Building a Better Colorado wants to find a fix for K-12 education in Colorado

BY FREDA MIKLIN
GOVERNMENTAL REPORTER

Building a Better Colorado (BBCO) is a 501(C)(3) organization that takes on statewide issues in an intentionally nonpartisan, diverse and politically-balanced manner. It is funded mostly by large foundations and comprised of thought leaders from both the business and nonprofit world across the state. BBCO’s 17-member executive committee is purposefully comprised of 37% Republicans, 37% Democrats and 26% unaffiliated members who are established leaders in business, government and the nonprofit sector. BBCO’s goal is to encourage collaboration despite the fact that, as they state plainly, “Our two-party system encourages division.” This group does not advocate for solutions. It simply gathers data and opinions from leaders in every corner of Colorado, reports what it finds, and strategizes on how to impact statewide policy when it discovers a consensus to do so.

When BBCO identifies an issue it believes should be explored, it conducts up to 70 multi-hour community meetings in every corner of the state with as many as 100 invited thought and policy leaders at each session. During those meetings, the issues, accompanied by ideas and multiple options to address them (including doing nothing) are provided to participants, along with salient facts. Then the participants, intentionally grouped at tables with people that they don’t know well to guard against group-think, discuss the ideas and options and then express their preferences for various solutions electronically. That data is recorded and accumulated. At the same time, BBCO gathers additional opinions and ideas about the issues through other sources, including social media. 

In 2015, BBCO looked at three different and unrelated questions: 1) how the ballot initiative process was working; 2) how political primaries were conducted; and 3) whether the state hospital provider fee was really a fee or actually a tax.

In 2019, BBCO took on: 1) the long-term fiscal impacts of the Gallagher Amendment and the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR); and 2) Amendment 23 to the state constitution, passed by the voters in 2000, that requires the state to fund K-12 education at a calculated minimum amount, based on population and enrollment, regardless of whether funds are available. The total amount, by school district, required by that formula, which could not be funded every year beginning in FY2010 (because there hasn’t been enough money to do so) has been accumulating. It is usually referred to as, “the negative factor,” and presently stands at $9.3 billion statewide.

In 2021, BBCO began engaging civic leaders in 67 communities around the state about education. On January 10, BBCO held its Greenwood Village community meeting (in Centennial) to get area leaders’ opinions on how to: 1) improve teacher effectiveness; 2) improve student outcomes; and 3) improve school funding equity. It was hosted by executive committee member and independent public policy consultant, Reeves Brown, who serves as BBCO’s project coordinator. Brown also hosted BBCO’s public meetings in 2015 and 2019.

“Of the six recommendations that resulted from BBCO’s work in 2015 and 2019, five have been implemented as state policy,” Brown reported.

Ideas Brown presented to the group for improving teacher effectiveness included enhancing the quantity and quality of teachers by: 1) developing “master teachers” to mentor new teachers; 2) increasing the level of preparation for new teachers to increase the number who stay in the profession; 3) developing an alternative teacher licensure program for people capable of teaching even though they don’t have a teaching degree; 4) increase compensation, improve working conditions and out-of-classroom support for new teachers;  and 5) reduce the cost of becoming a teacher through educational loan forgiveness, subsidized housing and local collaborative partnerships. 

Ideas for improving student outcomes included: 1) increased emphasis on career and technical education; 2) increased focus on “soft skills” like creativity, innovation, problem-solving and collaboration; 3) modernizing the School Finance Act to be student-centered, providing higher funding where it is most needed by the student population; 4) increasing parent involvement by paying for home visits by teachers and support staff; and 5) changing the framework by which students and schools are measured to incentivize schools to be innovative in developing the skills that employers want, which will lead to more individual student success. 

The issues around funding equity that Brown described and were explained in detail in handouts were: 1) current expenditures don’t accurately reflect the unique needs of individual students or school districts; and 2) the total value of taxable property relative to the number of students varies widely between school districts, as does the willingness of taxpayers to approve mill-levy overrides; 3) the impact of TABOR is that some wealthy districts contribute less than poorer ones; and 4) the overriding problem that school funding, which was supposed to be chiefly local, has increasingly shifted to the state. Going back only to 1989, before TABOR, public schools in Colorado were funded 57% locally and 43% by the state. In 2015, only 34% of public- school funding came from local sources and 66% was paid by the state. 

The overarching goal of fixing the funding formula is that all Colorado schoolchildren, “regardless of demographic differences such as ZIP Code, family income, and ethnicity should have equal access to an education that allows them to succeed.” 

Currently, according to BBCO, “Student academic performance in Colorado is widely disparate across ethnic populations, with Asian and white students consistently scoring more than twice as high on CMAS test scores as other ethnicities. Student performance is even more disparate across income levels, with students from low-income households who are eligible for free and reduced lunch scoring twice to four times lower across all four academic categories of literacy, math, science and social studies.” BBCO continues, “One of the common characteristics of the best-performing education systems in the world is that they provide more resources for at-risk students than for others in order to educate all students to accepted academic standards. Colorado currently invests approximately 1/10th to 1/3 the extra amount deemed necessary to educate special needs students.”

Once they have gathered and analyzed all the data from dozens of community meetings like the one held on January 10 in Centennial, BBCO’s executive board will strategize how to take the consensus of the opinions and ideas they have gotten from all the participants and translate them into state policy. If past is prologue, they stand an 83% chance of doing so.

fmiklin.villager@gmail.com