Comparing Colorado education spending, performance
If perception is reality, then does it matter when reality is different from perception?Earlier this year, advocates of changing Colorado’s constitutional spending limit commissioned a poll to gauge voters’ attitudes toward funding for specific government programs.Eyebrows raised when the largest share of those polled believed K-12 education was the area hurt most by state budget difficulties. Although K-12 is not on easy street, Amendment 23, passed by voters in 2000, has guaranteed that state spending on each pupil increases even when state revenues drop. For the past three budget years, advocates for other budget priorities – higher education, nursing homes, corrections, agriculture – have cast envious glances at K-12, which now accounts for 44 percent of all general fund spending. School boards and administrators, on the other hand, wonder where they would be without Amendment 23 because they still face budget difficulties.
Declining enrollment forces schools to cut back on personnel and class options because fewer students mean fewer dollars. Meanwhile, rising costs for transportation, energy and employee health insurance often outpace new revenues – problems not unlike those faced by local businesses.After acknowledging that K-12’s preferred status is more cushion than shield, it’s worth noting where Colorado ranks compared to other states on both spending and performance.Contrary to the cynical bumper sticker, Colorado does not rank 49th in education funding. That fallacy comes from a convoluted calculation which assumes that, as taxpayers’ income grows, spending on education must grow at the same pace, if not faster still.Of course, the same argument could apply to any other budget item – as if state government has an inherent right to a fixed percentage of everyone’s income. However, if that’s the case, then we must be falling behind in spending for prisons and welfare, too.
The more accurate index is whether education spending has kept pace with inflation. Just as those familiar with the state budget were shocked to learn that many voters think education has been shorted, those who have complained so bitterly about funding will be stunned to learn that per pupil spending has actually surpassed inflation by 10.9 percent or $588 per student over the past 20 years.Colorado ranked 38th in per pupil spending as of 2000-01, but ample evidence suggests that we spend a larger portion than most on the classroom rather than administration. In elementary and secondary schools, 90.2 percent of instructional staff are teachers – that’s sixth-best in the nation. Average salary ranks 26th.More importantly, student performance is improving. When Governor Owens signed the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) into law, many complained that students not bound for college shouldn’t be asked to take the ACT test and that doing so would drag down our statewide average.Instead, Colorado students rank 17th nationally with an average score of 21.5 – even more impressive considering that 99 percent of Colorado students take the test, compared to a self-selected 39 percent nationwide.
Ironically, Colorado students rank slightly lower (20th) on the SAT, which isn’t required and is taken by only 28 percent. However, from 1992 to 2002, the average score of Colorado students improved from 1057 to 1091, the 10th best improvement rate in the nation.Finally, in a study of public school choice options, American Legislative Exchange Council ranked Colorado ninth among the 40 states which authorize charter schools. The study explodes the myth that charter schools are subtle tools of re-segregation. White students comprise a smaller portion of charter school enrollment (72.4 percent) than they do in public schools (76.6). Meanwhile, enrollment of black students is fully one-third higher in charter schools (6 percent) than in public schools (4.5 percent).State Sen. Mark Hillman (R-Burlington) is the senate majority leader. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
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