OPINION: The $1 Billion Cure for Colorado Education? Part Two
Bill Hudson | 6/5/13

Read Part One

Would higher Colorado taxes make for better schools?

Does more alimony make for a better ex-wife?

In last month’s Supreme Court decision in State v Lobato, four justices ruled that the Colorado school finance system provides a “thorough and uniform” education for all Colorado children, and also allows “local control” of instructional content by local school boards. Both conditions are required by the Colorado Constitution.

Two justices offered dissenting opinions, however, claiming that our Colorado school system does not, in fact, offer a “thorough and uniform” education.

Justice Michael Bender quoted some statistics that we’ve repeatedly heard from the education industry, including the statement that “Colorado is one of the wealthiest states in the nation, but it ranks 49th in the country in per-pupil spending per $1,000 of personal income.”

Justice Bender goes on:

“Colorado ranks 45th in the country for the amount of taxable resources dedicated to public education.  In one national study, Colorado received an “F” for funding “effort” — a measure of whether a state takes advantage of its fiscal capacity to fund public education — because Colorado spends such a small percentage of its gross state product on public schools.  By almost any measure, Colorado ranks in the bottom third nationally in education spending.”

As I mentioned in Part One, Governor HIckenlooper and the Democrats in the State Legislature want the voters to approve an additonal $1 billion in new taxes, come the November election.  What they... and Justice Bender... and the education industry consistently fail to mention, however, is the lack of correlation between per pupil spending and educational achievement.

So I will mention it for them.  With illustrations.

Here’s a list of U.S. states and the amounts spent per pupil, based on U.S. Census data.  (Source: Governing.com)

school funding vs. school reading scores in america

The top three states, in terms of money spent per pupil, are New York, Alaska, and New Jersey. (I am disregarding the District of Columbia, since it's not technically a state.)  In 2011, New York spent almost $20,000 per student operating its school system.

And here’s the bottom end of the same chart, showing the schools that (shamefully) spent the least amounts of money per pupil.  As we can see, those states are Utah, Idaho and Oklahoma.  Utah spent just over $6,200 per student. We can also see Colorado in this chart, at position 41 out of 50 states.  In 2011, Colorado spent a mere $8,724 per student.

school funding vs. school reading scores in america

Okay, so we know who's spending the big educational bucks in 2011... and who's being frugal. 

But who got the biggest return on their investment?

If we visit the website for the National Center for Education Statistics, we can learn about “The Nation’s Report Card.”

"Nationally representative samples of about 213,000 fourth-graders and 168,000 eighth-graders participated in the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in reading. At each grade, students responded to questions designed to measure their reading skills across two types of texts: literary and informational."

Here are the summary results for Utah, Idaho and Oklahoma, in eighth grade reading scores.  Inside each "Average scale score" box, the dark blue line is the national average; the light blue line is the score for that particular state:

school funding vs. school reading scores in america

school funding vs. school reading scores in america

school funding vs. school reading scores in america

In 2011, the average national score on the NAEP eighth grade reading test was 264. Utah scored 267.  Idaho scored 268.  Oklahoma scored 260.  Each of these states spent less than $7,600 per pupil on education.

And here are the summary NAEP scores for New York, Alaska, and New Jersey:

school funding vs. school reading scores in america

school funding vs. school reading scores in america

school funding vs. school reading scores in america

Each of these three states spent over $15,900 per student in 2011.  To repeat, the national reading score was 264.  New York scored 266.  Alaska scored 260. New Jersey scored 275.

And here’s Colorado, after spending only $8,724 per pupil:

school funding vs. school reading scores in america

Colorado’s reading score: 270. 

To summarize: Students in Colorado, Utah and Idaho all scored better averages than those in New York and Alaska — but cost half as much per student to educate.

Here in America, we find ourselves in an awkward situation.  We value education and quality schools highly enough to pay inflated prices for homes located near “good” neighborhood schools.  But, while most of us feel our schools have declined in quality over the past 35 years, we find ourselves each year paying an ever larger share of our taxes for that declining educational quality.

Does more alimony make for a better ex-wife?  I can't truly answer that question; my ex-wife didn’t ask for alimony.

But I think the other question — "Would higher taxes create better Colorado schools?" — has a very clear answer.  Great Colorado schools will not come from injecting ever more tax revenues into what most of us view as a failing system. Simply adding another $1 billion to the tax burden of Colorado citizens will not provide the solution we seek.

So are we stuck on a miserable merry-go-round, feeling dizzy and broke, unable to grab the golden ring, and unable to get off? Possibly so.  But, according to the Colorado Constitution, our local schools are under the control of the local Board of Education. Those board members supposedly have the power to decide how our local schools operate and how the district should expend its tax revenues.

I wonder, for example, if our local school district could disconnect itself from the Colorado Department of Education — and start collecting and spending our local school taxes without state and federal intervention? Could our entire district become, in essence, an "independent school system" funded by existing local taxes and governed by our own local School Board?  Could we convert a mediocre, run-of-the-mill school system living under Denver's thumb, into something wonderfully innovative and exciting — a school system that could actually attract forward-thinking young families to move here, and locate their Lone Eagle businesses here?

Such a move would be incredibly daring, considering the tendency of public boards to be fearful of anything innovative.  Unfortunately, change is not optional; America is changing under our feet.  In the midst of this change, our local school board will either stay the course — the course most Americans view as a steady downward decline of our education system — or they will rise to the challenge.


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