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Hickenlooper Education Plan: Substantive Discussion with Dubious Funding Claim

I know that political campaigns are going on. Election season is upon us. When I ask my mom or dad what’s happening in the race for governor, they usually roll their eyes, take a deep sigh, and pat me on the head: “You’ll understand when you’re older,” they say.

That may be true, but I do like to understand where the people running for office stand on education issues, so I was glad to see today’s story by Todd Engdahl in Ed News Colorado on Democratic candidate John Hickenlooper’s education agenda — which breaks down the campaign’s official issue brief:

Education needs to be about what is best for our kids and that means raising the level of their achievement in knowledge and skills necessary to be successful adults. We must continue our investment in building a 21st Century education system in Colorado. Without a strong education system, job creation and economic development cannot be sustained. Making Colorado synonomous [sic] with innovation has to include supporting great teachers, and engaging parents and local communities as partners to improve our schools.

Key Priorities

  • Build on the work that is currently underway involving the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) to develop a more strategic assessment tool to inform and impact student outcomes and respond accordingly.
  • Improve transparency in our school districts and hold leaders responsible while giving them the authority and tools to effectuate change.
  • Develop and support better teachers and better principals using more integrated technologies across the State.
  • Create and expand career-oriented partnerships with community-based organizations and businesses.

I know: Some thoughtful broad-stroke ideas, but not a lot of depth. It’s actually pretty good as campaign policy documents go (spelling goof aside), and much more substantive and engaged than any education briefs I’ve seen from other gubernatorial candidates.

Though to be fair, the other candidates deserve time to weigh in. In addition to placing a footnote or two so readers know who says Colorado ranks 12th or 28th in this or that, they also should be careful about the claims they make that could be challenged by statistics. From the Hickenlooper education brief:

One of the biggest challenges we face is that other states are spending more on education than we are. Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico and Wyoming all spend more per pupil than Colorado. In fact only two neighboring states (Arizona and Utah) spend less on education than we do.

Wait… Not so fast! A look at the most recent financial data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) show that Colorado ranks ahead of all neighboring states except Wyoming and Nebraska in total dollars spent per student (chart below compiled from Table 6 and Table 8 of revenue and expenditure data):

NCES 2007-08 Total Spending Per Pupil
And of course, a look at static rankings leaves out the perspective of how much per-pupil education funding in Colorado and the nation has grown over time, using real dollars for comparison.

Hats off to the Hickenlooper team to weigh in first on education issues, setting a high bar for a substantive discussion. Hopefully, they clean up the typo and clarify the claim about Colorado’s K-12 funding record while listing more sources. But maybe this post just all goes to show how much of a little geek I can be (in which case I may give out a letter grade later).