School funding, achievement gaps, tax breaks and educating a diverse group of students were all topics Colorado gubernatorial candidates Jared Polis and Walker Stapleton weighed in on Sept. 24 when the Colorado League of Charter Schools hosted a discussion with the candidates to kick off its annual Leadership Summit at the Arvada Center.
“Nothing is more local than education when it comes to your kids' school,” Polis said during his 15-minute address. “Parents are passionate advocates for what's going on in their child's school.”
Polis, a Democrat, said that for him, the bottom line is “how are we serving kids?”
One topic Polis has been focused on when it comes to education is expanding early childhood education.
“As we know, in our state we only fund half-day kindergarten,” Polis said. “We want to — and I expect to in my first term — get to full-day kindergarten ... It's so important for kids to get a strong start in our state. If you're low income, a lot of Title I schools have it. If you're wealthy, you can afford it. But like so many things, it's really the middle class that's squeezed out.”
Polis' desire to fund early education for all students is something his opponent criticized.
Stapleton, a Republican, talked about his plan for an education savings account, saying, “it includes things like funding for early childhood education so we can link dollars to performance rather than providing something for free to everyone like my opponent is for.”
The education savings account is part of Stapleton's three-point education plan he rolled out a couple weeks ago.
“We are encouraging tax-free incentives for education savings accounts, which I think is a way to empower parents for educational options for their families, whether it be tutoring, skills-based training, extracurricular activities. You allow the parent to determine what is best, and I am for parents keeping as much money as possible to decide the educational outcomes for their family.”
The plan also includes a tax-free holiday for school supply shopping and a plan for making it easier for charter schools to get themselves sanctioned across the state.
Polis criticized this plan, calling it counterproductive.
“In our state, what does it do and where does it come from?” Polis said. “Of course, it comes out of public schools. You're actually taking money out of public school finance to create a tax break for wealthy parents ... His two marquee proposals would drain money from public schools. We're interested in more money, not less funding.”
After being given the platform to speak about whatever they chose, both candidates were asked a group of identical questions. Here are their answers to a few of them.
What are you going to fix about K-12 education in the state and what is working well that you're going to lean into?
Polis: One of my mentors on the state board of education was Gully Stanford. He had a saying, “there's nothing wrong with public education that what's right with public education can't fix.” I always thought that was a very good saying because what we see across our state and across the county are examples of excellence — great charter schools, great neighborhood schools, great schools of choice run by districts. Yet, we also see persistently failing schools. Schools that continue year-after-year to enlarge the achievement gap. Schools that are unable to demonstrate that students can achieve in their area. So, a lot of the magic in public education is expanding and replicating models that work. The bottom line is the kids' achievement. How do we make sure we have the moral fortitude to change what doesn't work? We want to makes sure both our charter schools and our districts have the flexibility to do what works, but not the flexibility to do nothing in the face of persistent failure. That's how we need to effectively design our accountability policies.
Stapleton: I would make sure what we passed two years ago results in full funding each and every year for Colorado Charter School Institute (CSI) and the great work they do. I also will be an advocate for another board or entity being able to authorize charter schools. I think it's become way too difficult. And I think in some school districts where you have failing public schools, there is a bias amongst people on the school board who are predisposed to not having more competition in the public education system. And the people that end up being the losers are the people who can't afford it and don't have the resources. Those are the two main things I would advocate for. And to the extent that we can take the model of what CSI has done right, which is that teachers' growth has outpaced student growth, but administration growth is far behind both. That is a great model in general ... I will do whatever I can through an executive order to make it possible for everyone in this room and myself as the treasurer to be able to get line item details on how money is being spent in different school districts.
In the past 20 years school-age population in Colorado has jumped from 687,000 to 910,000. The ethnicity is changing drastically from 28 percent non-white to 47 percent non-white. Many of our children are growing up in non-traditional homes. How do you think the public education system needs to adapt to accommodate those demographic changes?
Polis: Many of the areas I represent have seen that change, whether it's in Eagle or Summit County. If you don't live in those areas, you think of them as wealthy areas you visit maybe to ski. Those are both at this point majority minority school districts. I'm excited about the diversity of our state. I think that's the difference between people like Walker Stapleton and Donald Trump and myself. I celebrate diversity. I think this is a great thing. I think we're stronger because of our diversity. Economically, culturally, we're more vibrant as a state because we have people from all sorts of different backgrounds…. This is an important part of who we are as a state. It's an important part of our future. It's important we get it right. If we really care about making sure we're a vibrant, diverse, successful state, we need to make sure we provide a relevant and inclusive approach to education for all kids. Because it doesn't matter at the end of the day what the kid's ethnicity is, or faith or lack thereof, or sexual orientation or gender identity, it's about making sure that everybody as a role in working to the best of their own talent and their own abilities to help make Colorado even more amazing.
Stapleton: I think that demographic shift speaks to me of the need being greater than ever for effective competition in our public school system. I was touring a school in Denver about two years ago and I was inspired because the majority of these students were from diverse ethnic backgrounds. I was inspired by how the school did everything … the success that is bred with a successful charter school you can't argue with. And that model of success needs to be taken all across Colorado. I think of the people who are in challenging circumstances, that are crying out for more skills-based dollars for their kids. If you're graduating in certain areas of Colorado and you're at a public school that's graduating at less than 50 percent, you see no opportunity to continue your education because all that means to you is you're family will be rattled with mounds of debt that you have no ability to repay. That is a promise that we don't deserve to be making to young people in Colorado. We deserve to be telling them you can do anything you want to do and the state's going to work with you on skills-based training and collaborate with you so you can reach your goals in life to be a successful individual. And just because you're in a school system that is failing doesn't mean that you're failing as a person and we're not going to give up on you.
Amendment 73; it's on the ballot. Do you support it? If not, what's a better way to fund public education?
Polis: There's a big crowded ballot this year. There's few that I've taken positions on. One that I would encourage everybody to oppose is Amendment 74, which is the bonding for our roads without a revenue source. That would drain money from education — that's the Fix Our Damn Roads initiative. It puts roads ahead of schools. On 73, I haven't taken a position ... It's not exactly what I would do or how I would form it. But if the people choose to move forward with that, I would make sure that those resource reach the classroom and the charter schools are treated fairly. If the people don't like the proposal, I am ready to roll up my arms and work with Republicans and Democrats and the business and school communities to right decades of underinvestment in our schools. It would be my priority for general fund money ... I have every expectation that if I'm governor we would propose a significant increase to the general fund for our public schools.
Stapleton: I am admittedly opposed to it. The analogy I draw with how we have dealt with education finance in Colorado for K-12 is that if something is broken, then you can fix it by dumping more money into it. It seems to me like the education system in Colorado is like holding a plastic bucket with three holes at the bottom and you are asked to participate in a relay race. And everybody starts out with a full bucket, but your bucket is leaking and every time you get to the other end of the room your bucket is empty. If you don't fix the holes in the bottom, it doesn't matter how much water you fill it up with. That's the problem with Amendment 73. I think it exacerbates structural problems we have in education finance. The only way that changes is proactive leadership from the governors' office.
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