By Samantha Curran
CFI Communications Associate
A child’s chance of getting a quality education in Colorado is becoming more and more dependent upon their zip code as schools across our state are forced to rely more heavily on local tax revenue.
Over the last 25 years, Colorado has cut K-12 funding significantly, causing our schools to fall behind. We currently spend $2,053 less per student than the national average, rank last in the nation for providing teachers a competitive wage, and 49 school districts now operate on four-day school weeks due to financial reasons. In an effort to make up for the shortages in state funds, many school districts are increasing per pupil funding through voter-approved property tax increases.
However, many districts simply do not have the property wealth to raise funding sufficient to make up for diminishing state dollars. As a result, Colorado is beginning to see widespread, gross inequities in the quality of education across the state.
Colorado primarily funds its 178 school districts through a combination of local and state sources. Each legislative session, policy makers decide how much the state will allocate to K-12, and a comprehensive calculation called the School Finance Formula determines how that amount of money gets distributed across all districts. Once a school district’s total program level is calculated, local tax revenue is determined and applied, then state aid makes up for the difference.
The purpose of the School Finance Formula is to compensate for the differences in wealth and needs across Colorado’s diverse school districts. The formula considers a variety of different factors such as a district’s size, number of at-risk students and cost of living to determine how much money it should receive beyond the base amount. This ensures that all districts receive the same proportion of funds. However, as school districts independently raise funds through local property taxes, per pupil funding varies immensely across the state.
For example, the school finance formula allocates $7,353 per student for Boulder Valley School District RE-2, $7,163 per student for Douglas County School District RE-1, and $7,389 per student for Pueblo City 60. Boulder however, spends $1,737 more per pupil than Douglas County and $2,262 more per pupil than Pueblo City, once local tax increases are accounted for.
The school districts that have the property wealth and appetite to raise local taxes are increasing school funding, but the school districts who cannot raise money locally are being left behind. For example, this past November, Cherry Creek, Boulder and Steamboat Springs all passed tax measures to raise more money for their schools while Greeley, Pueblo and Colorado Springs were not successful.
It’s no coincidence that Cherry Creek, Boulder and Steamboat Springs are also ranked as some of the best schools in Colorado while Greeley, Pueblo and Colorado Springs are ranked toward the bottom according to Niche 2016 school rankings. These local tax measures act as the deciding factor between the school’s ability to offer full five-day school weeks, providing extracurricular programs, updating infrastructure or maintaining small class sizes; all factors that lead to quality education.
Out of Colorado’s 178 school districts, 89 of those operate on four-day school weeks. Half of these schools made the decision to shorten school weeks due to financial reasons, meaning that the number of school districts operating on four-day weeks has doubled since the year 2000. Half of Colorado’s school districts have some or all schools operating on four-day weeks.
As the state continues to make cuts from the state proportion of school finance, it cripples our ability to compensate for disparities across districts and ensure that each child is receiving the education they deserve. We need to urge our policy makers to increase, not cut, state school funding as this is the only viable and fair solution to making our schools a place where all children can flourish.
For more information on school finance, check out our data library.