After months of anxiety over potentially deep cuts to classrooms, Colorado schools can expect a slight increase in funding after the state Senate approved a nearly $27 billion budget that also restored funding for a controversial student health survey.
The Senate’s overwhelming approval of the budget Thursday was a significant step toward securing a $185 per student increase for schools.
The boost to classrooms is the latest in a series of increases since 2011, when per-pupil funding started to increase again after declines during The Great Recession. Funding advocates are concerned the money is not enough to cover rising costs. School districts across the state are facing cuts that could result in ending full-day kindergarten and shuttering schools.
“This is not a statement of our principles,” said state Sen. Andy Kerr, a Lakewood Democrat, who voted against the budget in part because it didn’t send enough money to schools. “This is an admission of failures. Not as individuals but as an institution.”
During a 10-hour debate Wednesday, Kerr and other Democrats attempted twice unsuccessfully to send more money to schools.
Lawmakers have been trying to close a gap, known as the negative factor, created during the Great Recession between what the state owes schools and what it can afford. While lawmakers had made progress in closing the gap between 2011 and now, it has persisted. And this year, because of a tight budget and a mix of funding priorities, lawmakers had to grow that gap.
Under the current budget, the shortfall will grow to about $881 million.
Since November, when the budget process began, school leaders and advocates feared the state wouldn’t be able to maintain funding, let alone increase it.
Worries grew greater when the state learned there would be a drop in how much local school districts would be able to collect from property taxes. That $170 million drop in local taxes had a ripple effect through the entire budget.
The legislature’s budget committee used a variety of tactics to protect schools, including slashing nearly $300 million from hospitals.
“Every year since 2011, education has been the No. 1 priority,” said Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican. “It is today.”
Holbert, who has has a track record of opposing the state budget, encouraged members to vote for this year’s version even though it has provisions for programs he doesn’t support.
One of the programs is the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, a biennial questionnaire given to students that tracks trends in risky behavior such as drug use and suicide.
The survey has drawn the ire of social conservatives policymakers who claim the anonymous survey is invasive.
Earlier this spring, Republicans on the budget committee blocked funding for the program. However, a bipartisan group of senators successfully amended the budget to restore $745,124 in state funding to pay for the survey.
“Maybe it is a little intrusive for some,” said state Sen. Don Coram, a Montrose Republican. “But if we can save the life of one child, I’m willing to subject myself to that.”
The House of Representatives is expected to debate the budget next week before sending it the governor for his signature.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.