Rankin: Aspen schools: Are we there yet? | AspenTimes.com

Rankin: Aspen schools: Are we there yet?

Joyce Rankin
Guest Commentary

This November, Colorado residents will vote for or against the first progressive income tax and the largest income-tax increase in the state's history.

The new tax would raise about $1 billion each year to increase funding for K-12 public schools and new pre-K-12 programs. The legislation that the new funding supports also changes the formula by which money is distributed to school districts in Colorado. For the last several decades, funding for schools across America has increased while outcomes have deteriorated. New taxes of this magnitude will place a burden on Coloradans with little promise of better graduation rates, job preparation or any other measures of improvement.

There are education reforms throughout the country that are proving that outcomes can be achieved. Should Colorado increase funding with only a promise that we will see these reforms implemented? Maybe it's time to think again.

There exists a veritable army of "experts" who conduct endless meetings and write volumes on ways to improve K-12 education. In Colorado, it's popular to use statistics to prove that we simply don't spend enough money. But over and over, throughout the country, we see proof that money alone won't improve the measures that matter. We need look no further than nearby districts largely in Garfield County for evidence, admittedly anecdotal to prove the point. It's also possible to find districts implementing real reform and resulting in student success.

Let's look first at Garfield County offering an example of additional money and the subsequent outcomes.

Garfield County has two school districts:

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School District 1 (RE-1) voted for a mill levy override in 2011, increasing school funding by $4.8 million. Based on this funding increase, "full-time teachers and staff in RE-1 each received a $1500 bonus. It's possible the school board could approve another bonus … using some of the remaining funds. … Looking to 2012-13 … may also reinstate pay scale step increases using part of extra mill ley funds." (Glenwood Springs Post Independent, 2012)

In August, RE-1 students scored an average of 3 percent below last year on state reading and writing assessment tests, according to results of the 2013 Transitional Colorado Assessment Program test scores.

School District 2 (RE-2) voted down a $3 million mill levy override. The result of this vote led the school board to reluctantly cut one day out of the school week. The Post Independent reported, "Students in the Garfield RE-2 School District will have a four-day school week beginning with the 2012-13 school year." In August, the newspaper reported that officials had celebrated test-score gains. "Officials are generally pleased with the academic progress of students in Rifle, Silt and New Castle. The four-day school week created a sense of urgency around maximizing student contact time, and insuring that instruction was centered around academic standards," said Superintendent Susan Birdsey. (Post Independent)

RE-1 raised taxes, gave teachers/staffs bonuses and TCAP test scores declined.

RE-2 voted down the tax increase, cut the school week by one day, emphasized academic standards and test scores increased.

How can we break the cycle of spending more for education without improving educational outcomes? A start might be to look at Douglas County School District, which is experiencing academic success with lower costs. The county's transformational reform is built upon a foundation of world-class educational standards, school choice and pay for performance.

Budget goals also were transformed and between 2008 and 2013, Douglas County reduced central administrating spending by 20 percent. So far it's working. In two years on-time graduation increased from 83 to 87 percent. Teacher enthusiasm and satisfaction also improved as higher academic standards helped to determine opportunities and compensation for teachers.

Another example of success can be seen in the KIPP Charter School model, KIPP stands for Knowledge is Power Program. Students enrolled in KIPP schools spend more seat time in school and less time off in the summer. Parents must be supportive and involved in the program for their child to be accepted. Currently there are 150 KIPP schools throughout the United States, with three in Denver.

Colorado has great examples and opportunities to reform public schools.

Aspen schools are doing very well academically compared with other school districts in Colorado. Aspen High is academically ranked 12th out of 124 districts in the state; however, Colorado is in middle of the nation that, by recent reports, is 31st in the world in math among 15-year-olds (tenth-graders). Aspen 10th-graders scored 45 percent proficient or above in math on the recent TCAP test results.

Can and should we do better?

Joyce Rankin is a retired elementary school teacher and principal.