Panel of education and political officials talk about next steps for school reform in discussion at CU Denver

The mantra ‘do more with less’ lives on. In the wake of Amendment 66’s defeat at the polls, the battle to reform Colorado’s decades-old and inequitable school finance formula carries on.

Those were the “fight on” sentiments expressed as the School of Public Affairs and EdNews Colorado co-hosted a panel, “What’s Next: Amendment 66,” in a jam-packed Terrace Room at Lawrence Street Center on Tuesday evening. Panelists were Sen. Mike Johnston, architect of Senate Bill 213, which Amendment 66 would have funded; Reilly Pharo, Colorado Children’s Campaign; Mike Clough, superintendent of Sheridan Public Schools; Jennifer Landrum, CEO of Denver Preschool Program; and Scott Murphy, superintendent of Littleton Public Schools. Moderating the discussion was Todd Engdahl, EdNews capitol editor.

Amendment 66, which would have delivered a $950 million tax increase and a restructuring of the preschool-12 school finance system, suffered a lopsided defeat in the Nov. 5 election — 66 percent to 34 percent. The obvious “what’s next?” reflection: Are there at least portions of the married legislation (Amendment 66 and SB 213) that can stand on their own and move forward?

“Does changing one component like (student) count dates ultimately give us the large change in student outcomes that we all want? I don’t think so,” said Johnston, a Denver Democrat. “… For me, there’s nothing on that list (of reforms) to give up. The question has to be: What are the steps to get to a full vision.”

Amendment 66 would have delivered more funding to small and rural Colorado districts that bear the brunt of a school finance system that hasn’t changed in 20 years.

“The rural schools have cut to the bone. There’s not much left to cut,” said Clough, of the 1,600-student Sheridan Public Schools District. “The challenges keep coming. The smaller you are the more you’ll feel the pinch.”

Murphy, who leads the next-door Littleton Public Schools, said school reforms are more palatable on a local basis, as voters like to have a say over what’s happening in their neighborhood schools. “It comes down to priorities — let’s not give up on funding for preschool, at-risk (students) or full-day kindergarten,” he said. “… I think we have to incorporate everyone into the conversation or we’re in trouble.”

Pharo pointed out that the fastest-growing subgroups of students in Colorado are English language learners and children in poverty. “How we serve our at-risk and vulnerable children is paramount in this conversation,” she said. “We need to take our time and really dig into how we want to support those students.”

The hard truth is that a lot of what ails preschool-12 education in Colorado will require financial investment, Johnston said. “There has to be some compensation at the state level to make up for the differential of funding decisions at the local level.”

Clough said each component in the current school finance formula creates winners and losers. He said discussions about “what we value” need to occur across the state. “Amendment 66 is going to open up the door, hopefully, to those conversations,” he said.

Panelists and education onlookers gave much credit to sparking this discussion to SB 213 author Johnston. He is not backing down from the challenge of fulfilling his vision of comprehensive reform that delivers improved outcomes for all children.

“When you’re doing complicated work, it requires complicated solutions,” he said. “…There’s not a choice to say well let’s just stop fighting.”

(Photo: Pictured from left to right: Reilly Pharo, Colorado Children’s Campaign; Mike
Clough, superintendent of Sheridan Public Schools; Jennifer Landrum, CEO
of Denver Preschool Program; Scott Murphy, superintendent of
Littleton Public School;and Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver.)

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