For an early Friday morning at the end of winter break, the conference area was packed at the Morgridge College of Education at the University of Denver. A panel of members of the Legislative Education Committees waited to begin as the room buzzed with New Year greetings from professionals from all realms of education; early childhood advocates to elementary teachers to deans of teacher preparatory programs at state universities. Having attended all of the Early Childhood and School Readiness Interim Committee meetings of 2019 I was surprised that none of its members were in attendance. Their absence leads me to believe that this may be more a sign of what is to come for ECE in 2020 than just an oversight of the invitations sent from Chalkbeat to legislators willing to speak on the fate of education in the state.
The morning kicked off with the news that a new school finance formula would not be proposed this year. Senator Paul Lundeen expressed that Colorado needs a “fundamental shift from supporting institutions to supporting students” for a new formula to be presented to gain support from legislators and voters alike. This sentiment was supported by the other legislative panelists. The looming presence of lack of funding for education was a consistent theme of the morning. The bottom line, schools have lost voter confidence in how they spend money. With little to no accountability, the Department of Education seems to constantly ask for more money.
Senator Nancy Todd expressed her disappointment of the failing of Prop CC that would have given more funds to education. “We kept rearranging the deck chairs” she stated when describing the tinkering with the funding formula; how they would look at moving around money but with no additional funds there was no winning. The fact is education is already in a short fall. Todd, a former educator herself, described the schools difficulties to fund basic operational needs transportation, salaries, retirement programs all the while insisting that this is not a “system versus student” issue. Lundeen echoed what the association has heard many times, that taxpayers don’t trust what the school districts do with funds allocated from the state level. Lundeen believes that in order for the state’s voter perception to change legislators need a new approach to education. We must change the political calculus. State Rep. Colin Larson supported this assertion explaining that he didn’t support Prop CC for the same reasons he believes voters didn’t- a lack of faith in the system. As Larson explained voters (and our members largely included) feel that the Colorado Department of Education squanders money; look at the Read Act and the current formula, “we give more money and we get more excused”. So how do we tackle the fundamental issues? Build a better system and stop trying to redesign a bad one. The formula to date is built to support districts and an outdated platform. We need a system that supports students.
After some heated expression on equity in education and teacher licensure, the conversation finally turned to early childhood education. Larson announced that he will be sponsoring a bill with State Rep. James Coleman supporting early childhood home visits for ongoing absences. Where this is in great spirits lets not forget, as Todd reminded us, “all bills cost something”. In December 2019, the governor released his budget proposal which contained an increase to early childhood of $27.6 million to add 6000 Colorado Preschool Program (CPP) slots, $10 million for preschool facilities, $2.5 million to ECE quality improvements, Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) reform and funding changes, as well as funds for early childhood mental health, early intervention programming, health coverage, and much more impacting not only the early childhood field but the state at large. This is all on top of an ask for $111 million increase to K-12 education and not including the short falls of the launch of full day kindergarten. With a minimum starting price tag of half a million dollars I’m left to ask “where is the money coming from?”.
When the panel was asked directly about the Governor’s budget proposal- specifically if they support the proposal of $27 million in added funds to CPP- the answer seemed a universal no; but that we should support the early childhood field in innovative ways that ensures long term success of our youngest citizens. Todd stated she absolutely supports early childhood education but is leary of where the money comes from for any expansion, especially when we struggle to fund programs already in existence. Lundeen seemed interested in the details of early childhood education access expansion noting the importance of early childhood but cautioned expanding existing state run programs siting the failures of the Read Act. On a lighter note Lundeen said that he likes to see the divine in the details and hopes it might be potentially disruptive to a currently broken education system. Larson and Coleman were more point blank about their thoughts about a CPP expansion. Larson stating the $27.6 million isn’t realistic, however not having the funds for expansion does not diminish the importance of the mission. Coleman, I believe expressed it best.as needing to have the confidence to do what is right but it is not responsible for us to move forward if the funds are not there.
Where the private early childhood sector might think it can breathe easy seeing that legislators realize the lack of fiscal solvency of an expanded state run program, I warn against it. Governor Polis continues to press the issue of universal preschool for all 4 year old in Colorado. The legislators thoughts only support the theories of why Polis would choose to have this program launch to the ballots as a citizens initiative rather than face the facts of finance. I only hope that with ECEA at the table, common sense will be heard when designing this program. That a true mixed delivery system will be embraced, private providers will once again flourish, families will have free choice as to how their child will be educated and all children will be set on course for bright futures.