Penny pinching on pupils

State spends less on each student than national average

Colorado continues to lag behind the national average in per pupil education funding, according to updated figures released last month.

The numbers aren't current - they are based on 2009-10 data - but are the most recent available for comparing all 50 states.

In 2010, educating the average public school student in Colorado cost upwards of $9,300 a year. The national average, by comparison, was approximately $11,800. The figures again put Colorado in the lower tier - 42nd out of 50 states and the District of Columbia. Vermont spent the most, at about $19,000. Utah, meanwhile, is the most frugal, doling out just $7,000 per pupil.

The updated statistics were part of Quality Counts 2013, a report issued by the national publication Education Week.

The funding gap has grown over the last decade. In 2003, Colorado trailed the national average by only $550. As of 2010, the disparity had widened to $2,500.

Among its Mountain West and Great Plains neighbors, Colorado spends less than New Mexico, Kansas, Nebraska, Montana and Wyoming. On the other hand, it outspends Arizona, Nevada and Utah - all of which are in the bottom five.

Education Week's numbers differ from those of the U.S. Census Bureau because they account for the comparable wage index, a measure of regional variation in labor and operating costs.

The census from 2010 showed that Colorado spent $8,853 - 40th in the nation - compared to a national average of $10,615. These numbers did not include any cost adjustments.

In the two years following 2009-10, education funds were slashed even further before stabilizing this year.

K-12 education represents the single biggest line item in Colorado's General Fund budget. Of the $5.3 billion it is spending on public schools in fiscal year 2012-13, almost two-thirds comes from state income and sales taxes. The rest is derived from local property taxes, and a small percentage from vehicle registration taxes. The federal government pitches in money as well.

When that $5.3 billion is averaged between Colorado's 850,000 plus students, it amounts to $6,474 per pupil. But all districts aren't treated equally. Montezuma-Cortez Re-1 is receiving $6,138 this year, according to chief financial officer Melissa Brunner. The base minimum the state must contribute is $5,843. Low property values in Montezuma County, in turn, limit the amount of cash available to supplement state funding, said superintendent Alex Carter. He added that Telluride School District R-1, where he previously worked, had a per pupil expenditure of about $9,800.

In some states, court rulings have mandated that legislatures increase education spending. Wyoming, for example, placed low on the funding list until a state Supreme Court decision in 1995 catapulted it into the top echelon. It now spends a full $9,500 more per pupil than Colorado, by Quality Counts' numbers.

Colorado has a similar case progressing through the court system: Lobato v. Colorado, first filed in 2005. In Dec. 2011, the Denver District Court ruled that Colorado's model for financing education was unconstitutional. Judge Sheila Rappaport deemed the level of funding inadequate to provide a "thorough and uniform" public school education - as the constitution requires - and to implement the state's standards-based curriculum.

But judicial and public opinion seem to be at odds.

Just a month prior, Colorado voters rejected, by a 2-1 margin, a ballot measure that would have raised taxes to boost education funding by $3 billion. The Taxpayer's Bill of Rights amendment, enshrined in the Colorado constitution since 1993, prohibits any tax increase without voter approval.

Subpar funding has many ramifications for students, according to Tracie Rainey, executive director of the Colorado School Finance Project.

"Class sizes are larger. We have more school districts on a four-day week than any other state. There are fewer course offerings outside core subjects. (Districts) are unable to change the academic calendar to expand class time," she said. "Our teacher salaries are about 10 percent below the national average when adjusted for cost-of-living, making it harder to attract and retain the best and brightest."

Access across districts to updated textbooks and broadband connectivity can also be inconsistent, she added.

For all the K-12 funding constraints, Colorado adults are among the country's most educated. The state ranks behind only Massachusetts and Maryland for percentage of residents with a bachelor's degree or higher, at 36.7 percent, according to the financial news website 24/7 Wall St.

Carter believes K-12 education, at current funding levels, isn't preparing students well enough for Colorado's cerebral workforce.

"Colorado is a net importer of intellectual capital. Look at Denver - it's full of transplants," he said. "If Colorado parents really want our children to be competitive in the future, we will have to take a serious look at how we fund our public schools."