Not unlike President Donald Trump’s deceptive crowing over having solved America’s economic issues and holding up a steaming stock market as proof, celebrations about Colorado’s good times are vastly naive.
No doubt that recreational marijuana and an enviable jobs market in the state’s big urban areas have helped pull Colorado out of the recession, but much of the state is still hurting, and no one is suffering more than Colorado children. As the Colorado Legislature convenes its 120-day mission to try to either fix things or at least do no harm, the plight of those without jobs in rural areas or realistic access to healthcare need to be lawmaker priorities, after taking care of problems plaguing Colorado kids.
Last year’s Kids Count survey by the Colorado Children’s Campaign, and the consistent dismal school performance in poorer areas, like parts of Aurora and Pueblo, point out the problems.
The 2016 survey results are a familiar barometer for how children, and really, all of Colorado, is managing in a recovering economy and a politically polarized state. The report covers all of the state and focuses on counties, rather than municipalities. Because of that, Arapahoe County, encompassing most of Aurora, gives the best picture of what’s going on here, despite the county also including relatively wealthier communities to the south.
The good news? In Aurora and statewide, fewer children are living in poverty, about 18 percent of children north of Colfax, and about 16 percent of children south of Colfax — slightly more than the state average. Shocking, however, is that about 82,000 children statewide live in households of “extreme” poverty, where an entire family tries to survive on less than $12,000 a year, or about $8 a day.
Now the bad news, and there’s lots of it. Serious life-long problems for children in Aurora are associated with the inability to succeed in school. A stunning 80 percent of mostly poor children in Adams County can’t perform math skills at grade level. Reading, writing and science skills are almost as dismal. Graduation rates flirt with a shocking 50 percent at some schools.
This borders on third-world stuff. Clearly, Aurora Public Schools, like districts similar to it across the state, are stymied. There is no way to rearrange the deck chairs on this sinking problem. It’s easy to see where the state’s serious trouble spots are and what’s behind much of the problem. Parts of Denver, Pueblo and Aurora lead the state in having children fall behind. Some of those areas are heavily populated with immigrants, where language and employment of parents is a serious problem.
But statewide, student achievement lags behind the rest of the country, in part, because public schools funding is near the bottom of the list. In 2001, Colorado spending per student was about $700 below the national average. Last year, the state spent a whopping $2,700 less per student than the national average. You don’t have to be at the top of the math testing pool to see how that kind of spending increase would dramatically help move the needle.
Cash is desperately needed in the classroom to bolster overwhelmed teaching staffs working with kids who don’t speak English and who often come from homes where everybody must work astounding hours to keep it together. Teachers must be paid more, and there must be more of them. Classrooms must have fewer students, and schools must have more resources to combat the effects of immigration, mobility and poverty. Teachers don’t need lectures or ridiculous testing plots or statewide curricula mandates. They need money.
As legislators hear tales again about how teachers are struggling to find ways to narrow the gap between the state’s have’s and have-not’s there’s just one real solution: say it cash.
The report is a flashing red light for Colorado, warning us that unless we increase spending on schools, Colorado children will fall further behind. And if we do funnel more money toward childhood education and health care, we reduce the lifelong tax burden poor Americans bring to the nation while increasing their community contribution.
Better schools, better health care, better nutrition and stable housing for those who don’t have it aren’t just lofty goals for Colorado lawmakers, it’s the state’s priority. The report is required reading.