Schools and Prisons, Part Four
Bill Hudson | 6/17/11
Read Part One

What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine?
I learned our government must be strong.
It's always right and never wrong.
Our leaders are the finest men.
And we elect them again and again…
— Tom Paxton, What Did You Learn in School Today

Yesterday in Part Three, I ended my article with some incorrect and careless calculations.  Looking at the charts I had found in various documents (and which I shared in yesterday's article) I mistakenly calculated the share of the Colorado state budget spent on education and prisons at 75 percent of the total budget.

That calculation was inaccurate (and the article has been corrected).  My apologies to our readers.

The state of Colorado’s total budget for this current year — funded from various tax sources —is, according to Businessweek, about $18 billion.  It appears, from the economic study done by Jeffrey A. Roberts and Charles S. Brown, in their 2009 report Colorado’s State Budget Tsunami, that over 75 percent of Colorado’s General Fund spending in 2009-2010 went to education, corrections and health care, all combined.  That percentage appears to have grown significantly since 1998, when it totaled about 55 percent.
colorado budget schools prisons
Finding accurate budget numbers has been a bit challenging, to tell the truth.  It appears that even the state of Colorado itself does not know the honest and true numbers.

Check out this curious story from the Aspen Times, written by reporter Steven Paulson.

“In its struggles to deliver balanced state budgets over the past 10 years, Colorado has amassed $3.7 billion in obligations that it may never pay.

“That sum includes severance taxes taken from municipalities, funds collected for such state services as tourism promotion and waste tire cleanup that were never delivered, prison and school bus costs that were never paid for, and other accounting tricks.

“State budget analysts told the Legislature's Joint Budget Committee in November that the 2011-2012 budget, with an anticipated $1.1 billion shortfall, no longer includes the $3.7 billion cut over the years.

“The amounts were included in the small print in annual budgets over the years, but this was the first year budget analysts even tried to add up the cost of these potential obligations, and they acknowledged the total figure is impossible to know until lawmakers decide what they think should be repaid.”

If Mr. Paulson is correct, then it appears that the state of Colorado is playing the same game as many of us private citizens — simply turning a blind eye to past debts.  Except that the state of Colorado is not simply ignoring a few thousand dollars in VISA card purchases; it seems the state is ignoring $3.7 billion it owes to various entities.

The 2011-2012 budget shortfall that I find quoted most often lately is “$450 million.”  If Mr. Paulson’s research is accurate, then the true shortfall is over $4 billion — more than half the approved total General Fund budget for 2011-2012.  Quite a dramatic “accounting trick,” I would say.  But I guess it’s not really a "shortfall" if we simply decide not to pay our debts?

So one must wonder.  If the state of Colorado can simply turn its back on $3.7 billion in debts, why not solve our education funding problem by promising all of our teachers a 10 percent raise — and then, just not pay them?

“I never expected to be elected governor,” governor John Hickenlooper told the sheriffs convention last Thursday morning.  “I never expected to be elected mayor of Denver.  I had come out here as a geologist, and got laid off, and ended up opening a brewpub — the Wyncoop Brewery — and I was perfectly happy just minding my own business.  But I got goaded into running for mayor of Denver because ... all of my customers didn’t believe in the government.  They hated the education system; they hated all of our institutions.

“But this is America, right?  If our system isn’t working, if people don’t believe in our system, then it’s up to us to fix it.

“And my wife was promised that I would never win; there was no way I would win any kind of elective office.  (Laughter from the sheriffs.)  And those first four years that I was mayor, I visited every school in Denver.  And I saw the difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher.

“There’s no reason to blame someone who has landed in the wrong job.  I came out here as a geologist, but I got laid off; I couldn’t find a job.  And after a couple of years I ended up opening the restaurant because I couldn’t find a job.  Well, it turns out, I’m about 50 times better at running a restaurant than I ever was as a geologist.  I’m not proud of that, but that’s the reality.”  (More laughter.)

“Life doesn’t always put us in the right place.  And sometimes we need the system to jar us around a little bit. And I think in many cases, that’s what we need to do with teachers.  A lot of times, when I talk about these issues, the teachers bristle and say, ‘Oh, you’re trying to blame the teachers.’  I’m not trying to blame the teachers; I’m just guessing that maybe 15 percent of our teachers probably shouldn’t be teaching.”

What governor Hickenlooper was proposing in his speech to the gathered County sheriffs at last week’s convention was perhaps a partial solution to a much larger problem.  Find a way to remove the worst teachers from a mediocre education system, and you might indeed see some kind of improvement — assuming you can somehow replace those thousands of bad teachers with better teachers.  (I guess I’m not exactly clear how that could happen.)

I’ve always been fascinated by the process of “education”, being myself the son of a thoroughly dedicated, life-long public school teacher.  And I’ve come to the conclusion (right or wrong) that children learn mostly by example.  Sure, teachers can share facts, opinions, and theories with their students — but the essential process of education consists of children unconsciously absorbing the example we set for them.  Our actions, as teachers, speak louder than our words.

And all too often, we are totally unaware of our own actions.

The citizens of Colorado, in general, are suffering through an unexpected economic downturn — one that doesn’t seem to be getting much better at the moment.  As a result of that economic downtown, we’ve all tightened our belts — and that tightening process means we are paying less taxes to the state of Colorado.  Thus, our governor and our legislators are facing a continuing process of cutting the state budget (combined with, apparently, simply not paying its bills.)

In 2007, the state’s General Fund budget amounted to over $8 billion.  This year, the proposed budget (including the unresolved shortfall of $450 million) comes to about $6.5 million. According to my pocket calculator, that corresponds to a 20 percent drop in state revenues (which matches pretty closely the drop in income many Colorado families have seen since 2007.)

I know.  I’m crazy.  No one in their right mind would suggest such an insanely simple solution to a serious problem.

What if all our Colorado state employees — including our school teachers and our County employees — stepped up and voluntarily asked for a 20 percent cut in pay?  We would instantly solve all of our state budget problems, without any significant decline in services provided.  Instantly.

What would our children learn from such a remarkable and selfless action taken by their school teachers?  We have to wonder.

And what are they learning instead?

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