Colorado has reduced its public education deficit to its lowest level since 2010 while creating a separate special education fund under a pair of laws Governor Jared Polis signed on Thursday.
The Public Schools Finance Act, or HB22-1390, is one of the few must-have bills passed by the Legislature this year. In it, lawmakers increased per-student funding by $545 for the next school year and reduced the constitutionally required public education funding shortfall from $503 million to $321 million.
Lawmakers originally aimed to eliminate the Great Recession-era deficit, known as the fiscal stabilizer, but soaring inflation has undone those plans, said Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, a Democrat of Arvada. Still, they hailed the takeover as historic — particularly two years after pandemic uncertainty pushed it past $1 billion.
“The Schools Funding Act made a record investment in buying the BS factor,” said Rep. Julie McCluskie, a Democrat from Dillon, theatrically pointing out the acronym for the deficit. “This nasty thing that’s been haunting us for over a decade. And we want to commit to being able to redeem that within a year or two.”
Polis said the increased funding will help schools increase teachers’ salaries, add workers to reduce class sizes and restore programs cut in previous years, though the state can’t tell specifically. school boards how the money is spent.
Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, celebrated redeeming the deficit, while noting that it still hasn’t gone away. Now entering her 13th year, that means a high school student will have gone through K-12 in Colorado without a fully funded education, she said.
Meanwhile, salaries, class sizes and wider constraints weigh on the profession, she said. In a recent poll, two-thirds of CEA members said they plan to leave the profession at the end of this school year, Baca-Oehlert said.
“We hope districts will use this increased funding to provide adequate pay for our educators so they don’t have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet,” Baca-Oehlert said.
Polis also signed a bill that specifically adds $80 million to special education in the state — an amount Zenzinger, a teacher, called “transformational.” It creates a secondary fund to the Schools Finance Act that will be distributed to school districts based on the number of students with special needs and the extent of those needs.
“This bill, finally – I think this is the first time in Colorado history, certainly in time, decades, that I’ve been involved – really helps fund special education in Colorado. “Polis said.
The money will better close the gap between federal special education funding standards and state commitment, though it won’t completely erase it, Zenzinger said. For students with the greatest need, this increases the funding gap from around 30% to 75%, she said.
“Really, it’s going to be transformational,” she said. “Districts have to provide these services, and they do, but they’re barely getting by. And so these additional resources will allow us to hire paraprofessionals or pay them a living wage so that teachers in the classroom have more support.
In fact, it also helps the general education budget, she said, because school districts won’t have to dig so deep to pay for special needs education.