Forgotten failing schools in Colorado

Jesse Carey

On a night of bad news for his party, Gov. John Hickenlooper rode a razor thin majority to reelection over his opponent, Bob Beauprez. So Hickenlooper survived the biggest political test of his career thus far; now what?

Several days before the election, I had the opportunity to participate in a phone interview with Hickenlooper. One of the questions that was asked of the Governor concerned his visions regarding a then-hypothetical second term.

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In his answer, Hickenlooper cited education reform as one of his main priorities: “Your zip code should not define what kind of life you are going to have,” he said. A very noble sentiment, but the state has a long history of shorting certain parts of the state, parts that desperately need the funding, which contributes far beyond anything else to what kind of life you are going to have. But we need not solely take my word for it.

First, a quick tour of the way that the state raises money for education.

The state funds the school system through state revenue and local property taxes. Since the passage of a constitutional amendment early in the new millennium, property taxes have nosedived, and will continue to do so, which means that state revenue is required to pick up more of the slack. Colorado usually meets the minimum required by a separate amendment towards the funding of public school. As a result, Colorado spends the ninth-least on education funding in the entire country.

Education funding can be raised through several local operations, such as mill levies, but that requires a community willing to raise taxes. Lastly, a program of standardized testing directly tied a school district’s test scores to funding. Districts with poor performance received less funds, which was supposed to galvanize districts into performing better.

All of these components of the state’s education program have conspired to leave some areas of the state out in the cold. Take Montezuma County, a place in Colorado that might as well be another planet for all that it has in common with the Front Range. It is eight hours away from Denver, in the far Southwest corner of the state. Its district encompasses three separate towns. It is one of the most racially diverse areas in the state, and one of the poorest, with an economy made up mostly from agriculture and tourism. This was the district in which I grew up in.

Montezuma RE-1 is ranked one of the worst school districts in the entire state. Its local community has voted down mill levy after mill levy that would raise funding. Its standardized testing has flatlined, and its funding is so poor that for two years, the district went to a four-day week to save money. I experienced most of the tribulations of the district as a student, including the four day week. The ways in which a school district could raise money and improve the quality of a students education are not available in Montezuma County, and in many neighboring counties as well.

In the case of Montezuma and other counties far removed from Denver and the Front Range, overlapping factors contribute to a vicious cycle of poor performance, terrible graduation rates, and other failures in the education system. Simply offering incentives or threatening school districts will not cut it. Structural changes in the legislature and the constitution will be needed to fix the challenges faced by much of the state, and band-aid measures such as the recent transparency bill will not suffice on their own.

Hickenlooper won, and he has plans for his second term. Let us all hope that he carries out his plans with an eye on the entire state, and not just the districts in his backyard.

Collegian Columnist Jesse Carey can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter by @junotbend.