EDITORIAL: Colorado’s Education Funding Crisis, Considered

Guest speaker Maggie Miller, representing GreatEducation Colorado, is coming to Pagosa Springs to speak about Colorado public education funding — tonight, September 18 at 5:15pm at the Ruby Sisson Memorial Library.

The event is open to the public and the organizers encourage all interested citizens to attend. A press release for the event refers to the key issue as the “public education funding crisis,” and says:

“Our greatest investment is our children and we must do everything we can to provide them with the best possible education.”

Here in Archuleta County, we are currently considering a $27 million tax increase to greatly expand our County jail and Sheriff’s Office… and one of our water districts is promoting a separate tax increase that will allow the district to put local taxpayers $2 million in debt for real estate purchases in Dry Gulch.   Theoretically, that’s $29 million that could have been earmarked, instead, for education… or for another community need, like affordable housing.

But maybe education and decent housing are not our priorities?

And, really, how do you fund everything?

Part of the American Dream is that our economy will grow endlessly more vibrant, and that our children will have a more comfortable, more healthy, more fulfilling life than we had. But in 2017, we are faced with clear indications that, in fact, our children are more likely to live deeply in debt… more likely to struggle with the cost of health care… and likely to pay more than 50 percent of their income for over-priced, over-sized housing.

The reasons behind this change in the American economy are extremely complex. They include the globalization of commerce, a healthcare insurance system run amuck, endless military adventures on behalf of corporate interests, underfunded pension plans, a widening gap between rich and poor, a mediocre public education system… the list goes on. The American Dream is slowly changing — slowly fading, you might say — as we move into the twenty-first century.  We never had enough money to do everything we wanted, but it looks (to me, at least) like families — and governments — will have even less money to go around, in the future.

If that’s true, then what — really — are our priorities, in Archuleta County, and in Colorado? Bigger jails? More money for education? Water reservoir boondoggles? Decent, affordable homes for the workers who keep our economy running?

When you spend your life writing about Archuleta County politics, you can quickly come to the conclusion that a significant amount of government spending is handled in an inefficient and wasteful manner — and that our governments sometimes have curious priorities. Those curious priorities occasionally extend to well-meaning groups like GreatEducation Colorado.

If you visit the GreatEducation Colorado website, you can quickly form the impression that the organization — along with its sister organizations, Great Futures Coalition, and the Colorado Education Network — has one primary goal: to increase tax funding for education. The assumption, clearly spelled out by these sister organizations, is that more tax money, directed to public schools, will necessarily generate better educational outcomes. If you actually research this assumption, however, the truth is difficult to discern.

For example, GreatEducation Colorado claims on their website (see image above) that “Every state that ranks ahead of Colorado in achievement spends more than Colorado spends per pupil.”

That claim is linked to a statistical list published by Education Week magazine, and indeed, there are 20 states that “rank ahead of Colorado” on Education Week’s “Overall State Grade.” Massachusetts ranked the highest, with a score of 86.2 (grade of A+) with Colorado coming in 21st with a score of 75.5 (grade of C).

You can download the list here.

But the Education Week ranking is based on three scores, and one of the scores is … Tah Dah …“School Finance”…. how much money the state spends on education.

In spite of our D+ score in “School Finance,” Colorado still beat out 29 states with its “Overall State Grade.”

Another of the three scores used by Education Week in its overall ranking was “K-12 Achievement.” Probably an important detail? Although the 20 states that ranked higher overall than Colorado did indeed spend more money per pupil than Colorado, only six of those 20 states had a higher grade for “K-12 Achievement” — and eleven of the “top 20” states that spent more money per pupil than Colorado, had worse “Achievement” scores.

Archuleta County commissioner Steve Wadley is fond of quoting a character from the old TV series, Dallas — a character named J.R. Ewing — and we heard that quote again at last week’s Board of County Commissioners work session:

I’m reminded of the great J.R. Ewing, who always said, “Money doesn’t solve all your problems, just all the ones that matter.”

Does money solve all the important problems in life? Perhaps it feels that way to the chair of the BOCC, while overseeing one of the most expensive government agencies in Pagosa Springs.

But here’s a little story.

Over the past month, a small group of volunteers have contributed their spare time to help create a “playground environment” at the Pagosa Peak Open School, our community’s new K-4 charter elementary school located at Parelli Headquarters in Aspen Village… overlooking Pinon Lake, Walmart, and a segment of the Town government’s new “Town to Lakes” multi-use trail (still under construction.)

The Pagosa Peak volunteers converted a sloping hillside into a fenced, grassy play area… created crisscrossed paths… and erected a large play structure donated by the Town of Pagosa Springs last spring, when the Town was installing two new structures at Yamaguchi Park.

Community volunteers laying new sod for the Pagosa Peak charter school playground, September 2017.

Part of the volunteer fence-building crew at Pagosa Peak Open School, September 2017.

The volunteers were supported in this effort by generous donations of materials and equipment by Renewable Forest Energy, Crossfire Aggregate Services, the Mulch Factory, Spring Creek Sod Farm, and local contractor Stephen Tholberg.

If we take a close look at this quote…

“Our greatest investment is our children and we must do everything we can to provide them with the best possible education.”

…we can easily assume that the word “investment” refers to “the investment of tax monies” — rather than “the investment of time and energy and intelligence and creative innovation.”

Like the fictitious J.R Ewing, we can easily assume that money is the root of all good things.

But, maybe not?

Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.