Why Colorado's different

Colorado teachers rallying at the Capitol will need voters’ help to make a big change

When thousands of Colorado teachers rally at the state Capitol Thursday and Friday, it will be an unprecedented show of force that takes two-thirds of the state’s K-12 students out of school for a day.

Red-shirted teachers are calling for more funding for education, better pay for teachers, and secure retirement benefits. But they face a challenge that educators in other states do not. Colorado voters, traditionally resistant to tax increases, hold the keys to significant new revenue for schools. To make any real progress, teachers will need to convince not just lawmakers but the broader public that education deserves more investment. The test will come in November, when a $1.6 billion tax increase could appear on the ballot.

“People are a little bit nervous,” said Hayley Breden, who teaches government at South High School in Denver. “What if there isn’t success? What if it takes a long time? But that feeling is pretty minimal compared to this feeling of inspiration from other states.”

Riding energy from a national wave of teacher activism and long-simmering frustrations with education funding levels, teachers flooded school offices with requests to take off Thursday or Friday. District after district had to cancel classes – and in their letters to parents, many superintendents expressed support for the teachers’ cause even as they lamented the disruption.

They range from Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district with 92,000 students, to tiny Clear Creek, with 800 students.

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The timing of the rallies coincides with negotiations on an overhaul to the public employees retirement system with major implications for teacher retirement benefits and for school district budgets. The first teacher rally, which saw the suburban Englewood district cancel classes, started as a union lobby day on pension issues.

Now the union’s demand is for the state to restore funding that has been withheld from K-12 education since the Great Recession by 2022. Colorado schools have missed out on more than $6 billion since 2009 due to a budget maneuver known as the negative factor or the budget stabilization factor.

“If that money had been invested in our public schools, it could have made a substantial difference in the education of our students and also the statewide educator shortage,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association.

Many analyses place Colorado in the bottom tier of states for education funding, while others, including one from the National Education Association that includes federal funding, place us closer to the middle of the pack. Per-pupil funding varies widely among districts. Half the state’s school districts operate only four days a week, in order to save money.

In every ranking, though, teacher salaries fall below the national average, and most teachers have lost ground, earning less now than they did 10 years ago once their salaries are adjusted for inflation. A recent study ranked Colorado last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries.

When Chalkbeat surveyed teachers about what was missing from their schools, the answers ranged from pencils and paper to computers and art supplies. Teachers said they want more mental health services for their students – and the ability to make enough color copies for the whole class.

Those factors might seem to set Colorado up for the next big wave of teacher strikes, following West Virginia, Oklahoma, and now Arizona. But other factors mitigate against it. Salaries and budgets are set by local school boards, not the state. The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, a provision in the state Constitution, requires tax increases to go to the voters and places a cap on how much government can grow, even when the economy is doing well.  

Republican lawmakers have questioned why teachers are marching now, when the state has just passed a budget that devotes more money to education than in many years – and when lawmakers can’t approve a tax increase or a pay increase.

“How advocacy works in other states doesn’t necessarily work here,” said state Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican.

Even education-friendly Democrats have doubts.

Asked about committing to restoring funding by 2022, state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, the Lakewood Democrat who chairs the House Education Committee, said: “I like that idea, but we have a lot of constraints in Colorado.”

But teachers demand lawmakers pay attention.

“We really don’t want legislators to enter into next session thinking everything is status quo,” Dallman said.

Dallman is careful to be clear: “This is not a strike. This is individuals using their personal leave to speak to our elected representatives.”

The planned rallies and widespread cancellations have already been a success in one way, Dallman said. “The media is far more interested in covering this than when we have 40 of our members show up for a lobby day.”

In an indication of how widespread the discontent is, even teachers in conservative parts of rural Colorado are planning to walk off the job.

At the beginning of the week, state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican leader from northeast Colorado, downplayed the potential for activism in rural districts, where salaries are lowest.

“A lot of teachers out in rural Colorado don’t belong to the union, hence why they’re not out there marching, they’re staying in the classroom teaching kids,” he said.

By the next day, the Valley Re-1 district in Sterling had canceled classes. Teachers said they plan to rally close to home, at the Logan County Courthouse. Also canceling classes: the district in Cañon City, home of Republican Senate President Kevin Grantham.

Melissa Shaw, who teaches seventh grade social studies in Pagosa Springs Middle School in the Archuleta district in southwest Colorado, isn’t making the five-hour trip to Denver or rallying locally. But she is cheering on those who are. Shaw has been collecting data on her colleagues: 83 percent said they work second jobs during the school year and just 11 percent said they could afford to stay in teaching without another income source.

With a master’s degree and six years of experience, Shaw earns $41,000 a year. If she earned a PhD and stayed in her district for 20 years, she could earn $55,600. She takes on additional jobs during the school year and has two more during the summer – taking high school students on international trips and waiting tables.

At the same time, she worries about the quality of education her own child is getting and about the career and college opportunities that aren’t available to some students – and about the future of teaching.

“I think it’s important for the public to understand how hard we work just to stay in our profession,” she said. “I pay to get into the job, I pay to stay in the job, I pay to grow as a teacher, I pay to get my master’s degree. And then I’m working several jobs. That does not sound very appealing for a career for many people.”

Terrenda White, an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Colorado who focuses on teacher turnover and retention, said current protests are more than a simple labor dispute. Rather, they’re the culmination of decades of education policy.

“We’ve really been demanding that schools and teachers be accountable for student performance,” she said. “That did not come with giving teachers more resources or support or more room for autonomy and decision-making. We’ve been hyper-focused on evaluating them, and we dropped the ball on supporting them. Those are the ingredients for a lot of frustration.”

In Colorado, that sense of disillusionment is heightened because the state’s economy is booming, but schools haven’t returned to full funding, White said.

An open question is how the disruption of widespread teacher walkouts will affect political support from parents.

“One reason parents have resisted teacher strikes is pragmatic,” said Jonna Perillo, an associate professor of English education at the University of Texas in El Paso, who has studied teacher strikes. “They need their kids in school.”

This time parent pushback in other states has been muted, in part because low funding for education is also hurting them. Strikes represent a big but temporary disruption, Perillo said, while a four-day school week, “that’s a lifestyle.”

The political churn of the last two years has earned teachers new allies, at least in some communities. Monica Acosta, an organizing director with southwest Denver parent advocacy group Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, said her members have seen teachers at rallies for immigrant rights or out knocking on doors for causes they also support.

“Parents are seeing teachers become more politically active in supporting their kids on social issues, and they’re reciprocating that support back,” she said.

Dave Flaherty, with the Republican-affiliated polling firm Magellan Strategies, said likely voters, including the independents who make up a third of Colorado’s electorate, have started to express concern about education funding and specifically teacher pay – unprompted – in focus groups. It’s on voters’ minds.

But Flaherty said tax increases remain the same tough sell they’ve always been in Colorado.

The Colorado context means teachers are wise to expand their focus well beyond pensions and pay, White said.

“Community support is important,” White said. “If this is seen as teachers having a labor dispute, that really narrows the scope and the support for it and the momentum. If parent and community support were mobilized along with teachers, it would really help these ballot initiatives. In Colorado, you really need to frame it for voters.”

not so fast

Worried about enrollment, some Colorado school districts are suing to prevent cross-district busing

Haylen Orgunez, 14, hangs out the window of one of the new compressed natural gas buses as he poses for a group photo at Douglas County High School in Castle Rock, Colorado on November 16, 2016. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post)

Six school districts and the associations that represent them are suing to stop a change to Colorado law that could increase access to school choice but that was approved under questionable circumstances.

The lawsuit filed this week in Denver District Court doesn’t deal with the merits of the policy but with the way it was enacted. In the last days of the 2018 legislative session, state Sen. Owen Hill, a Republican from Colorado Springs, took language from a defeated bill related to school choice and transportation and attached it as an amendment to a bill dealing with educational barriers for foster youth.

In a signing statement, Gov. John Hickenlooper said the maneuver potentially violates the “single-subject rule,” which requires that each bill deal with a one topic clearly expressed in the title of the bill and that any amendments also relate to that subject. He predicted there could be a lawsuit over the issue, and two months later, here we are.

The plaintiffs in the case are the Colorado Association of School Executives, the Colorado Association of School Boards, the small Englewood and Sheridan school districts in south suburban Denver, the Cheyenne Mountain district in Colorado Springs, the Monte Vista district in southwestern Colorado, the Poudre district based in Fort Collins, and the Jefferson County school district, the second largest in the state. Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass and Poudre school board member Cathy Kipp also joined the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims the “operations and finances” of the districts will be affected by legislation that was passed “in a manner and by a process expressly prohibited by the Colorado Constitution and in derogation of these plaintiffs’ constitutionally protected interests as stakeholders in the fairness, integrity, and transparency of the legislative processes employed by the Colorado General Assembly.”

“The bill was originally about foster care children,” said CASE executive director Lisa Escárcega. “And at the very end of the session, they rewrote the last part, and expanded it to all children. Those are the reasons why we’re filing the lawsuit.”

Hill called CASE’s position “a complete lie,” noting that that organization along with the school board association and the Sheridan and Englewood districts also opposed the standalone bill on which his amendment was based.

“Everything we vote on, we vote on the merits of the policy,” Hill said. “That’s what this is about for the unions and the districts. They don’t want kids to have the freedom to go across district lines.”

The foster youth bill seeks to make it easier for these students, who have some of the lowest graduation rates in the state, to finish high school by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. The bill’s title is “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth.”

The tacked-on language says that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also strikes language from existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bussed.  

Similar language appeared in a bill sponsored by Hill called “Improving School Choice in Traditional Schools.” Students in Colorado can enroll in any school that has room for them and can meet their needs, but most students who go somewhere besides their neighborhood school don’t get transportation, something that advocates for school choice have long criticized as a major barrier for students from low-income families, whether they’re moving between districts or within one.

In 2015, Pueblo City Schools blocked the Pueblo 70 district from running buses through its jurisdiction to pick up some of the roughly 150 students who opted into the higher-performing district that primarily serves the surrounding county.

In opposing the original transportation provision, superintendents from Sheridan and Englewood raised the prospect of districts running busses through more affluent neighborhoods, siphoning off those students and the state funding that goes with them, while leaving poorer districts to educate those with the greatest needs.

Jeffco Public Schools is in a different position. In an email, Glass said his district might see net enrollment growth from this change, but he worries about the broader implications.

“We bring in approximately 3,000 more students than we lose to inter-district school choice and that trend would likely grow if this provision in the foster care bill comes to pass,” he wrote. “At issue for us is the violation of the single-subject element of the state constitution. This choice amendment would represent a seismic shift in education policy in the state. Such changes should be considered through open and transparent debate in the legislative process, not tucked in as a last minute amendment under another bill title.”

In an interview, Hill said the transportation provision was a necessary component of the foster youth bill because the state couldn’t simultaneously require that these students be transported back to their home schools while retaining the requirement to get consent from the district in which they now reside.

Hill never made this argument in committee. There was no discussion at all when the amendment was proposed and adopted, and advocates for the foster youth bill didn’t raise it as a concern. School districts already provide transportation to homeless youth who want to remain in their home schools under provisions in federal law, and foster youth are entitled to similar services. The transportation envisioned under the foster youth bill could also occur through rideshare services or by reimbursing foster parents for mileage, and nothing in state law prevents simply driving a student to school in another district.

The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction to prevent the law from taking effect while the matter is litigated.

The lawsuit names Hickenlooper, Education Commissioner Katy Anthes and the State Board of Education as defendants because they oversee implementation of these laws. Representatives of the governor’s office and the state Department of Education declined to comment on the lawsuit. The State Board of Education did not take any position on the legislation in question when it was being debated at the Capitol.

The Attorney General’s Office is charged with defending the state from the lawsuit. A spokesperson for the attorney general declined to comment.

This article has been updated to include comment from Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass and a response from the Attorney General’s Office.

Local control

Change in Colorado law sets up a ‘David and Goliath’ school choice battle no one saw coming

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Paraprofessional Ben Johnson washes of the back window of a bus at the Denver Public Schools Hilltop Terminal November 10, 2017. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Buses from other school districts already pass through the tiny Sheridan school district, picking up homeless students who are entitled by law to transportation to their home districts in nearby Littleton or Denver.

What if those buses could make a few additional stops, picking up perhaps dozens more students who aren’t homeless but prefer to attend higher-performing schools in other districts — and taking with them tens of thousands of dollars in state funding?

That’s the concern of small, relatively poor districts in Colorado after a last-minute provision tacked onto an unrelated bill in the closing days of the legislative session became law. It allows school districts to run buses through other districts’ boundaries without first getting consent, a change from current law.

“Will we start to see the David and Goliath of school choice, where a large district with lots of resources starts to do a marketing campaign and send buses into smaller districts?” Sheridan’s outgoing Superintendent Michael Clough asked in an interview with Chalkbeat.

The Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents superintendents, is exploring the possibility of a lawsuit. The Sheridan district is among the potential plaintiffs, after publicly opposing this change when it was part of a stand-alone bill earlier in the session, though no district has made a formal decision about legal action.

The lawsuit wouldn’t target the substance of the policy, but the way it was enacted. Colorado’s constitution requires that each bill deal with a single subject, clearly expressed in the title of the bill, and that any amendments also relate to that subject.

The transportation provision in question was slipped into a bill on educational stability for youth in foster care that also has a transportation component. In a signing statement attached to the foster youth bill, Gov. John Hickenlooper said it likely represents a violation of the single-subject rule and would be open to a legal challenge.

“We make no judgement today on whether this language is sound policy,” Hickenlooper wrote of the amendment. “However, we have serious concerns about the process in which this amendment was bolted onto such an important bill.”

Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers. The bill seeks to make it easier for these students to graduate by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. The bill’s title is “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth.”

The tacked-on language, added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session, sounds relatively benign. It says that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also strikes language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bussed.  

Where did this come from and why was it added on?

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican and chair of the Senate Education Committee, sponsored a bill earlier in the session with the same transportation provision. It was called “Improving School Choice in Traditional Schools” and also contained requirements to standardize the open enrollment process.

Students in Colorado can enroll in any school that has room for them and can meet their needs, but deadlines and procedures vary from district to district. Most students who go somewhere besides their neighborhood school don’t get transportation, something that advocates for school choice have long criticized as a major barrier for students from low-income families, whether they’re moving between districts or within one.

Hill’s bill was opposed by the Colorado Association of School Executives and by the Colorado Association of School Boards. They said allowing districts to run school buses in neighboring jurisdictions at will would represent a serious erosion of local control and call into question the entire purpose of school district boundaries. 

Wendy Rubin, superintendent of the suburban Englewood district south of Denver, raised the specter of neighboring districts offering bus service to more affluent neighborhoods and siphoning off the funding associated with those students while leaving Englewood to educate those with greater needs.

Like Sheridan, Englewood is a small district surrounded by larger, wealthier neighbors that post better test scores.

“If we lose a class of kids, we lose a teacher or we offer one AP class when we used to offer three,” Rubin said. “We do not have the economies of scale to withstand losses of kids of 30 or 40 in a year. We would be cutting programs left and right. And what does that do to the kids who stay?”

Rubin and Clough also worried that the legislation would allow districts to cherry-pick students – offering transportation to, say, a star athlete but telling a student with disabilities that it was unable to meet her needs.

To be clear, both superintendents said they have no reason to believe their neighboring districts have immediate plans to come after their students, but they fear future school boards might make different decisions, particularly if declining enrollment increases competition for per-student dollars. 

Supporters of expanding transportation options say such possible challenges do not outweigh the importance of students being able to pursue the best education available to them. If districts want students to stay, they should offer a high-quality education, not block buses from entering their borders, they say.

Kelly Caufield of the business-oriented education reform group Colorado Succeeds pointed to a 2015 case from Pueblo. The lower-performing Pueblo 60 district is surrounded by the higher-performing Pueblo 70 district, and roughly 150 students who lived in 60 used their open enrollment rights to go to school in 70. Pueblo 70 had 10 bus routes within the boundaries of Pueblo 60 – until Pueblo 60 said no.

“Why should a superintendent worried about neighborhood lines get in the way of that student having access to a better education?” Caufield asked. “This is the exact example where that kid and their family deserve to be in a better district. And if transportation is a barrier, this bill would address that.”

The Colorado Springs area that Hill represents also has numerous districts in close proximity to each other. None of them have weighed in publicly on this issue. Hill said he brought the bill forward at the request of constituents, but none of them testified before the committee.

Hill’s bill passed the Republican-controlled Senate but died in a Democratic-controlled House committee near the end of the session. The next day, the foster youth bill came up for its first vote in the Senate State Affairs committee. Filling in as chair, Hill amended the bill without explaining what his addition would do. With the 2018 legislative session nearing its close, the committee members had a long agenda in front of them representing hours of testimony and votes, with tight deadlines to move bills to the floor. No one asked any questions or raised any objections, and the amended bill was adopted.

Hill has pushed back repeated interview requests with promises to try to talk soon. He’s involved in a heated three-way primary campaign – the election is Tuesday – to unseat sitting U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn. When his school choice bill was heard in committee, he expressed surprise that the transportation provision was controversial and suggested it could be struck from the bill to save the rest of it.

Caufield said Colorado Succeeds wasn’t involved in the decision to amend the foster youth bill, but said, “we care about what’s good for kids, so we’re excited that it crossed the finish line, even if it’s in a different form.”

Clough said Sheridan is prepared to sign on to a lawsuit. Rubin stressed that she had had only a very preliminary conversation with her school board informing them of the situation and the possibility of a lawsuit.

The law is scheduled to go into effect Aug. 9, but school districts may seek an injunction stopping the transportation provision.