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A student works at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora.

According to a survey of 636 voters likely to head to the ballot box in 2020, improving public education remains a top priority for voters, with transportation and protecting the environment second and a close third, respectively.

The poll was conducted in December by Alabama-based Republican political consultant firm CYGNAL for ReadyCO, a center-right education advocacy group. The polling was cited last week by Republican House and Senate lawmakers as they rolled out their education agenda for the 2020 session.

"The way to change the trajectory of a child's life is through education," said Sen. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, said. “How can we do it better?... Maybe speak to the people of Colorado.”

The poll asked 25 questions over six areas, according to Tyler Sandberg of ReadyCO: teacher pay, school choice, parent empowerment, school funding, putting students first (including concurrent enrollment) and school safety.

A number of the bills introduced last week have been assigned to so-called "kill committees," which makes their passage more unlikely.

“No one school can be best for every child,” said Luke Ragland, president of ReadyCO. So why are Republican bills being sent to “kill” committees? he asked.

That includes Senate Bill 15, sponsored by Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, which seeks to overturn a 2019 law on transporting children from their home school district to the district of their choice. The bill is the result of a previous measure from 2018, a portion of which was declared unconstitutional because it violated the state’s single-subject law. The 2018 measure was about transporting foster children to their original home school district when they’re moved from one foster home to another. Republicans added a last-minute amendment to require school districts to pay for any child to go to any school district.

The ReadyCO survey, however, asked if a child should be allowed to receive a transportation stipend to another school district if the child is being bullied. SB 15 doesn’t mention bullying; it deals specifically with children on free or reduced lunches or a student who has special needs. Hill’s bill has been assigned to the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, the Senate’s so-called “kill committee.”

In another issue, the ReadyCO survey asked about requiring school districts to conduct school safety assessments that meet “certain minimum requirements,” but didn’t appear to spell out what those minimum requirements are. That drew a response of 83.1% in favor, but 9% said they needed more information.

Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, has sponsored a bill — SB 27 — to require local school districts to obtain school safety assessments. It was also sent to the Senate State Affairs committee.

Another bill from Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, and Rep. Bri Buentello, D-Pueblo, also suffered the same fate. Their bill provides incentives to highly effective teachers to work in low-performing schools. The poll showed 75.6% support for a $12,000 bonus, and while it's copied into SB 66, the bill leaves that up to the state Department of Education and the Colorado Board of Education, based on the number of highly effective teachers who work in low-performing schools and the amount of funding available. 

Minority Leader Chris Holbert’s plan to educate middle school parents and students about concurrent enrollment, which will be available when the child reaches high school, has not yet been introduced. The ReadyCO poll asked generally the same question that Holbert described in his bill last week, and 93% said they supported such an idea. 

Sandberg from ReadyCO said that program should be available in different languages, not just English, to assist parents for whom English is not their first language, such as in the Aurora Public Schools. A parent could then decide which high school to send their child to, based on the availability of concurrent enrollment programs, he added.

More results from the poll

On the issue of school funding, the poll showed stark differences between Democrats and Republicans. The majority of respondents (56%) believe public education is underfunded, which is around $13,000 per student per year on average. About 39% of Republicans said public education is funded at the right level; 21.7% said it was overfunded and 26.2% said it is underfunded. 

Among Democrats, however, 79.7% said it is underfunded, 9.1% said it is just about right and only 1.6% who said public schools are overfunded. Unaffiliated voters sided with Democrats, with 58.1% who said schools are underfunded, versus 10.1% who believe schools are overfunded and 21.3% who feel funding is just about right. 

But reflective of several failed ballot measures in the past several years, most respondents said more taxes are not the answer. Just 24.9% supported raising taxes; with Democrats almost evenly split between raising taxes and reprioritizing state spending in order to better fund public education. Republicans, however, supported better priorities in the state budget, at 95.7% and only 2.7% said they supported raising taxes.

School choice — whether sending a child to a private school, charter school or a public school outside the home district — remains popular with ReadyCO respondents.

Almost 60% of those polled said they had a favorable view of charter schools, versus 25.3% who said they had an unfavorable view.

Funding, however, is another matter. About 59% said they supported providing a tax credit, paid to individual and corporate donors, that would provide scholarships that would allow low-income parents to send their children to private schools. That resonated well with Republicans, at 67.2% and with Democrats at 50.3%, the poll said.

On teacher pay, the survey said the average salary is $52,000 per year, which Sandberg said is skewed higher by salaries paid in Denver and Boulder. Teachers in rural communities are paid far below that, around $30,000 for some of the school districts on the Eastern Plains. The survey showed most respondents (66.6%) believe teachers are paid too little.

However, more Republicans believed teachers are paid the right amount (47.5%) than underpaid (45.5%). Democrats were firmly in the “underpaid” category, at 83.5% and only 12% who believe teacher pay is “about right.” Unaffiliated voters sided with Democrats on this issue, too; with 68.3% saying teachers are paid too little. 

Another question centered around teacher pay asked about the right to opt out of a collective bargaining agreement and negotiate their own employment contracts for higher pay. Republicans supported that idea by a margin of 72.6% to 16.5%; Democrats opposed it, with 45.45% against and 38.1% in support. On this question, unaffiliated voters sided with Republicans, with 57.1% in support. That idea has yet to turn into legislation.  

Respondents generally matched voter registration percentages, with Republicans at 29%, Democrats 33% and unaffiliated voters at 38%.

The poll had a margin of error of 3.89 percentage points.

The Colorado Education Association supports raising compensation for Colorado's public school teachers but believes the idea around bonuses, for example, is a distraction, not a solution.

CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert said in a statement to Colorado Politics that their top legislative priority in 2020 for its 38,000 members is raising compensation. She said that Colorado has the least competitive teacher pay in the country and ranks 47th among the states for starting teacher pay.

"The low, uncompetitive level of pay contributes to educator shortages across our state and falling numbers of young professional seeking education as a career. Educators have public opinion on their side to receive a livable wage, with three-quarters of Americans supporting raising educator pay and three-quarters of Coloradans saying teacher pay falls short," Baca-Oehlert said.

"We need the legislature to take on the much greater issue of increasing investment in all public schools and students, and not get sidetracked by fringe ideas like bonus pay that won’t improve the working and living conditions of the vast majority of educators who need real relief.”

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