Teehan: Revised act would hurt Aspen schools | AspenTimes.com

Teehan: Revised act would hurt Aspen schools

Jill Teehan
Guest Commentary

I'm so thankful for my education. Like so many Americans, for me, education has been the path to enrichment, happiness and self-sufficiency.

There is no more important investment in our country and our state than providing real educational opportunities to youngsters. It is the key to lifting lower-income children out of poverty and for all Americans to achieve financial, personal and civic prosperity.

Coloradans agree that we need education reform. What's harder is distinguishing reforms that will be effective in improving student learning and outcomes versus those which are too often well-intentioned but futile.

The proposed updates to the Colorado School Finance Act are well-intentioned, but they won't deliver the education reforms Colorado needs. Moreover, it picks winners and losers, and undoubtedly Aspen's children lose.

Why does Aspen lose? One, the act directs money away from well-funded and middle-class districts like Aspen to more impoverished districts. The new act counts at-risk and English learners twice for funding and could give them as much as 80 percent more funding than middle-class kids. Urban districts like Denver benefit from the double count. Rural districts lose.

The act also gives Aspen less funding to account for teachers' high cost of living here, which will make it more difficult for Aspen to attract and retain good teachers. The Aspen Education Foundation, a vital source of private support for our schools, will not come close to recovering the lost funding. Inevitably, the quality of Aspen's schools will suffer.

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If we want education reform that works, we must do more than funnel money into a problematic system. From 1970 to 2005, average spending per American school more than doubled in 2006-07 dollars. Simultaneously, reading comprehension declined. In 2011, average national reading scores were 264. New York, which spends $20,000 annually per pupil, scored 266. Colorado, which spends less than half of that, scored 270 — six points higher than the national average and four points higher than New York, with far less spending. Simply adding another $1 billion to the tax burden will not provide the solutions we need.

Yet the act calls for a $1 billion income tax hike for Coloradans. If implemented (which depends on whether voters vote "yes" to the tax), this would be the largest permanent tax hike in Colorado history, with an 8 percent increase for those earning less than $75,000 annually and a 27 percent increase those earning more than $75,000. Even with the increases, Aspen will receive fewer funds. Even more, the act provides for future tax hikes.

Moreover, there's an elephant in the room: The Public Employees' Retirement Association pension system is $20 billion in debt. This means the amount of money Colorado owes current and future public retirees, including teachers, is severely underfunded. As the debt grows, more money will be diverted out of the classroom and into the retirement system.

Twice in the last decade, education funds have been channeled out of our classrooms and into retirement pensions. There is no safeguard in the act that limits the amount of money that can be diverted to meet other "education" liabilities of the state. Already 85 percent of education funding goes to teacher salaries and benefits. When the state treasurer asked drafters to add a provision ensuring that the act's taxes would not be used to fund the Public Employees' Retirement Association, the drafters refused. The taxpayers are being asked to make an investment in Colorado's schools, but without safeguards, what they'll be paying for are retirement benefits.

We need to connect reform initiatives with student outcomes. One idea is to distribute funding based on a school's demonstrated ability to improve learning. If we allow money to follow students rather than schools, we will create incentives for schools to improve. We need to pay good teachers well and less to the education bureaucracy. At minimum, we must demand that no further education taxes are diverted to the Public Employees' Retirement Association.

We must develop policies that encourage, even require, parental involvement in recognition that what happens at home is highly correlated with a child's education success. We should empower parents to make decisions for their kids, not legislators. Local reforms, from communities that know first-hand what their kids need, are more likely to succeed without costly bureaucracy.

Low-income children have unique educational needs. Morally, and as citizens committed to the common good, we owe it to them to ensure that those needs are met. Providing increased funding to those children, in combination with policies that actually will help them, is worthy. Attempting to meet those needs, however, by denying needed funding for other, mostly middle-class children is not sound or fair public policy.

I'm committed to finding solutions for education reform, but I'm going to demand more of our legislators than the act. Together we can find real solutions that treat lower- and middle-income children fairly and mandate improved educational outcomes.

Jill Teehan is an Aspen attorney with the law firm of Praxidice PC. She has an undergraduate degree in women's studies and public policy from Brown University, a master's degree in social policy from the London School of Economics and a degree from Georgetown University Law School.

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