Colorado District Leaders Press for More Funding, Power

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 04, 2014 6 min read
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A group of superintendents in Colorado has begun pressing state lawmakers for more state funds to deal with new state mandates and severe budget cuts that have persisted for roughly half a decade. And one of them, former Iowa state superintendent Jason Glass, told me that he and others like him are ready to “counterbalance” the influence in Colorado of advocacy groups including Stand for Children and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

Here’s one key piece of background: Last November, Colorado voters soundly rejected the proposed Amendment 66, an income-tax increase that would have supplied public schools in the state with about $950 million in additional annual revenue. Much of the money would have been directed to low-income and English-language learner students. Proponents of the constitutional amendment also argued that it would help restore arts and physical education programs that had been squashed by the recent economic downturn. But voters were unmoved.

Back to the present day. The Denver Post reported on the superintendents’ push for additional K-12 funding. The proposal calls for an additional $275 million in annual funds in the state budget, on top of the increase proposed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat. (The governor has said he wants a $223-per-pupil increase in K-12 spending for his fiscal 2015 budget, a 3.4-percent increase, but hasn’t put that in terms of a total dollar amount yet.) But the local superintendents say that the $1 billion underfunding of districts in recent years has made the situation urgent for districts.

“A portion of the $275M allocation should be directed to students with significant risks of not making adequate educational progress (for example, English Language Development, poverty, Special Education, or literacy),” the proposal reads. “The total amount of money directed to students at risk and the specific allocation process should be determined through a welcomed dialogue between superintendents, lawmakers and others.”

I called up Glass, the superintendent of the 6,200-student Eagle County Schools, to talk about the letter—Glass is quoted in the Post story, and is someone I interviewed during my reporting on Amendment 66. One superintendent in the Post article called the push an “insurrection,” whereas Glass called it an “insurgency” when he spoke to me, so it’s easy to get the gist of the sentiments here.

It’s more a movement of superintendents who are pushing back against the sort of unfunded mandates, reforms that don’t have any evidence to support them, and then making a major stand around this fiscal issue,” Glass said, citing the state’s new computerized testing requirements linked to the Common Core State Standards as one of the “unfunded mandates.”

Glass said that when they were surveyed about the idea of this funding increase, 90 percent of superintendents who responded said they supported it. (In total, 90 percent of superintendents of the state responded.) But he said that there’s a key difference between the $275 million he and the other superintendents want and Amendment 66—the additional $275 million would come out of existing funds and would not require a tax increase.

“They seem to think what citizens want are state-level, one-size-fits-all solutions for public education,” Douglas Bissonette, another Colorado superintendent, told the Post. “The reality is communities are supporting districts through bond issues and mill-levy overrides because they want local solutions that represent their values and goals.”

But Glass also touched on another issue that I’ve written about a few times recently: tensions between local and state officials. In this case, Glass didn’t just train some argumentative fire on legislators and Hickenlooper. Rather, he pointed the finger at “out of state” advocacy groups using “outside dollars” to create what he called an imbalance of influence in K-12 policy. Which groups did he mean by that? Glass mentioned Stand for Children, StudentsFirst, ALEC, and the Colorado Legacy Foundation.

Part of the superintendents’ push, he said, is to increase the power of local voices in education, including parents and teachers, at a time when the outside groups (in his view) are pressing state lawmakers too far in one direction, while local ideas aren’t “percolating” up to the top levels of Colorado government.

“We’re really trying to change the dynamics of who our elected people are listening to when it comes to education policy,” he said.

I asked him specifically about the Colorado Legacy Foundation, a prominent state-specific group that pushes policies such as higher enrollment in AP classes, and aims to help districts implement new teacher evaluations based in part on student test scores. Glass said that while he and his district have worked with the Legacy Foundation on common-core implementation, he’s grown uncomfortable with the way the group has approached Senate Bill 191, the landmark 2010 state law that dramatically altered how teacher evaluations will work in the state.

“They do a lot of great things for the state,” Glass told me. “But it is that kind of group that I think we want to counterbalance with the voice of people in schools and in communities.”

Of course, part of the mission of groups like StudentsFirst and Stand for Children is to have strong state-level affiliates that can work at the local level, so that they don’t come across like crusading intruders. StudentsFirst in particular, as the newer of the two groups, has fairly quickly expanded the number of states where it has affiliates—check the Twitter handles on the left-hand side of the page at this link.

For a look at Stand for Children’s lobbying and campaign donation history over the last seven years in Colorado, which seems to be entirely from 2012 (the last year there were statewide elections), see this link at the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

And of course, the Legacy Foundation isn’t technically an outsider at all, although it does receive money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as you can see below. (Education Week also receives funding from the Gates foundation, which supports the newspaper’s coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation. The newspaper retains sole editorial control over coverage.)

I contacted the Legacy Foundation for any reaction to Glass’ comments, and if I hear back from the group I’ll update this post. UPDATE: The foundation responded with a statement from its president and CEO, Helayne Jones. She called the group an “independent nonprofit” and also said, “We are proud of our partnership with Eagle County Schools. Eagle County Schools is one of thirteen geographically representative districts in the state selected to participate in (the Colorado Legacy Foundation’s) integration project. The district receives extra support to implement the new Colorado Academic Standards, new assessments, and new principal and teacher evaluations.”

I asked Glass if his position on the benefits of local control has changed since his days of running Iowa schools. He acknowledged that his views have shifted since taking over Eagle County schools, but also argued that the so-called “outside groups” weren’t as active in Iowa as they are in Colorado.

It’s not clear if lawmakers will react with sympathy to this plan, or if they think this plan will be too much of a reprise of Amendment 66, tax increase or no. Remember, Republicans in the legislature have expressed support for some of the ideas that undergirded the amendment, which came from legislation authored by Sen. Mike Johnston, a Democrat.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.