Rankin: What’s next for education reform?

The $ 1 billion tax increase to enable Colorado Senate Bill 213, a major change to school financing, was defeated by a 65 percent to 35 percent vote. The voters of Colorado have voted against a tax increase once again. But where does that leave Colorado’s need for reform of its government-run schools? The voters and the state Legislature are being forced to think again.

There are some provisions of the failed bill that could be resurrected and funded with existing budgets. Bills already are being drafted in the state House to do just that. Hopefully, we will see bipartisan support for at least four reform measures in the upcoming legislative session.

Financial transparency, school choice, equitable funding for charter schools and student-count data are four areas that could make a difference in accountability and cost little to implement. With these reforms and decision-making at the local level, schools could implement change and communicate more effectively with their community without new taxes.

A transparent public-finance reporting system was part of Senate Bill 213. This provision required reporting expenditures, including salary and benefits, at each school using a new standardized accounting system. Many school districts already have a website where much of this information can be found. The difficulty is in navigating through all of the statistics before your eyes glaze over.

The requirement within the bill included a website where — and this is the important part — the data can be easily understood by a layperson. It seems that clear, understandable information in education reporting is obfuscated by imprecise terminology and vague expressions. A prime example of this is in the student evaluation system. In reporting to parents, terms such as “non-proficient,” “partially proficient,” “proficient” and “above proficient” are used. Since adults who attended public school are more familiar with letter grades of A through F, why not use these more easily understood terms? It should be a requirement that what goes on in our schools is clearly communicated to the layperson and posted on the school district’s website. A little tweaking of the current website may be all that is needed.

Sen. Michael Johnston, writer of the Senate bill and subsequent Amendment 66, said we have to figure out what amount of money a student needs and how to match it to results. Is it $8,000 or $9,000 per pupil? “What are the returns on that investment, and what more would we need to generate better results?” Johnston asked. This is an excellent question, and with clear, understandable information available on a website, informed decisions can be made and understood by the community.

“Backpack funding” was required in the bill and would allow students the opportunity to attend another school in their district. Allowing for students to take the full per-pupil amount to their new school would make it easier for transition between schools. This would include charter-school students and any others opting to choose a different school within their district. A program for school choice is being implemented already within Douglas County and is proving to be positive change supported by involved school board members and parents in the district.

Determining per-pupil funding in a district is based on Oct. 1 attendance. During the debates of Amendment 66, many proponents stated that there should be a few dates averaged during the year in order to have a more fair accounting system. A one-day snapshot, they argued, didn’t give a clear picture of the attendance since it was subject to possible dramatic change throughout the year. Since teachers agree that they already are mandated to take attendance daily, it should not be difficult to average several attendance days. With the transparency issue addressed above the average, attendance could also be posted on the website.

What’s next? With the failure of Amendment 66, school districts will have to operate under the previously used budget formula. Why not switch to a new formula to allocate the available money? And why not find a way to reward the best teachers with bonuses like Douglas County has done?

The taxpayers spoke loud and clear on Nov. 5. The proposed $1 billion tax increase has failed, but the return on investment of our government school system is still a major concern. Transparency, school choice and accountability at the local level can be implemented with minimal cost if the local community is serious about real educational reform. In the 2014 legislative session, when education is again considered, legislators will be asked to think again.

Joyce Rankin is a retired teacher and principal.