Like a third-grader who keeps losing his lunch money on the way to school, Colorado’s public education system starts almost every year with all the resources you’d think it would need to achieve better outcomes for its students. Yet, it never manages to arrive at that goal.

A telling new report from Colorado’s Common Sense Institute underscores the point. The nonpartisan, nonprofit institute tracked public ed spending by the state over time; its research findings challenge conventional wisdom. A public accustomed to hearing of perpetually “underfunded” schools — in which teachers are reputedly underpaid and classes lack basic resources — may be surprised to learn Colorado spends plenty on schools.

Among the report’s findings is that, “funding for K-12 education is at an all-time high, even as education continues to be crowded out of the state budget by spending on other areas such as health care…” In fact, total school funding in Colorado has been steadily increasing each year since 2013 (with the exception of last year, when COVID took a toll on public coffers).

Colorado’s General Assembly allocated almost $8 billion toward the state’s public schools for the coming fiscal year — or $8,991 per pupil — though the total going to public ed each year is even higher. The report also tallied mill levy overrides allowed under the state’s tax-limitation law in Colorado’s 178 school districts, along with state and federal grant programs.

Add all that up, and the grand total for 2020 (the latest year for which those latter figures are available) was $13.22 billion. That’s an an average of $14,574 per pupil.

How, then, are parents to reconcile that fairly rosy funding picture with the abysmal performance of Colorado public school students on last spring’s achievement tests? The test results, released by the state Department of Education in August, in part reflect last year’s experience with remote learning amid COVID, when student achievement took a nosedive. But the latest round of test scores also reflects a perennial pattern in which significant percentages of Colorado kids in various grades read and / or perform math functions below grade level.

Put more succinctly, the input of funding doesn’t seem to match the output in student achievement. Why?

The Common Sense findings offer some compelling clues, if not definitive answers. It comes down, at least in part, to how the money is being spent.

Some education funding is being siphoned off to cover the looming, unfunded liability of the state pension fund for teachers and other state employees — the Colorado Public Employees’ Retirement Association, or PERA. As the Common Sense report points out, “By 2022, the contributions to PERA from the school division just to pay down the unfunded liability will be more than $900 million….The more than $900 million in funds could be available for other spending priorities if it were not committed to pay down the growing unfunded liability …”

It breaks down to about $16,117 per teacher. While teachers hope to draw their pensions from PERA someday — assuming it remains solvent — the very same pension is a ball and chain for them right now. It draws down funds that could be used for raises, classroom instruction resources and the like. It all makes a case for thoroughgoing pension reform — rather than just appropriating more money in hopes of bailing the pension out of its future debt.

The 33-page report also zeroes in on mission creep: More and more of even those education dollars that stay in the system — are being diverted from kids and classrooms.

“There has been a decrease in spending on staff and services related to instruction over the past 10 years,” the report finds. “Operations, school and district administration and supports for students all saw increases as a share of total spending from 2010 to 2020.” So, more is being spent on overhead and social programs.

And the report reaffirms long-standing concerns about the uneven way in which the state distributes funding to Colorado school districts.

“As the School Finance Act stands now, funding for K-12 education is collected from taxpayers and distributed to school districts in an inequitable manner, and simply adding more dollars into the system will only perpetuate those inequities,” the report states. “The formula favors district characteristics such as district size and cost of living over student needs.”

Common Sense notes an interim legislative committee will be reassessing the entire school-finance process through this fall and next. The committee will be looking for ways to modernize the school funding formula. Let’s hope lawmakers are open to far-reaching change. Warns the report:

“The current funding system has serious structural flaws and increasing revenues without addressing those flaws is unlikely to improve student outcomes.”

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