classroom stock

While school funding is at an all-time high in Colorado, education still has a hard time getting more attention in the state education budget, as lawmakers invest in health care and state employees' retirement among other priorities.

The Common Sense Institute think tank drew that conclusion in a report released Thursday called "Dollars and Data 2021, a Look at K-12 Education Funding in Colorado."

Until the state modernizes the formula in the School Finance Act, however, student outcomes are unlikely to improve, the analysis determined.

“If Colorado is to have a substantive public discourse about how to improve educational outcomes, there needs to be a common understanding of how K-12 public education is funded in the state,” education fellow Dr. Brenda Bautsch Dickhoner states in the report after analyzing statewide and regional trends in K-12 budgets and state spending over the past decade. 

In the current budget, Colorado put nearly $8 billion in total through the annual School Finance Act, which translated to $8,991 per pupil on average across and enrollment of 888,538 students.

The numbers vary widely, though, from a low of $8,428 up to $19,762 across all school districts.

The statewide average salary for a teacher is $58,219 a year.

"The state average, however, masks the wide variation in salaries that occurs at the regional and school district level," the institute noted.

Meanwhile, the state is putting in more than $900 million into the Public Employees Retirement Association from the school division to pay down the unfunded liability, which works out to $16,117 per teacher, Dickhoner found.

Schools get more money than just the state School Finance Act, however. In the 2020 fiscal year, the amount of K-12 investment from local, state and federal revenue sources totaled $13.22 billion, for an average of $19,853 per pupil.

"There is a downward trend in the share of dollars being spent on instruction, and more specifically, on teacher salaries," the institute found.

The difference includes local mill levy overrides passed by local voters, as well as state and federal grant programs. That doesn't include the proceeds from bond sales, "which are volatile year to year," according to the Common Sense Institute.

Other than last year, as the pandemic wrecked the state budget, overall funding for K-12 education has been on the rise since 2013.

While there has been a decrease in spending on staff and instruction-related services over the past decade, operations, administration and other student support took up an increasing share of the total from 2010 to 2020.

Total spending on teacher salaries slipped, on average across the state, during that period from 41% to 35.6% while other benefits for teachers rose form 9.7% to 11.6% of the total spending.

Read the full report here.

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