Colorado spends a large portion of its budget on education, over $13 billion each year. The amount of money in education is important, but more important is how the money is spent. In Colorado, the billions of dollars we spend on K-12 education every year are not spent as effectively as they should be, and students and teachers are the ones that pay the price.
We spend far too much on the educational bureaucracy and not nearly enough on where the learning actually occurs—the classroom.
Let’s look at the numbers.
As a portion of our overall K-12 spending, less than 60% is spent on in-classroom costs, such as teacher salaries or instructional materials.
From 1990 to 2020, Colorado’s K-12 education spending increased by 20%, adjusted for inflation, while at the same time teacher salaries fell by 20%. That’s a serious problem with our education spending priorities.
No wonder teachers have been increasingly frustrated by their continued low pay. We’ve added money to the budget, but it never seems to trickle down to them.
Colorado’s K-12 spending not only fails to prioritize teachers, but the money it does spend on teacher pensions benefits only a very small proportion of teachers themselves. That is because the Public Employee Retirement Association (PERA) only provides full benefits to teachers that stay on the job a full 25 years, which most do not. It’s not like a 401k that employees in the private sector receive that can be transferred to another job if they leave. Statistically, very few will get the full benefit thanks to a structurally flawed system. That means we’re spending billions of dollars paying for teacher pensions and those billions don’t end up significantly helping many teachers. You can rest assured that the teachers union bosses who have spent years fighting meaningful PERA reform will be receiving their full pension, regardless of how well the system works for rank and file teachers.
Again, money matters, but how that money is spent matters more. Looking at the bigger picture, the way we fund schools overall is flawed. We fund the system rather than the student.
If your child attends a charter school authorized by the state charter authorizer, the Charter School Institute, Colorado will spend less money on their education than if they attended their local neighborhood public school just down the block.
Instead, a smarter approach would be to allocate funding based on student needs, not system needs. Students from low-income families, special needs students, or students who are learning English need additional support and the dollars we spend on their education should differ, no matter what school they attend.
We should be funding the student, not the system.
That concept has become readily apparent to every parent in Colorado during remote learning. We are spending millions on empty school buildings that are shuttered to in-person learning or only open a few hours a week, while parents have to help their kids learn from the kitchen table without a single dollar provided to support their efforts. It doesn’t make any sense.
Why, during COVID, have we not found a way to take the dollars being pumped into the cost of empty buildings and repurposed them to help low-income families that could use the money to hire a math tutor for their 6th grader?
The simple way that Colorado could improve how it spends its money on schools is to spend it with learning as the focus. Identify the needs of students to determine where money should be allocated and then invest those dollars in the core of the educational experience — the classroom, not the payroll of the district administration.
Tim Geitner, a Republican from Falcon, is assistant minority leader of the Colorado House of Representatives.