Wake Up, Colorado! Maybe We Ought to Fix the School Finance System First

By lobbying for an overhaul of tax-and-spending measures in the state constitution, the education establishment groups that came together to form Believe in a Better Colorado are barking up the wrong tree. Or at least they have put the cart before the horse. Pick your favorite overused cliche.

Until we fix the way schools are funded, it’s a futile effort. That’s why my friends in the Education Policy Center recommend a careful look at Facing the Future: Financing Productive Schools from the Center for Reinventing Public Education. Co-authors include Paul Hill and Marguerite Roza, two of the sharpest minds to study the current school system and what could work better.

Here is a key excerpt from the report explaining the problem:

Overall, we have a system in which so much is controlled by decisions made in the past, sometimes for reasons and on behalf of people who are no longer in the system, and at such a distance from schools, that educators have scant flexibility to adapt to the needs of here and now. Teachers and principals, the people whose work the whole system is supposed to support, get complexity and constraint rather than help. In the meantime, the costs of everything are hidden, and people who would like to make trade-offs in pursuit of more effective schools cannot do so.

Our school finance system has:

  • a lot of money in it;
  • considerable diversity in how much is spent, per state and per district;
  • great complexity in terms of the financial interactions between states and localities and the federal government;
  • patterns of inequitable distribution of state and local funds;
  • federal programs that only partly compensate for inequities in state and local fund distribution;
  • course funding practices that provide higher-paid teachers and smaller classes for students in elective classes; and
  • complex expenditure patterns at the local level that cannot readily be tied to student outcomes.

Let’s talk about new and effective ways to revamp Colorado’s school finance system that address these issues. If you’re serious about the topic and want to learn more of the how as well as the why and wherefore, please read the entire paper (PDF).

We need to fund students, not programs and bureaucratic mandates. And more flexibility is required for local schools to spend money innovatively and effectively while being held accountable for the results. This shouldn’t be too much to ask. Then I might be able to believe in a better Colorado.