Schools and Prisons, Part Three
Bill Hudson | 6/16/11
Read Part One

“If we are going to hold teachers accountable ... and basically, I’m a huge supporter of teachers, I don’t think our education problems are our teachers’ faults ... but I think there are great teachers and there are just ‘okay’ teachers.  We need to figure out which are the great teachers, and have them help the ‘okay’ teachers become very good teachers.

“And there is no way I can figure to do that if you don’t have some way of measuring how well kids are improving.  And we are spending a lot of time and effort on that.”

Governor Hickenlooper was doing an excellent job of remaining politically correct, I think, as he spoke to the County Sheriffs of Colorado summer convention at the Pagosa Lodge last Thursday.

There’s nothing wrong with assuring that our system for hiring and firing Colorado teachers is fair and equitable — and maybe the development of a new standardized testing system — other than the CSAPs that the governor had just referred to as “a joke” — can actually provide for such fair and equitable teacher evaluations.

But the fact of the matter is, we have always known who the excellent teachers are, and we’ve always known who the poor teachers are.  You can’t hide that kind of thing in a public school system.  The basic problem has been a system of teacher tenure which prevents poor teachers from being fired when we finally realize there is a problem.

I believe what the governor and other education reformers hope to develop is a mechanical testing system that relieves the district administration of the responsibility for firing a poor teacher. (Or re-training a poor teacher, as the governor implies?  Who is going to pay for that?) 

Fact is, our administrators also come in ‘poor, fair and good' varieties, and they are the ones who hire the poor teachers in the first place.

But I was fascinated by the governor’s assertion that a poorly funded school system somehow creates more criminals for our county sheriffs to deal with. 

The numbers seem to say otherwise.

Here is a chart from the fascinating 2009 study by University of Denver economists , Jeffrey A. Roberts and Charles S. Brown, titled, Colorado’s State Budget Tsunami.
schools and prisons in Colorado
The chart shows the seemingly unchecked growth of public school funding in total dollars and as a percentage of total Colorado state spending.  Between 1993 and 2010, total education funding for Colorado’s 178 school districts increased from $2.5 billion (that’s billion, with a “b”) to almost $6 billion.

The schools’ percentage of total state spending, meanwhile increased from about 52 percent to about 65 percent — a somewhat incredible jump considering how slowly change normally happens in government institutions.

Economists Roberts and Brown explained the change this way:

“[Colorado school districts received] a total of nearly $5.7 billion in FY 2009-10. Local property taxes kicked in about $1.9 billion of that and specific ownership taxes slightly less than $150 million. The remaining 65 percent — $3.7 billion — [came] directly from the state.

“A decade ago the state’s share was much lower — 57 percent. Several factors have combined to increase the burden on the state to finance schools while easing the load carried by local property taxpayers. One major factor is Amendment 23, a constitutional provision approved by Colorado voters in 2000 that required per-pupil funding to be increased each year by the rate of inflation plus 1 percent through FY 2010-11, and by the rate of inflation each year thereafter.

“This constitutional mandate to augment funding for K-12 education is affected by TABOR, which limits the role of property taxes in the financing of schools. TABOR prohibits increases in local tax rates (mill levies) without voter approval. Because local tax rates cannot easily go up, the amount that local property taxes contribute to schools is directly related to the ebbs and flows of taxable property values throughout Colorado.”

Of course, those property values have declined as much as 35 percent in some Colorado communities since the housing bubble began to deflate in 2008.

Roberts and Brown continue: “A third factor is a provision of the state constitution called the Gallagher Amendment. This provision effectively prevents the taxable value of residential property (homes, apartment buildings, condominiums and even some hotels) from growing as fast as the property’s market value.

“With the Gallagher Amendment keeping the taxable value of property low and TABOR keeping tax rates from increasing, the property tax share of school funding grows slower than it would otherwise. That growth has not kept pace with Amendment 23’s mandated funding increases.

“When property values stagnate, property tax collections stagnate. The state not only must pay for its own proportionate share of Amendment 23 funding increases, it must make up for the inability of local property taxes to pay their share. There is even more of an imbalance when property values decline.”

You can click here to read the full report.

I don’t know the details of SB 230, the school funding legislation signed by governor Hickenlooper last Thursday.  But I think this little fact is an interesting one if we are truly interested in the interface between education and prisons: From FY 1990-91 through FY 2010-11, the General Fund appropriations to the Colorado Department of Corrections grew from $134.6 million to $647.2 million— an increase of $512.6 million.

While the population of Colorado was growing by about 50 percent, the state Corrections budget was growing by 480 percent — about ten times the rate of our population growth.

Here's the same date shown in a chart taken from the Colorado General Assembly Joint Budget Committee (JBC) report on Department of Corrections funding, dated December 2010.
schools and prisons in Colorado
Let’s take another look at the Colorado education funding chart we saw earlier.
schools and prisons in Colorado
Does anyone else see a similarity to the shapes?

And here’s two more interesting little charts from that same JBC report:
schools and prisons in Colorado

schools and prisons in Colorado
If we wanted to take these charts and this data at face value, and draw some correlation between education funding and criminal activity, we might be tempted to propose that the more money we spend on education, the fuller our prisons become.

Of course, that’s a ridiculous correlation.  Education funding in Colorado has very little influence on criminal activity, in spite of what governor Hickenlooper may have wanted the sheriffs to believe.

The exponential growth in education funding over the past 20 years, and the exponential growth in our prison populations over the same period, are both correlated, not with one another, but rather with America’s obsession with putting people in inefficient, government-run institutions in a never-ending quest to control society.  We Americans are obsessed with controlling each other’s behavior, and we will gladly spend our money, building schools and prisons — and often allow our hospitals and our roads and our environment to go relatively untended.

Over the past 20 years, Colorado’s state spending on education has grown to about 33 percent of the entire state budget.  During the same period, the Department of Corrections budget has grown to nearly 10 percent of the General Fund budget.

Read Part Four...

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