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Colorado residents got a chance Monday to hear both sides of Amendment 39 and Referendum J, two items on this year’s ballot that would affect public education funding.
Sponsored by the School of Education and the Colorado Children’s Campaign, the panel discussion in Old Main offered attendees both sides of the ballot issue. The panelists included Dr. Frank Waterous of the Bell Policy Center, Tony Salazar of the Colorado Education Association, State Representative Joe Stengel, R-Littleton, and Alex Medler of Colorado Children’s Campaign.
If passed this November by Colorado voters, Referendum J would mandate that school districts spend at least 65 percent of their operating budget on services that contribute to student achievement, beginning next academic year. Amendment 39 will require school districts to spend 65 percent of their operating budgets on classroom instruction.
“Amendment 39 is very simple, it mandates that 65 cents of each operational dollar must be spent into the classroom to enhance the classroom experience,” said Stengel, the panelist and lawmaker in favor of both Amendment 39 and Referendum J. “Essentially, if it touches the child it is a classroom experience.”
If the 65 percent requirement is not met, Amendment 39 would allow for districts to apply for exemption waivers. The amendment does not include punishment or sanctions for not meeting the requirement, although schools must increase their classroom experience spending by two percent each year until 65 percent is reached.
“This is an attempt to turn the focus around from administration to teachers and students,” Stengel said. Amendment 39 “doesn’t dictate how money is spent; that is still up to school boards. Local control is still maintained.”
Opponents of both 39 and J argued that 65 percent is an arbitrary number, and there is no research data supporting the validity and success rate of the requirement.
“This comes to us from Washington D.C. as a political accounting gimmick,” Salazar said. “This mandate is inherently flawed and other important things are being left out.”
Salazar said the mandate would take funding away from important things such as transportation, nurses, food service, college placement advising, school safety, counselors and services for teachers.
Medler, who works with the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said his organization would like to see more budget data on how the policy can work for school districts.
Ken Roberge, a member of the Boulder Valley Schools Board of Education, pointed out that although his district performs well academically, it does not meet the 65 percent requirement. The district’s budget also changes from year to year, and the mandate would be difficult to meet annually.
He said parents are constantly requesting that the district do a better job providing counseling services and transportation, but this measure it would make it more difficult.
“If this passes, we’re going to have to cut out things the community is asking us to do. You’d be asking us to defy the community in order to meet this arbitrary mandate,” Roberge said in a comment directed towards Stengel.
Stengel, however, kept the focus of his comments on the students and the classroom.
“This is going to refocus our attention on the core function of education,” he said.