Carrots and sticks

No pizza parties, no raffle tickets: Bill would bar Colorado schools from offering rewards to test-takers

Students in the Sheridan School District practice for the 2015 PARCC tests (Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post).

Update: This bill was amended to remove the penalties and received unanimous support from the Senate Education Committee on Feb. 14.

It’s already illegal in Colorado for schools to penalize students who don’t take state assessments. Now a bill before the legislature would make it illegal to reward students who take the tests and would penalize schools who offer such incentives.

“The school can’t say you can’t play on the team or go on the field trip,” said Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, who opted to keep his own sons from taking state assessments. “This bill addresses something that’s come up recently: If you take the assessment, you get to go to the party or go on the field trip or maybe even get to play on the sports team. It’s the same message, but the other way around.”

That’s just as wrong, said Holbert, a Republican from Parker who sponsored the bill with state Sen. Andy Kerr, a Lakewood Democrat.

Kerr is a teacher who serves on his school’s accountability committee, and he said another teacher raised this idea – supposedly used at a different school – as they discussed how to get more students to take the tests.

“We know that we can’t do negative consequences, but at this school, every student who takes the test gets a raffle ticket and the winner of the raffle gets a widescreen TV,” Kerr said. “This was given as an example of a positive reinforcement to take the test.”

The widescreen TV in this example was donated; no taxpayer dollars went to reward test-taking and the luck of the draw.

Under the bill, schools could still have parties after testing is over, but they couldn’t exclude students who didn’t take the tests.

Colorado has been at the center of the opt-out movement nationally, and its partisans include people on the left and the right – students in conservative Douglas County as well as liberal Boulder County. How Colorado handles accountability for schools with high opt-out rates has been a point of contention with the federal government.

The State Board of Education has a policy that the state won’t lower the quality rating of schools who miss the 95 percent participation mark, while the federal Department of Education wants those students counted as “not proficient.” In a compromise, Colorado agreed to keep two lists of schools, one that complies with state law and one that complies with federal law, but Colorado is still waiting for approval from the federal government of its Every Student Succeeds Act plan.

Matt Cook, director of public policy and advocacy for the Colorado Association of School Boards, said his organization doesn’t have a position on the bill, but he does have a few questions: “Who are the bad actors?” and “Does this need to be a law?”

“I don’t want to pick on anybody in particular,” Holbert said, declining to name any schools or districts. He characterized the problem as “more than one, but not widespread.”

The Colorado PTA, the Colorado Education Association, the Colorado Association of School Executives, and the State Board of Education all support the idea behind the bill.

“We certainly believe students who have the family discussion to not take the test should not have any inappropriate hook dangled before them,” Nate Golich, director of government affairs for the teachers union, told the Senate Education Committee. “They should not feel stigmatized or ostracized because there’s a pizza party or a granola bar or orange slices.”

But there is a point of dispute: how to enforce such a law.

The original version of the bill calls for the Colorado Department of Education to make a note in the performance report of any schools found in violation, and to “impose a significant penalty” on the accreditation rating of any school that violates the law three or more times in a year.

Dana Smith, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said that provision would be difficult to enforce. The department collects a lot of data, but it doesn’t know which schools hold pizza parties for kids who take state assessments. Doing enforcement on a complaint basis could create an unfair situation in that schools whose parents complain are punished while schools with the same practices whose parents don’t complain go unpunished.

Lisa Escárcega, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, called docking a school’s rating over this issue “using the jaws of life to go after a minnow.”

“We would not want a school to lose an entire accreditation point if three people call CDE,” Golich said.

The Senate Education Committee heard testimony about the bill Thursday but postponed a vote.

Holbert and Kerr said they’re open to removing the penalty, but that raises the question of what the law even means.

“What happens if we pass a bill that has no particular penalty or enforcement mechanism and parents are frustrated because they’re seeing these consequences?” asked state Sen. Tim Neville, a Littleton Republican.

What 'underfunded' means

What you need to know to follow the money debate behind the teacher walkouts

Colorado teachers wearing "Red for Ed" gather in front of the Capitol on the first of two days of protest around school funding. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Colorado teachers are marching at the Capitol this week for more school funding and better pay. Advocates for more education funding will point to the $7 billion that the state has withheld from schools since the Great Recession, while fiscal conservatives point to the billions the state has spent on schools in those same years.

Here’s what you need to know to follow the money debate behind these teacher days of action.

What does it mean when people say Colorado schools are underfunded?

Back in 2000, Colorado voters approved a constitutional amendment that said the state had to increase K-12 education funding every year based on inflation and population. It was meant to reverse years of budget cuts in the 1990s.

When the Great Recession hit and revenues declined, state budget writers didn’t think they could meet that obligation and pay for other functions of state government, so they started holding money back. This reduction is known as the budget stabilization factor or the negative factor.

The negative factor ballooned to more than a billion dollars in the early aughts as the lagging effects of the recession hit government revenue.

Impact of the negative factor on Colorado education spending

Source: Joint Budget Committee legislative staff *Does not include federal money or local mill levy overrides.

State spending on K-12 education actually declined in some years, and many school districts froze pay and cut programs. More recently, lawmakers have reduced the negative factor and increased education spending, but the state continues to hold money back.

So that’s one thing people mean when they say Colorado schools are underfunded.

Republicans dispute this characterization. The Colorado Supreme Court, in a split decision in 2015, ruled that the state’s school funding and use of the negative factor is constitutional. Schools have other sources of revenue, including federal dollars and local property tax revenue.

The National Education Association’s 2018 state rankings puts Colorado 28th in per-pupil funding, when federal, state, and local dollars are included.

There are other considerations. Analyses that look at equity – how fairly Colorado distributes money among students and districts – give the state low marks. There’s major variation in per-student spending around the state. Colorado also spends much less money on education than most states with similar levels of wealth and economic activity.

At the same time, the state is paying a larger share of K-12 costs than ever because tax provisions in the constitution have reduced local property taxes in many parts of the state.

What about local property taxes?

After state officials calculate the amount of money each school district should get, they collect that money first from the local property taxes. If that doesn’t meet the amount set by the formula, the state fills in the rest.

School districts don’t actually benefit much from increases in property values. If a school district collects more money because homes are worth more, the state holds back a corresponding amount.

This arrangement would seem to benefit the state at the expense of local districts, but in many rural communities, two conflicting provisions in the state constitution have had the effect of reducing assessed value. Because the state fills in the lost revenue, the state’s share of education spending is going up.

There are two ways local school districts can raise additional local money, but both require voter approval. Some communities, including Denver and Boulder, have passed significant tax increases to give their schools more money. Other communities in the state have never been successful in asking their voters for more local funding. Greeley’s District 6 had never passed a mill levy override until this November. District 27J in Brighton made the decision to go to a four-day week after voters turned them down for a 16th time.

How much do Colorado teachers make?

According to the Colorado Department of Education, the average teacher salary for 2017-18 is $52,708.

However, there’s considerable variation across the state and even within districts.

Teachers in the Cherry Creek and Boulder Valley districts have average salaries above $70,000. Many small rural districts have average salaries close to $30,000, an amount that’s hard to live on anywhere.

Colorado districts with the highest average teacher salaries

Source: Colorado Department of Education

Colorado districts with the lowest average teacher salaries

Source: Colorado Department of Education

The highest paid teacher in Aurora makes $102,115, and the highest paid teacher in Denver Public Schools makes $115,900. Those teachers would be veteran employees with decades in the classroom. Starting salaries in those districts are $39,757 and $41,689 respectively.

Starting salaries for new teachers and average salaries in 2017-18:

DISTRICT Starting salary Average salary
Denver $41,689 $50,757
Jeffco $38,760 $57,154
Dougco $37,160 $53,080
Cherry Creek $39,405 $71,711
Aurora $39,757 $54,742
Westminster $42,859 $58,976
Adams 14 $38,194 $57,394
Sheridan $35,029 $49,535
Deer Trail $33,660 $41,582

Teachers’ ability to get raises also varies considerably. Districts have salary schedules that provide for raises after a certain number of years of service or for getting more education, but in some districts, the range is narrow, with veteran teachers stuck close to $50,000.

Some districts, like Denver, also have performance incentives or offer additional money for working in schools where students have high needs.

Many teachers experienced pay freezes during the Great Recession but are starting to get raises again. However, when adjusted for inflation, teacher’s salaries have declined in many districts.

A look at teacher salary over time:

DISTRICT 2007-08 average pay 2017-18 average pay Percent change 2007-08 wage in 2018 dollars Percent change when adjusted for inflation
Denver Public Schools $47,197 $50,757 7.54% $57,794 -12.18%
Jeffco Public Schools $52,512 $57,154 8.84% $64,310 -11.13%
Dougco $52,078 $53,080 1.92% $63,771 -16.76%
Cherry Creek $57,152 $71,711 25.47% $69,985 2.47%
Aurora Public Schools $52,755 $54,742 3.77% $64,600 -15.26%
Westminster Public Schools $54,466 $58,976 8.28% $66,695 -11.57%
Adams 14 $46,679 $57,394 22.95% $57,160 0.41%
Sheridan $45,467 $49,535 8.95% $55,676 -11.03%
Deer Trail $36,654 $41,582 13.44% $44,884 -7.36%

 How does that compare to other states?

For many years, Colorado ranked in the bottom tier for teacher salaries, but the most recent ranking from the National Education Association put Colorado at No. 31. The rise in the rankings might reflect some districts giving raises after years of pay freezes as education funding slowly increases or as voters approve new local taxes.

Colorado teacher salaries are still well below the national average of $60,483.

And a recent report ranked Colorado dead last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries. The report compared how much teachers earn compared to other people who also had college degrees. The study adjusted for number of hours worked.

That is, teachers in Colorado take the biggest hit for choosing to go into education as opposed to some other profession.

What does PERA have to do with all this?

Colorado’s public employee retirement system, in which teachers participate, has an unfunded liability of somewhere between $32 billion and $50 billion. As lawmakers try to address this, various proposals have called on both employees and employers to pay more.

Retirement benefits, like health insurance, make up a growing share of school districts’ personnel budgets, so if they have to pay more into PERA, that’s less money for other education needs, including teacher pay.

And teachers who feel like their paychecks are already too small also don’t want to pay more.

Proposed solutions also call for reducing cost-of-living increases for retirees, raising the retirement age, and putting more of taxpayers’ dollars into the system.  

Democrats and Republicans don’t agree on the right balance, and whatever they decide will have implications for district budgets and teacher paychecks.

Teachers don’t get Social Security benefits, and many of them say that solid retirement benefits are an important part of compensation. They fear that a less generous package will make it even harder to hire and keep teachers.

What about the marijuana tax money?

The bulk of marijuana tax revenue for education goes to a program that helps schools pay for buildings and construction repairs. Districts apply and compete for grant money from the program, and in most cases have to put up some portion of the project’s cost. This money can’t be used for things like teacher salaries or books.

This year there’s bipartisan legislation to dramatically increase the amount of marijuana money that goes to fund this capital construction. Currently, only the first $40 million in marijuana tax revenue goes to the program. This change would set aside the first 90 percent of marijuana tax revenue for the construction grant program, up to $100 million.

Starting this year, 12.59 percent of marijuana tax revenue is also set aside for the regular education budget. That’s about $20 million a year at current rates.

Other marijuana money is set aside for various grant programs including one that schools can get to help pay for health professionals such as counselors or nurses. As the state collects more marijuana revenue, the amounts set aside for the grant programs has increased.

Nevermind

Sponsor pulls bill that would change how Colorado distributes money to schools

A student takes part in an after-school program at Ashley Elementary School in Denver last spring. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post).

There won’t be a change to Colorado’s school funding formula this year, at least not at the Capitol.

State Rep. Dave Young, a Greeley Democrat, killed his own bill Wednesday by asking that it be postponed indefinitely. The House Education Committee complied, though some Democrats were reluctant.

Young said he didn’t think the bill, which had already been postponed twice, could garner bipartisan support in a form that the superintendents who conceived of the proposal could accept, but he said lawmakers need to come back to the issue.

“There is a sense of urgency that is greater right now and will continue to escalate if we don’t show that we are doing something,” he said of the eve of massive teacher rallies calling for more school funding.

The proposal called for a “student-centered” distribution model to replace the state’s school finance formula created in 1994. At its most basic, this approach gives districts and schools more money for students who have more needs, whether that’s learning English or being gifted and talented or having a disability. A working group of Colorado superintendents came up with the new formula, and eventually 171 of the state’s 178 district leaders signed onto it.

The new formula would have gone into effect only if voters passed a $1.6 billion tax increase. Without the additional money, the change would have cost some districts millions.

Superintendents felt so strongly about this formula that they held a rally to unveil it.

After the committee vote, Cheyenne Mountain Superintendent Walt Cooper, who led the effort to change the formula, said his group would keep working on the idea until they could find bipartisan support.

I think I speak for all of my colleagues that we understood the political realities going in,” Cooper said, describing himself as “disappointed but not discouraged.”

“It’s very seldom is a bill’s first attempt its last attempt.”

However, an interim school finance committee that expects to propose legislation for the 2019 session will not be taking up the superintendents’ proposal.

Republicans and Democrats both raised concerns about the bill. While proponents of the formula change argued it’s much more equitable, Republicans said it seemed to them that the tax increase was the real change, with its potential for a big cash infusion to schools. Democrats wondered about the wisdom of tackling the distribution formula in isolation from other problems related to how Colorado funds its schools.

The effort to put that tax increase on the ballot continues, and the initiative itself would compel changes to the funding formula if it passes.

“Great Schools, Thriving Communities is moving forward full speed ahead,” said Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, an advocacy group. “Our ballot measure has a more equitable distribution embedded in it, and it also shows the voter intent that our school finance system be very equitable and student-focused. The legislature will have another chance to pick up this issue.”

Colorado voters have twice before rejected tax increases for education, but Weil said she believes this time will be different.

“There has been cut after cut, year after year, a few more kids in each classroom, pay freezes, shave away some extracurricular activities, or more fees appear,” she said. “People are getting it. Our current school funding levels are not the path forward we want for Colorado.”