Rural teacher shortage bill battles Colo. Senate snag


A proposal to increase Colorado’s special education funding by $40 million unanimously passed its first committee vote Monday.

If approved by the full state legislature, Senate Bill 99 would add $40,203,671 to the Department of Education’s annual appropriation. Proponents said the funding would be used for special education programs to help bring down student-teacher ratios, decrease class sizes and provide additional support.

“Every Colorado student deserves a great public education, but the current level of state support for special education isn’t giving every learner that same opportunity,” said bill sponsor Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada. “We’ve been fighting hard to fix that, and this bill will help us get even more critical resources to the classrooms that need them most while helping ensure that every student, regardless of their ability, is prepared for success.”

Complex disabilities among children have recently increased, largely due to children surviving infancy who would not have only decades ago, said Callan Ware with Consortium of Directors of Special Education, adding this has resulted in the costs of special education rising in recent years. 

Children with complex disabilities require intensive support in their daily education, Ware said, which can include speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, psychologists, trained behavioral specialists and trained paraprofessionals, in addition to normal special education teachers. But in some schools, special education programs don’t even have the bare minimum to operate.

Bri Buentello said when she moved from Kansas to Colorado as a special education teacher, the lack of resources shocked her. She said the classroom had no working HVAC system, forcing her to rely on space heaters bought with her own money to keep students warm — though the heaters often knocked out the room’s electricity. 

“You see the very real cost of not funding special education in the classroom,” said Buentello, who is now a representative for Stand for Children Colorado. “When I could scrape together resources for my kids, it was just so often the bare minimum. That wasn’t the Colorado I believed in.”

In the Cañon City School District, 17% to 18% of students are classified as special needs, higher than both the national and state averages, said Robin Reeser, president of the district’s board of education.

Reeser said the district spends $5.5 million on special education services annually, though the special education funding they receive covers only 47% of the costs to provide services required under state and federal law. The district is forced to take the rest of the money from their general education fund, she said.

“Your support for this measure will help districts like mine and kids like ours,” Reeser said.

The bill is backed by over a dozen organizations, including the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, Colorado League of Charter Schools and Colorado Rural Schools Alliance, as well as the school districts of Aurora, Douglas County, St. Vrain Valley and Pikes Peak. No one testified or registered in opposition to the bill.  

The Senate Education Committee unanimously approved the bipartisan bill — also sponsored by Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, R-Brighton — sending it to the Senate Appropriations Committee for further consideration.

This bill comes after, last year, the legislature increased special education funding by around $80 million per year, bringing the annual funding from $220 million to $300 million, and the funding per student from $1,250 to $1,750.

"You are probably tired of hearing me at this dais talk about special education funding, but the sole reason why I am here is because we are not done yet,” Zenzinger said, “and I will continue to come back here until we have fully funded special education.”

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