Higher pay for high-quality teachers; incentivizing concurrent enrollment; making our schools safer. Sounds brilliant right? That’s what Senate Republicans thought, too, until 23 of the 24 education reforms we proposed were rejected by Senate Democrats during our last legislative session.
Education reform has long been a priority for our caucus; during the COVID-19 lockdowns, we heard frustrated parents’ concerns with the public school system that left so many families to fend for themselves. In January of 2020, just a few short months before our lives were completely turned upside down, Senate Republicans proposed a package of 24 bills that would have made meaningful reforms to public education in this state. These measures included a mandatory school safety assessment for each district; a bonus for about half of the teachers in our state; allowing transportation across district lines; a scholarship for students who complete high school early; a tax credit for teachers who buy school supplies for their students, and many others.
Democrats — who control the entirety of state government — killed all but one.
Ready Colorado found that 67% of Coloradans believe the average teacher salary in the state is too low; 81% of voters support expanding access to magnet schools, career academies, and charter schools. The poll found 73% of voters support allocating a portion of education funding directly to parents. If you’re wondering, Democrats didn’t decide to pursue a different agenda, they decided to pursue no reform agenda at all. After all, the public school employee union — a massive donor to Democrats in the legislature — thrives on the status quo.
As an aside, per the Colorado Constitution, the legislature cannot increase or decrease teacher salaries (that’s a local district’s jurisdiction), which is why we focused on providing bonuses and tax breaks.
In July of 2020, Gov. Polis and Senate Democrats also dismissed Republican proposals for a special session to take up education reform at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. We were eager to bring relief to parents — especially of low- and middle-class families — who were watching as their children got left behind. It is our responsibility to ensure that every child in Colorado has access to a high-quality education, regardless of their health circumstances, age, or income level, which is why we thought it pertinent to bring the legislature back to work.
The Democratic Senate President called it an “attempt to stir the pot” and the Democratic governor declined to call a special session.
Democrats claim to support additional investment in public education. They brag often and loudly of their commitment to promote an education system that will raise performance, close achievement gaps, offer flexibility and innovation, and better prepare students for college or the workplace. We also share this vision. But we do not agree that prioritizing archaic, failing institutions over students, families, and teachers is the way to achieve it.
The Senate president made light of our special session request, but what the good senator was really trying to say is clear: if it wasn’t proposed by his side or the teacher’s union, he doesn’t want to hear it. Americans just elected a president who ran almost exclusively on a campaign platform of “unity.” In our view, unity begins with both sides willing to sit down at a table and talk. At this point, we can’t even reach an agreement on if we want to sit at a square table or a round table.
Our education system is failing the next generation of Coloradans. I think everyone can agree that is completely unacceptable. We won’t make progress on this issue if the ruling party is hell bent on preserving the failing status quo. Our political differences cannot come at the expense of our children’s education.
According to the Colorado Department of Education, Colorado saw more than 30,000 students leave the public school system during the 2020 school year, a 3.3 percent decline, which translates to a $240 million funding loss to schools across the state. The Wall Street Journal has suggested it may take an additional 12 weeks for students to meet grade-level standards in the wake of school closures brought on by COVID-19.
The challenges we are confronted with this session are even more pressing than the last. Education isn’t something politicians can keep ignoring, and it is unfortunate that the party controlling both chambers of the General Assembly and the Governor’s Office has chosen to obstruct any progress. Instead of killing bills and rejecting special sessions, let’s look past our parties' differences and come together to prioritize students, parents and teachers.
Rob Woodward, a Loveland Republican, represents District 15 in the Colorado state Senate.