I want to take a moment to recognize the dedication of every educator in the state who went out of their way to ensure our students can continue their education despite the turmoil,” Garnett said. “Recognizing their heroic efforts and sacrifices, I swear to fight tooth and nail to ensure that we do not divert a single penny from public education.

House Minority Leader Representative Hugh McKean, a Republican from Loveland, instead focused on the difficulty of distance learning for families. He called for more choice for parents and said students should have a plethora of options to move from school to careers.

“Colorado students were already behind in reading comprehension, math and science. And now we are finding that we have lost even more ground, ”he said. “We need better options when it comes to educating our children. “

Minority Parliamentary Leader Hugh McKean, front, and Speaker of the House Alec Garnett set out competing visions in their opening remarks.
AAron Ontiveroz / The Denver Post

In the Senate, President Leroy Garcia, a Democrat from Pueblo, has placed education among the core issues that Colorado families discuss around the dinner table.

“We will invest in our most important resource, our children, to make sure they have the education, training and support they need for a bright future,” he said.

Senatorial Minority Leader Chris Holbert has pitted the heated national education debates over critical race theory and policing in schools with a much more fundamental challenge, which less than half of Colorado students can read at school level.

“Do you want them to read Ibram X. Kendi?” Awesome, “he said.” Maybe I would like them to read John Locke. But, as of today, the problem looming is that many students cannot read.

The Republican legislative agenda includes proposals to force districts to publish parenting programs and educational materials, allow parents to convert a struggling school into a charter, and allow people to use accounts tax exempt to repay student loans.

But the centerpiece of their education program is a proposal to eliminate what’s known as the Fiscal Stabilizer Factor, the money Colorado withholds from K-12 education despite constitutional requirements every year to pay. for other budgetary priorities.

The $ 40 billion budget proposed by Democratic Governor Jared Polis calls for record spending of $ 6.6 billion on education and the smallest holdback the state has seen in 13 years. It is still $ 422 million that schools should receive but will not receive.

Education groups more generally aligned with Democratic lawmakers, particularly the Colorado Education Association, the state teachers’ union, and organizations representing districts and school boards, arrive on Capitol Hill each year with a priority. absolute increase in funding and reduce the fiscal stabilization factor. With Colorado’s fiscal restraints, Democratic and Republican lawmakers didn’t see this as realistic.

Could this year be different?

State Senator Bob Rankin, a Republican from Carbondale who sits on the Joint Budget Committee, believes it is possible and sustainable. Enrollment is down, so there are fewer students to pay and districts are collecting more property taxes, thanks to the rise in home values, the repeal of the Gallagher Amendment and changes in policy tax imposed by Democrats last year.

But the Republican proposal is paired with a plan to give money directly to parents to spend on their children’s education, an idea Democrats and teachers’ unions have repeatedly shut down.

Democrats say they’re also working on a plan to get rid of the fiscal stabilization factor – and welcome Republicans’ support for the effort, as long as public money doesn’t flow into private hands.

“It’s good to know that there is a bipartisan consensus on full funding for Kindergarten to Grade 12,” said State Senator Chris Hansen, a Democrat from Denver who sits on the Joint Budget Committee. “We’re looking at a number of different ways to do this. There is a way. It requires careful conversations.

Polis’ budget includes big demands, such as $ 500 million to consolidate unemployment insurance, which would make it more difficult to invest more in education, and even within education there are trade-offs between increasing district base budgets and the state’s ability to spend more on certain groups, like special education students, Hansen said.

House Education Committee chair Barbara McLachlan, a Democrat of Durango and retired teacher, said she plans to introduce a bill every year to fully fund schools until that happens. produce.

“We need to stop spending money on everything except education,” she said. “If someone owed me money since 2008, I’d be pretty pissed off too.”

Comments from Democratic leaders made it clear that they would focus heavily on rolling out the state’s universal preschool program, a key part of Polis’ education platform.

Colorado will begin offering a free universal preschool to families starting in fall 2023. The program will be funded by the proceeds of the passage of a nicotine tax that went into effect last year. The program will provide at least 10 hours of preschool instruction per week, with some children receiving additional hours and services according to their needs.

State leaders have established an early childhood office to oversee the new program, but there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure a successful launch. Polis’s budget plans to spend an additional $ 13 million to help prepare.

State Senator Janet Buckner, a Democrat from Aurora, said during a legislative preview in Chalkbeat Colorado on Tuesday that the state was overcoming many hurdles to ensure the successful completion of the upstart agenda.

“Some of these ideas might take a few years for suppliers to hit the bar, because it’s a high bar,” she said. “So we’re very realistic about it. It will not happen overnight.

The first bills introduced by Democratic leaders in the Senate and House included several education priorities. Senate Leaders Seek To Improve Access To Higher Education For Youth In Foster Care, Improve Kindergarten To Grade 12 Reading Results And Allow Community Colleges To Offer Bachelor Of Science Degrees nurses. House leaders also plan to expand access to affordable child care, connect high school students to more career opportunities, increase student vocational training and create a new tax credit. for early childhood educators.

While contrasting speeches have shown the divide in how Democrats and Republicans perceive in recent years, there should be agreement on some education issues this year.

Lawmakers leading the Interim Legislative Committee on School Funding plan to introduce bills that would increase funding for special education and change the way K-12 schools calculate students and families facing challenges financial. Lawmakers from both aisles have expressed early support.

The state also plans to use billions of federal stimulus money in the event of a pandemic, and at least some of that will go towards workforce development and skills training. A new report released earlier this week is expected to find consensus on retraining the adults hardest hit by the pandemic.

Democratic leaders, in particular, hope the report will make the investments needed to help Colorado businesses and colleges and universities connect students to meaningful careers. And job training has been an issue widely supported by Republicans.

Watch Chalkbeat Colorado’s 2022 Legislative Snapshot.

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