Road to Recovery: How Lawmakers Can Ease the Crisis for Schools

The following article appeared in the May 11, 2020 edition of Colorado Politics.

Across Colorado, school district leaders are presently working to support quality remote learning as our students finish this school year.

At the same time, school and district staff are also designing “restart” plans for this coming fall. This re-visioning of education will require a profound transformation of how schools operate and how learning happens. Our challenge is to create rich and meaningful learning opportunities while also doing all we can to protect the health of our students and staff, and to keep our schools from being a vector by which COVID-19 spreads.

As if these tasks were not daunting enough, we are also preparing for potentially catastrophic budget cuts for the next school year (and likely for years beyond). The economic disruption from COVID-19 and subsequent limitations on the pace of state funding recovery due to TABOR will compound the financial impact on public schools.

The legislature will gavel back into an abbreviated session in May in an effort to pass the state budget and a limited number of other policy changes. This presents an opportunity for our legislators and Gov. Polis to take steps in support of public education. Here are three key actions they could take that would help our schools:

To the extent possible, protect and stabilize school funding.

The first and most important step is for the legislature to do all they can to protect funding levels for K-12 education. This will be no easy task as the forecasts for available dollars are increasingly grim and in Colorado (due to TABOR) the legislature has no control over the revenue side of the equation. Steps to eliminate grants and optional programs should go first, but will only take us so far. Tough choices will pit major state needs against each other including transportation, health care, corrections and higher education. All of these areas are important, but the legislature should know that Colorado’s children are going to return to school with significant academic needs and some level of emotional trauma. To the extent possible, the capacity of our schools must be a priority so that we can meet these needs.

There will be some temptation to tinker with the School Finance Act in an effort to shift around which communities and schools feel the cuts the most (or least). This should be resisted. Making changes to the way funds are allocated in the midst of this fiscal crisis will create even greater uncertainty and more variables to manage at the very time school finance systems need stability.

Stabilize enrollment counts and projections.

A second area where the legislature and governor can help relates to the annual October student count, which measures enrollment in school districts. School enrollment rises and falls each year across the state and money sent to districts adjusts accordingly (with provisions to soften the loss of funding for districts with declining enrollment).

This coming school year presents challenges with the October count as Colorado may have thousands of students who do not enroll in the short term due to fears over COVID-19. The legislature should enact a “hold-harmless” provision for this coming October count, where enrollments are held at the same level as the 2019-20 school year, while also allowing districts with growing enrollment to count the new students they might have coming in. This will bring another element of stability for districts as they make budget plans for this coming school year in a time where enrollment may fluctuate.

Give grace on testing and accountability, and encourage innovation.

The final area where the legislature and governor can help schools relates to testing and accountability. While standardized testing certainly has limitations on what the tests measure, content knowledge in reading and math are important concepts and we do need some basis by which to understand how students in the state are doing in these areas.

At this point, we do not know how many students we might safely be able to have in classrooms or buildings and there exists the possibility of rolling closures of in-person learning and transitions to remote learning if outbreaks of COVID-19 occur. Because of this, the legislature should ensure the commissioner of education has broad waiver authority on test-taking windows (time frames when tests are taken) and the ability to cancel testing if circumstances warrant. More importantly, the legislature should direct the Commissioner to use this waiver authority in the event of limitations to in-person attendance or COVID-19 outbreaks.

While we should make efforts to have some kind of summative testing this next school year for diagnostic purposes, the legislature should also move to pause the accountability system that rates schools on test performance for at least another year. Much of the current accountability system is based on historical testing results and outcomes under “normal” school conditions. We may be operating under circumstances where students are only able to go to school for fractions of the week due to social distancing considerations and staffing limitations. We also are likely to have students experience significant learning loss as measured on these tests due to the massive system disruptions resulting from COVID-19. The state cannot simply pretend that these disruptions did not occur and should take steps to extend schools grace on accountability during this period of recovery.

While the changes to school operations to meet the challenges presented by COVID-19 are disruptive, they also present opportunities for meaningful change and innovation. On assessments and accountability, the legislature should direct school districts to develop locally-designed accountability systems and create a peer-reviewed process for approving them. Such a model will result in creative experimentation on what a truly 21st century system of measures and accountability might look like. This can inform the important conversations on how these systems might grow and improve in the future.

While it is certain that there will be some degree of financial pain and systemic disruption schools will need to handle for this upcoming school year, the legislature and Gov. Polis have within their power the ability to provide a degree of stabilization and grace while also allowing for important and impactful innovations to take root.

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