By Kelly Caufield

2016 was a landmark year for education in Colorado. To summarize quickly, Colorado Succeeds supported policies that:

  • Expanded access to high-performing public charter schools;
  • Rewarded schools with financial incentives when students earn in-demand workplace skills and credentials; and
  • Ensured all Colorado students have the benefit of high academic expectations and that all schools are accountable to those outcomes.

Despite these important victories for students, 2016 left some unfinished business. Enter our 2017 legislative priorities. In short, Colorado Succeeds will be working to:

  1. Expand students’ access to computer science and technology
  2. Equalize funding for public charter school students
  3. Support efforts to improve how Colorado funds public schools
  4. Protect and expand school-based autonomy over staffing decisions

Expand Computer Science Access

The role technology plays in virtually every workplace continues to expand rapidly. Now is the time for Colorado to move to the forefront in providing world-class computer science opportunities to public school students.

A St. Vrain Valley Schools high school student teaches younger learners to program robots

A St. Vrain Valley Schools high school student teaches younger learners to program robots.

A first step in this direction would be to update Colorado’s academic standards to include digital literacy. Currently, our state’s standards cover 10 content areas, but computer science, or more broadly technology, is not among them.

By 2020, 55 percent of Colorado jobs will require technology skills. But in 2013, the state produced just 480 computer science post-secondary graduates. Meanwhile, the Colorado IT industry is booming and is expected to continue growing. This has caused businesses to seek qualified talent outside of our state, at significant expense to our public school students.

In 2016, House Bill 1291, which would have helped address deficiencies in computer science education, died late in the session. It would have added technology skills to the state’s content standards, offered state grants to educators interested in additional computer science training, and created a resource bank for schools interested in teaching computer science.

A similar bill should be introduced this session. Policymakers, advocates, and school districts, such as St. Vrain Valley, are already working together to ensure that happens. We know that many states made progress in 2016 to address the dearth of computer science learning opportunities. This session, it’s time for Colorado to equip our students with the skills they need to succeed in the modern workforce. This bill would catapult our state from the middle of the pack to a position of national leadership in teaching computer science, benefiting students, employers, and our communities.

Fund Public Charter Students Equitably

During last year’s session, a bipartisan bill that would have required all Colorado school districts to share locally-raised tax revenue equally with public charter school students died in a House committee on the session’s last day. Senate Bill 16-188 would have given charter schools access to so-called mill levy override revenues in all districts that raise money through locally-approved property tax increases.

This graphic shows that, on average, public charter school students receive 20% less funding than their peers in traditional public schools

While some Colorado school districts, such as Denver and Douglas County, choose to share funding equally, many do not. This leaves nearly 43,000 students shortchanged every year, receiving just 80 cents on the dollar compared to their peers in traditional schools simply because they attend a public charter school.

Charter schools in Colorado work with diverse students who mirror the diversity of our state. Currently, 46.9 percent of Colorado charter public school students identify as students of color, compared to 45.7 percent of the state’s traditional public school students.

Public charter schools are also posting impressive results for kids. In 2015, students in charter schools were more likely to score proficient or advanced in math, reading, and writing on the state assessment than their peers in traditional public schools. This result was true across all demographic groups.

Colorado Succeeds was pleased to see legislation, SB-61, already introduced this session to equalize funding. We hope Colorado’s legislators will do right by all public school students and get it over the finish line.

Improve How Schools are Funded

An entire generation of students have gone through Colorado’s public schools since the state updated its school funding system. That’s 23 years since Colorado last updated school finance. While the state’s budget continues to be squeezed in all areas, including education, moving to a more equitable system of school funding is critical in a time of limited resources.

Here are steps the legislature could take:

  • Having tax dollars follow the child to the extent possible. In other words, fund kids, not systems.
  • Differentiate funding to meet the needs of unique students, including English language learners, gifted and talented, and children living in poverty.

Colorado Succeeds plans to work with bipartisan legislators, education coalition partners, and school districts to support policies and ideas that move our state to a more equitable system. We will continue to push innovative policies that alter the status quo and create systems where students get truly personalized learning systems based on their needs and interests. This can only be done when we rethink how schools and students are funded.

Protect School Staffing Autonomy

To date, several legislative assaults against the Great Teachers and Leaders Act, also known as Senate Bill 10-191, have been beaten back. Now, however, an attempt to gut the law through the judicial system is before the Colorado Supreme Court.

Colorado Succeeds is part of a bipartisan coalition of more than 20 education advocacy groups, business organizations, foundations, and think tanks that have joined together in support of SB-191 and to urge the Court to hold firm and uphold one of the law’s key provisions.

SB-191, the great teachers and leaders law, ensures we treat school leaders like the professionals that they are.Under SB-191, principals can decide which teachers they want in their schools. They can’t be forced to accept teachers their district has been unable to place, as was the case prior to the passage of the accountability law.

Before SB-191, ineffective teachers could be placed in a school against the will of both the teacher and the school leader. Should the state’s largest teacher’s union prevail in its case against Denver Public Schools, however, schools would be forced to decide between two wholly unsatisfactory choices: either force a principal to accept a teacher into his or her school, regardless of whether the school wants to hire that teacher, or continue to pay the teacher full salary and benefits to stay at home.

Our members know that critical to the success of their business is talent and human capital. We believe the same is true for our schools; teachers are by far the single most important in-school factor for student success. To treat school leaders like the experts and the professionals they are, we must empower them to make staffing decisions that are in the best interest of their students.

As the case at the Colorado Supreme Court continues to play out, we hope legislators will hold firm on their commitment to ensuring every Colorado student has access to a high-quality teacher.