It was before sunrise when the Peak to Peak speech and debate team sleepily boarded the bus for competition. We knew our meet in Fort Collins would be a challenge for our groggy group. Students would face an army of top-notch competitors from across the state. Once in the cafeteria our youngest competitors had their usual reactions. They oohed and ahhed over the beauty of the school. “Wow! Have you seen the art studio?!” “Is this really their cafeteria!?” Their exclamations were silenced when the larger teams marched into the school in matching business suits and dresses. Our crew huddled together in a corner of the cafeteria—some of our competitors don’t own a pair of dress shoes, much less business clothes. This all goes to feed the underdog narrative our students have created for themselves. Despite our eclectic appearances and the stories our students tell themselves, we have had the state champion in public forum debate two years running and we have been competitive at the international level by sending students to finals of the International Public Policy Forum multiple times.
Now, I know that fancy uniforms don’t win speech competitions and they are not necessarily tied to school funding, but I’ve always seen them as a symbol of our underdog narrative. Our students face teams with multiple paid coaches, volunteers, and speech classes offered throughout the day. Our school has the budget for one forensics teacher for a class that meets twice a week and pays one coach a small stipend. The rest of us volunteer our time. Just like everyone else at our school the forensics team does the best they can with what they have. In fact none of the coaches at our school receive more than a modest stipend despite having state champions in golf, soccer, tennis, cross-country and track. The same can be said in the classroom—like teachers across the state, we are doing the best we can with what we have.
When it comes to school funding, the underdog narrative is not imaginary.
It’s common knowledge that our state ranks poorly in school funding and teacher pay. The National Education Association’s 2017 state rankings placed Colorado 27th in student spending and 31st in average teacher salary. This is a dramatic improvement from the rankings in previous years, thanks in part to the work of Colorado legislators and Gov. Hickenlooper to reduce the shortfall, but the state is still over $822 million short of the constitutionally required minimums established by voters with the passage of Amendment 23.
The funding underdog narrative is more keenly applicable at Peak to Peak, as we are a charter school. Charter schools get by on even less. To pay the debt services on our land and buildings, to buy into district technology and employee benefits, our school operates on about $1,100 less per student than other schools in our district. Our school is consistently ranked in the top 100 schools in the country by U.S. News and World Reports, but I teach in a classroom with concrete floors and a cracked window. Peak to Peak is one of the top schools in Colorado by numerous metrics. Funding is one metric where our school falls below the average.
Many districts have acted to reduce the state’s funding shortfall with the passage of voter approved mill levies, but previously it wasn’t required for districts to share these funds with charter schools. This year the state legislature took a step to reduce the funding inequities faced by charter schools with the passage of HB17-1375 which requires districts to share 95 percent of the per pupil revenue from mill levies with charter schools. Like many of the charter schools in our state, Peak to Peak has had a positive relationship with our district and the Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) has historically shared 100 percent of proportional funds of voter approved mill levies with the charter schools in BVSD. This year the BVSD school board took the passage of 1375 as an opportunity to consider reducing the funding shared from mill levies down to the state required minimum of 95%. A five percent decrease could disrupt our school budget by as much as $1 million. While this change was tabled for the 2018-2019 school year, the board made it clear in their statement that they wanted the door left open to revisit these funding changes in the future. The changes being considered by the school board are inequitable and would increase the burden charter schools face in serving our students. Much of the conversation seems fueled by a false narrative surrounding charter schools.
Charter schools have long been wrapped up in a false dichotomy frequently divided along political party lines. Many view charters as the panacea or the problem in education, but like many things in our world, the reality is not so simple.
There are so many amazing charter schools in Colorado that are creating innovative solutions to the problems facing education and there may be some charters that are driven by profit and performance, but at the heart of it all schools are made up of students. I have yet to meet a student or a family that chose a charter school for anything other than it being the best fit for their child.
No, charters schools will not provide all of the answers to our educational woes, but they aren’t all anti-union, capitalistic, cash grabs either. Disrupt the false narrative and you will discover classrooms filled with curious students guided by teachers trying to do the best with what they have.
Honestly, I can deal with the concrete floors and the cracks in my window. I love my school and there are schools in far worse condition, but I have a harder time understanding why a state that has made school choice a student right would punish them by providing fewer resources to succeed based on their choice. This is no time to retreat from creating equitable funding opportunities for students. We must move with urgency when it comes to improving the inequities our students face, and that includes ensuring charter schools see a fair share school funding.
When our speech and debate team stumbles off the bus before dawn next year, they’ll continue to see the stark contrast between our school and others. The story they create as they prepare for competition shouldn’t have to begin with the realization that they aren’t valued as much as students at other schools.
Josh Benson has taught at Peak to Peak Charter School since 2010. He is a National Board Certified Teacher.
Photo Credit: “Speech and Debate” Movie Trailer