Polis, Democrats lambaste state GOP pandemic school plan as voucher end run

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AURORA | Gov. Jared Polis and Democratic state lawmakers quickly dismissed a Republican proposal Tuesday to divert funding away from the public school system and directly into the pockets of families struggling with the likelihood of a rocky 2020-2021 school year. 

Republican state senators signed an open letter to Polis Tuesday calling for a special session of the General Assembly to suss out schools issues. 

The senators also floated a proposal akin to education voucher programs, which pay taxpayer dollars intended for school systems to families for use in a program of their choice.

The Republican proposal is called “Safe Learning Choices” and, if it passed in a special session of the state legislature, would entitle families with concerns about school to all, or part, of the main funding that follows a Colorado K-12 student. For the 2019-2020 school year, that baseline “per pupil revenue” amounted to almost $7,000 in Cherry Creek School District, according to budget documents. 

Families would then be able to spend the money on anything from homeschooling programs to directly hiring an educator and paying for WiFi access. 

“Many Colorado families — particularly single parent households — are facing an impossible choice: either work to put food on the table or stay at home to educate their child,” the letter says. “If the state does not adapt education funding to recognize this obvious and undeniable reality, thousands of kids will be denied the quality education they deserve and need.”

But it’s unlikely the proposal will see its day in the state legislature. At least, not any time soon. 

Polis or Senate Democrats, who have a majority in the state Senate, would have to agree to reopen the General Assembly for a special session. Quickly, the politicians dismissed the plan.  

The legislature already reconvened in May to hammer out the comprehensive School Finance Act. That bill stripped $1.17 billion that schools were entitled to as part of the so-called “negative factor,” compared to $572 million last year, because of a pandemic-induced recession. 

The bill stripped millions of dollars from Aurora-area school systems.

Polis said Tuesday at a press conference the GOP idea would exacerbate the funding problem. 

“… Frankly, that proposal would result in less choices for parents by forcing the closure of some schools and some of the online programs that already exist in our state,” he said. 

Senate Democrats excoriated the plan. 

“But let’s be honest, this is a political stunt to try to score cheap points at the detriment of our students,” Democrats said in a statement. “The GOP’s proposal would hollow out public schools – which are already struggling – and create an inconsistent, patchwork of learning experiences for our kids.”

State Sen. Jack Tate, who represents Centennial and parts of the southeast Denver metro, called the future of schooling in a country infested with COVID-19 a “Herculean task” for families. He echoed a ubiquitous argument that, if schools don’t open, working families won’t be able to put food on the table, let alone work from home and manage their student’s education at the same time. 

Tate proposed an open dialogue to discuss other proposals tackling schooling, calling for a “temporary restructuring of our education system, where a lot of the burden is now being shifted to families.”

On Tuesday, the Colorado Education Association teacher union also quickly blasted the GOP proposal. 

“Today’s request from Colorado House and Senate Republicans asking the governor to open a special session and further promote Betsy DeVos and President Trump’s efforts to dismantle public education is insulting and disappointing,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, the union president. 

Aurora Public Schools followed school systems in Denver, Los Angeles and elsewhere Friday to start the school year with online learning. 

Officials there had been planning to start the year with schools open five days a week, but school board members nixxed the plans because of a concerning, recent trend in COVID-19 metrics. 

Cherry Creek schools officials developed various fleshed-out scenarios for reopening schools. Officials have planned to reopen school doors next month.

Read the Senate GOP’s full letter here.