Editorial: With the stroke of his pen, Polis fixes 30 years of inequitable funding for rural schools

Estimated read time 4 min read

For three decades, Colorado politicians have been trying to fix the broken school funding formula. It was inequitable, underfunded and resulted in poor school districts and affluent ones being pitted against each other.

On Thursday, Gov. Jared Polis signed a school finance act that finally changes the formula, using $80 million from the state’s education reserves to keep school districts whole and end a 30-year dispute over how to fix the formula without creating winners and losers.

The Denver Post documented just how broken the school finance formula was in 2019 by heading to southern Colorado where two rural school districts were separated by only a few miles, but one district had $5,000 less per student than the other. The editorial we wrote that year called for a “modern-day Robin Hood” to fix the situation. A year earlier, legislation to fix the formula was introduced, backed by more than 170 superintendents, but failed to even pass its first committee.

Five years later, Colorado lawmakers have finally come up with a solution. How did Polis and lawmakers pull it off?

A bipartisan team came together to support the change – House Speaker Julie McCluskie, a Democrat; Rep. Jennifer Bacon, a Democrat; Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Republican, and Sen. Rachael Zenzinger, a Democrat, were the prime sponsors of House Bill 1448. This type of bipartisan work is healthy for the state and the nation.

Lawmakers are dipping into a cash fund intended for lean times to ensure the state doesn’t have to rob from rich districts to give to poor districts. An economic downturn could leave the state scrambling to either reduce the amount of money being drawn out of the State Education Fund or make cuts elsewhere in the state budget to keep the funding the same for schools.

That is a risk we are willing to take so that another generation of students in poor school districts doesn’t go without an equitable education. Projections show that the State Education Fund will not be drawn down below $1 billion in reserves as long as lawmakers keep increasing General Fund contributions proportional to spending today.

Polis, who founded a charter school and started his political career on the State Board of Education, has done more for education during his term and a half in office than any Coloradan in recent history.

Thanks to a booming economy, Polis has worked with lawmakers to buy down the negative factor, also known as the Budget Stabilization Factor, increasing per-pupil funding across the state. Polis and lawmakers celebrated an end to the negative factor when lawmakers passed a budget out of committee fully funding schools for the first time in 15 years.

Lawmakers also approved a tax credit for Coloradans making less than $90,000 a year to get reimbursed for two years of their recent high school graduate’s college education.

All of this will help with what has been coined the “Colorado Conundrum” — the disturbing reality that while the state has one of the most highly educated populations in the nation, our homegrown students are matriculating to college at much lower rates.

Investing in our schools and in our students will make certain that Coloradans can afford to live and work in the state they call home.

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