‘Good news’ is more like a warning

The news that Colorado schools will not face further cuts this year is welcome. But it is good news in much the same way as being told one’s cancer is in remission. While clearly better than a worsening situation, it does not address the underlying problem.

Colorado needs to find a better way to fund education. Failure to do so endangers not only the future of the state’s children but that of the state itself. Education is central to the economic landscape emerging in the wake of the Great Recession.

With the economy slowly recovering, state revenue has increased to the point where further cuts to state school spending are not needed. That comes after three consecutive years in which school districts have had to cut teachers, slash extracurricular activities and increase class sizes.

As welcome as that may be, it needs to be kept in perspective. For the 2012-13 school year, state per-pupil spending is expected to average $6,474 – the same as last year. That is still about $600 less than the 2009 average. And it comes at a time when higher education is also threatened. State spending is down; tuitions are up.

Not that legislators have much choice, at least in the short run. Education is the single largest item in the state’s general fund and the budget has to be balanced. Only the voters can raise taxes.

From a longer-term perspective, however, the situation is a disaster in the making.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., visited Durango last week talking about why. He was passing out a chart showing how key economic indicators describe a troubling trend.

Using numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the U.S. Census Bureau and the International Monetary Fund, the graph tracked the United States’ gross domestic product, productivity, the nation’s employment level and median household income over the last 20 years. Both GDP and productivity are not only up but have risen past their pre-recession highs. Employment has turned upward in recent months, but is still well below its peak. Except for a slight uptick around 2007, median household income has declined steadily since the year 2000 and remains well below its high point of more than a decade ago.

This bifurcated graph – with GDP and productivity up and jobs and household income down – represents a potentially bleak future. What it could foretell would be a nation rife with economic dislocation and social division, the antithesis of the country Americans think they remember and say they desire.

Avoiding such an outcome, Bennet says, requires education and innovation. He points out that throughout the Great Recession unemployment among those with at least a bachelor’s degree stayed below 5 percent. And he says that to continue to boost productivity, which in the end is the only way to increase real wealth, will take imagination and creativity.

But it is education that fosters innovation, and if both are related to wealth, Colorado is pursuing poverty. By almost every measure, the state ranks near the bottom on funding for education both for K-12 and higher education. And little is being done to address that.

Increased funding does not guarantee better educational outcomes. A lack of money, however, can all but ensure failure.

More important, is what this says about ourselves and to our youth. Nothing better conveys people’s true values than how they spend their money. Without innovation of our own to boost Colorado’s school spending we will continue to dismiss and devalue the key to a healthier, wealthier nation.

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