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Colorado Looks Terrible at K-12 Spending (If You Fudge the Numbers)

Perhaps you’ve heard the famous expression: “If it bleeds, it leads.” The K-12 education policy version of that axiom recently played out in a recent Colorado Public Radio (CPR) story under the heading of “Colorado per-pupil spending lags US average even more, report says.”

The report referenced comes from the Colorado School Finance Report (COSFP). Wait, where have I heard that before? Yes, the group whose spooky story doesn’t look so spooky after all when all the facts are laid out.

CPR (which in this case has nothing to do with an emergency life-saving technique) highlights a somewhat selective finding made by COSFP:

During the mid-90s, the state spent about $500 less per student than the national average. By 2011-12, the gap measured between $1,800 and $2,800, depending on which database is used.

True enough. It all depends on which database COSFP chooses to use. In this case, they picked four:

  1. Profile Data
  2. U.S. Census Bureau
  3. Education Week
  4. NCES (National Center for Education Statistics)

When you look at any one of these four sources, you’ll find that Colorado spends between $1,800 and $2,800 less per student than the national average. There are just a few problems.

First, what’s “Profile Data”?

Annually, the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) prepares reports on the state of education in Colorado. CSFP and Augenblick, Palaich & Associates (APA) use the CDE data to further analyze and report on K-12 public school funding in Colorado creating the Colorado State Profile data.

A couple big questions follow: What did APA do to CDE data to massage the number $7,946 spent per pupil, when CDE’s own 2011-12 data shows $9,242 in current expenditures per student (and even more for total expenditures)? And where did they get the national average of $10,808 per pupil? Not clear. Scratch off one data source.

Second, Education Week‘s annual Quality Counts report rates states on a number of categories related to K-12 education, including funding metrics. But the publication acknowledges that its funding data comes directly from the U.S. Census Bureau and NCES. So there go the two sources that COSFP says show the biggest disparity between Colorado and the nation.

Third, I’ve mentioned this item before. The picture that goes along with COSFP’s breathless reporting shows a flat line for the national average in per-pupil spending. But of course, overall spending (even adjusted for inflation dollar value) went up most years over the last two decades. The visual effect is to make it look like Colorado has steadily been cutting K-12 funding, which just isn’t true.

Finally, while using two highly questionable or non-transparent sources to make its claims, COSFP leaves off another large organization’s independent analysis of K-12 financial data. The National Education Association’s latest Rankings and Estimates publication finds that Colorado only lags the national average in per-pupil spending by $166 based on a one-time fall student count (and actually is greater than the national average by $282 if you count students based on Average Daily Attendance). (See Tables H-9 and H-14, pages 54 & 56.)

Why did COSFP omit NEA data from its report and from its chart? Maybe trying to say that Colorado is anywhere between $200 above and $2,000 below the national average would raise too many uncomfortable questions. So when CPR reports:

More districts are drawing down reserves and are being forced to skip safety renovations to aging buildings. Staff cuts are also widespread, including administrators, teachers, and classroom aides.

Programs cuts are happening in the areas of music, business, library, math, foreign language, speech, extracurricular, and many rural students get only core classes and some vocational education.

Then decision-makers might have to look at some factor other than funding levels to explain, and consider other policy changes that certain groups want to protect. But perhaps a little more curiosity is in order, especially given the drubbing of the billion-dollar education tax hike proposal in November 2013.

Maybe it’s time to challenge selective efforts that make Colorado K-12 schools look as underfunded as possible. And maybe someone can dig deep to ask why there is such a tremendous disparity between different sources that are supposedly measuring the very same thing. Journalistic hard work and accolades await.