Morgridge Academu

Teacher Beth Enderle points to large screen used for remote learning in her classroom at Morgridge Academy on the grounds of National Jewish Health in Denver on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. Morgridge Academy is a K-8 school for students who have health issues and who require medical assistance.

A powder keg of problems rested under public education long before the pandemic: chronically underfunded, too few teachers, too little pay, a parental blame repository for everything wrong with kids and invisibility for what’s right.

And along came a virus. God only knows what’s in front of us. 

It's bound to be historic.

Colorado this year will graduate its first class of kids who have never known a fully funded education system. It's been 12 years since the legislature engineered a way to get around voters' wishes to grow support for schools by inflation plus 1%. Lawmakers borrowed the money from schoolkids. The ledger bleeds red every year, until the gap has reached $1.15 billion.

That means the class of 2021 has never had adequate mental health support beneath them. It means they were denied a well-rounded suite of electives to inspire and steer their passions. Small class sizes or individual instruction? What state are you living in? It ain't this one.

“We sound like a broken record every year, and here we are again saying our No. 1 priority is funding,” Amie Baca-Oehlert, the president of the Colorado Education Association, told me in a Friday morning phone chat. “It feels like we’re on a hamster wheel.”

And now the hamster wheel has caught on fire.

Last year, as the pandemic sank its teeth into the state budget, Colorado K-12 schools felt it deeply, and next they're bracing for a $577 million squeeze in the state budget. At the same time, they were pressured to adapt to virtual learning and install a mint’s worth of plexiglass, disinfectants and unplanned upgrades to ventilation.

Do more with less aren’t new marching orders for our educators, but this is getting ridiculous.

“It’s not like we were living in the lap of luxury before,” Amie told me.

Education stands to lose a lot more than money, too. 

When classes resumed for the fall term in 2019, Colorado had job openings in 8,365 teaching and educational special services — about 1 in 8 positions. Throw in 421 slots for vacant principals or assistant administrators and another 1,688 paraprofessionals. 

And that was before the pandemic.

A 15% pandemic budget cut for schools means potentially losing another 5,710 teaching positions, Colorado Public Radio reported last May.

While finding teachers has been tough for a while, keeping the veterans could be tougher. Some could decide it's time to retire rather than adapt, if public health and school safety are bigger concerns than the need for a paycheck.

We don’t know yet what the workforce will look like, or whether we can get by with huge classes streamed into homes rather than taught in a building.

Amie has three kids. She talked about what a struggle it is to see them struggle with change, missing their friends and missing out on traditional learning.

She's watched her daughter, Marcelina, a sixth-grader, learn to play the clarinet and perform in her first concert all online. 

If chances to learn depend on it, then the technology gap moves up as a priority, and the solutions won't be easy or cheap.

Colorado lawmakers can start by ensuring rural broadband across the state, regardless of a community's size or wealth. That's a promise that should have been kept a long time ago.

There are no guarantees a shiny new toy has batteries, however.

In 1940, schoolhouses then were thought to be a thing of the past, as home radios blossomed across the American landscape. The inherent problem with deployment sounds familiar. Teachers were not deejays then, and they’re not podcasters now.

“The first years of university broadcasting were generally ineffective because many a professor repeated his classroom lecture before the microphone without realizing that a good lecturer was not necessarily an effective broadcaster,” wrote Paul Saettler in his 1990 book “The Evolution of American Educational Technology.”

Right or wrong, I can tell you who will shoulder the blame and not receive any credit: the state legislature. That's partly because the General Assembly is the biggest dog in the pound, but there are others. They're all fed by the same source: taxpayers.

Amie, a high school counselor in Adams County when she's not running the state teachers union, hopes the public has been rattled into consciousness of how many ways their local schools are the center of local life, in addition to family life.

Gov. Jared Polis broke onto the political scene as a state Board of Education member, and when he ran for governor in 2018 he made bold promises to put more into schools.

He delivered in his first year with free full-day kindergarten, and last year led the parade to pass Proposition EE, which puts higher taxes on tobacco and the first taxes on vaping products. The expected $250 million windfall helps preschool and early childhood education.

For the mess we're in post-pandemic, it's going to take a lot more.

As our nation builds back better, as the new folks in the White House put it, a good place to start would be reimagining and refinancing education.

If the public can't do it, then let private enterprise give it a shot. Trump University didn't work out; perhaps his elementary school will.

If we're going to have nice things, we're going to have to pay for them.

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