Shuffling the Deck Chairs on the Titanic

86,000+ kids in Jeffco. 900,000+ kids in Colorado. Every single one deserves a quality education in our public schools. Yet, we continue to underfund our schools.

Our legislators have passed a ridiculous number of unfunded mandates. Several were great ideas but without the funding to support the great ideas. That left districts with implementing all of these ideas with no new resources. In fact, they’ve been forced to implement most while being defunded to the tune of  $5,010,812,263 due to the negative factor.

Still, our legislators continue on their path of compromises and, in their eyes, good ideas. But we can’t keep doing more with less.

Nearly every district with the capacity has tried to run mill levy and bond initiatives to make up for the losses. The districts that have not passed the initiatives are the ones hurting the most, even though all districts have suffered severely due to the cuts.

Each year, legislation comes up promoting more charter funding, vouchers, education tax credits (vouchers), education savings accounts (which is another sneaky way to say vouchers in new words to trick taxpayers who have rejected vouchers multiple times in Colorado history.)

When it comes to vouchers for private and religious schools, it’s a resounding no from the courts as well as the voters. But let’s actually talk about charter schools. In Colorado, there can be no for profit charter schools but there are tricky ways around that with management companies.

However, there are good charter schools that do good work for students who need differing services. We have several good charter schools in Jeffco and that needs to be very clear and those schools should be supported as part of the choices offered in Jeffco and the preferences of parents to make the right educational decisions for their children should also be respected and supported.

But we have a problem. A big one. Jeffco has always shared mill levy dollars with our charters. It seems that many charter parents were not aware of this and that’s really an issue of charter schools relaying information to their communities. They were always at the table in discussions and the share of the monies was negotiated and agreed with their representatives. Mill levy and bond campaigns in Jeffco have been very clear communicating what the monies would fund at our schools, with the exception of charter schools. It would be beneficial for voters as well as parents to know how those dollars are spent. That’s one item of transparency and accountability that can and should be addressed as well as required.

Are you listening, legislators?

Charters are also able to apply for waivers from many state mandates, which other schools aren’t allowed to do. This decreases costs for charters since the mandates are unfunded and/or underfunded. Others don’t change costs at all but allow increased mobility in policy and operations allowing for reduced staffing requirements.

The board majority that was recalled in 2015, (Witt, Newkirk, and Williams) made some funding changes that impacted charters both positively and negatively. They enacted funding that allocated an equal per pupil funding of previous mill and bond monies that diverted approximately $9 million away from other schools while the general fund administers funding for schools as equitable rather than equal. The fund diversion broke promises to voters from the previous campaigns for passing these mills and bonds. Because those funds were diverted, this changed the budget for all other schools by removing expected funding. A clear negative for all other schools and likely an action that negatively impacted the 2016 mill and bond campaign. HB1375 will negatively impact those districts that have not shared their mill and bond dollars equally, in the same way.

Because our new Board of Education did not want to hurt charters by again reallocating funds and taking away from our charters, nothing in this funding diversion has been changed.  This is a very difficult subject because it simply pits kids against kids and leaves us all again talking about the tiny pieces of our tiny pie; that’s a distraction from the bigger issue of overall funding. ALL students in ALL schools truly need more funding.

While one group of mothers were advocating for increased access to free full-day kindergarten for our neediest schools, the recalled board members denied this access to children. Once the diversion of previous mill levy dollars was allocated, a charter in that area offered free full-day kindergarten in paid advertisements sponsored and marketed on Facebook – yet the neighborhood school serving the needier population was unable to do so. Again, this pits kids against kids.

Because our charters are not telling their communities about mill and bond monies, that information is not being relayed into the community and even the campaigns are unable to share how charters are benefitting. Additionally, though one amazing parent and charter school community did get involved in the 2016 mill and bond campaign, there were actually charter schools that opposed the mill and bond. That is completely unacceptable and it happened in multiple districts. Charter schools need to be sharing the issues of education funding in Colorado with their communities. Some do, but not many. Most set up their own fundraising entity, a PTO or foundation and have the ability to raise extreme amounts of monies as well as requiring their parents to volunteer, another item that neighborhood schools are prevented from doing. The playing field just gets more and more inequitable.

All of these combined issues are leading many to not trust charter schools. All of the politics and organizations advocating ONLY for charter schools are causing an increased distrust in charters. Additionally, every time another article in the news comes out about charter chains with a management company that gets caught diverting hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits to a few individuals and/or investors, it hurts charter schools and the intention of their services. Charter school boards should be run completely by parents who actually have children in the schools to ensure that there is proper oversight and accountability.

The real truth is that the majority of families choose their neighborhood school or don’t have the option to drive their children to the other side of a county for the school of their choice. That is true for approximately 85% of our students who attend their neighborhood schools. The neighborhood schools must serve each child who walks through the doors, no matter what. Though that is supposed to be true of charters as well, we have written proof that special education students or those who don’t perform as highly are very often counselled out. The same can be said for some option schools and neighborhood school programs but they don’t make the news as charter schools have. This practice must stop.

Again, we hope our legislators are listening.

Legislation like HB1375 serves to further the divide between those who support charters and those who don’t and leaves those of us in the middle forced to attempt to explain the impossibly complicated subject of education funding (do you have 3 hours to spare?), how diverting funds from one group to another is harmful, and how we need to be focusing on ALL children and working together.

It’s all about the pie. We need a bigger pie.

As one friend stated, “this legislation did nothing for equity in Colorado education. They simply shuffled the deck chairs on the Titanic. Again.”