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Funding Unlikely for Colorado Reform Goals

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A task force in Colorado has recommended a set of sweeping new school reforms ranging from statewide student-testing programs to new approaches to training school administrators.

But lawmakers and educators, noting the current atmosphere of fiscal restraint in the state, say that the more expensive changes called for in the plan are unlikely to be funded any time soon.

"What the legislature says is that schools are going to have to prioritize," said Ray Kilmer, Colorado's acting commissioner of education. "Schools are going to have to emphasize those things that prove most important."

In its "2+2 Project Report 1987," released this month, a task force composed of business leaders, educators, representatives of teachers' unions, and parents calls for a program of periodic student testing in traditional subject areas as well as in critical thinking, physical fitness, and writing.

The group, whose composition was determined by the legislature, also recommended:

Licensing tests for prospective teachers and administrators.

Improved training programs for administrators.

Programs to provide beginning teachers with mentors and recognition for teachers who excel.

New dropout-prevention programs involving parents, school staff members, and community resources.

Special programs for gifted and talented students in every district.

The report draws on the results of 120 research projects launched around the state as part of Colorado's Education Quality Act of 1985.

In an unusual approach, lawmakers voted to finance the projects by reducing state aid to local schools by $3.70 per student. That yielded $2 million a year for two years--a formula that gave rise to the name ''2+2."

State officials said they chose to let the results of their own research dictate the shape of education reform in Colorado, rather than try to legislate ideas "that were doomed to fail in the context of Colorado's decentralized system."

But the final recommendations come at a time when state revenue has declined as a result of depressed agricultural land values and widespread unemployment caused by falling energy prices. In addition, public dissatisfaction over widely disparate property-tax rates has forced lawmakers to look for ways to change the state's school-finance laws. (See Education Week, March 4, 1987.)

Economic Reality

Highlighting the mood of fiscal restraint in the state, the Colorado Board of Education on Sept. 13 announced its intention to deny approval for extra property-tax increases requested by school districts. Under state law, districts that plan to spend beyond their legislatively approved limits must apply to the state board for permission to raise property taxes.

In announcing that controversial decision, state-board members said they were protesting the "inadequate" level of education funding approved by lawmakers earlier this year.

The legislature voted in June to boost aid to schools this year by nearly 6 percent above the previous level, but state officials said the measure amounted to a real increase of less than 2 percent for most districts.

"What's happening in this state is the financial noose is being tightened just a little tighter around the school districts," said Gordon Heaton, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union.

Mr. Heaton and lawmakers interviewed last week said they were not optimistic that the task force's proposed reforms--particularly some of the more expensive recommendations, such as statewide student tests--would be enacted during the next legislative session, which begins in January.

"I think it's ludicrous to come up with all these ideas and not have any money to pay for them," Mr. Heaton added.

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