Which of the following do you think was the funding priority of the Democratic majority for the recently completed legislative session in Colorado: yet another study on bees or grants for schools to help kids learn math?
If you guessed the bees, you must have the sneaking suspicion that our state’s spending priorities simply don’t add up. And you’d be right.
The bill to help kids with math learning loss was killed at the end of the legislative session.
Budgets send an important message about the priorities of our elected leaders — both in what they fund as much as what they don’t fund. In the case of kids who can count or bees who can buzz, the former lost out to the latter.
Statewide, less than a quarter (24%) of sixth graders are meeting grade-level expectations in math according to the latest state academic assessments. That’s down from 29.5% in 2019. Students lost ground during COVID-19, but we can all agree that even before COVID-19 our students’ lack of proficiency in math was a significant problem.
And, indeed, a group of bipartisan legislators agreed that improving math achievement is critical. Their legislation — House Bill 1396 — would have provided targeted grants to schools to implement best practices in math instruction and accelerate math achievement.
The bill was sponsored by the House Education Chair, State Rep. Barbara McLachlan (D-Durango), and the top Republican on the House Education Committee, State Rep. Colin Larson (R-Littleton). When they presented the bill, it received praise from legislators in both parties and won unanimous support from the House Education Committee.
As Rep. Larson said, “math learning loss has tragic long-term consequences, as it directly leads to kids losing opportunities for high-paying tech and science-based jobs in Colorado.”
Policymakers and proponents of the bill recognized that this is about more than just test scores. Students lose a love for math when they fall behind, and they stop trying. As a result, thousands of students are shut out from later opportunities for high-paying STEM jobs that depend on solid quantitative skills.
Yet rather than address this critical problem, Democratic legislative leadership, who control the state’s purse strings, instead funded other priorities — like the bee study.
I have nothing against bees. In fact, my husband and I are beekeepers. We are grateful to the bees for providing us with delicious, organic honey and for their important contribution to our local ecology.
What I can’t fathom is passing a new state law to spend nearly $200,000 in taxpayer funds to complete yet another study on bees, while choosing not to allocate a single penny toward helping the roughly 130,000 students in grades 3-through-8 that are behind in math.
There is already a significant amount of research on pollinating insects being conducted by the esteemed institutions of higher education and research laboratories in Colorado. On the other hand, the government is the only funder of public education.
As a state, we have invested more than a quarter of a billion dollars in the past decade to help schools implement science-based reading instruction to improve literacy. That is important work. Kids needs to know how to read.
They also need to know how to do math and supporting schools to use science-based tactics to accelerate math learning would be a big step forward.
And, in case you think I’m cherry picking one random spending example, there are plenty of others, with a wide range of price tags. The Legislature also chose, for instance, to spend $28 million on free RTD rides, $12 million on electric bikes and $10 million on incentivizing marijuana growers to use renewable energy.
Even if those are worthwhile policy pursuits, spending millions on bees and bikes, while spending $0 to support students failing in math, seems off balance. Particularly when recent research from Harvard that found racial and socio-economic achievement gaps in math widened the most in areas where low-income students had their schools closed for longer periods of time during the pandemic.
Students who were already behind in math prior to COVID-19 suffered the biggest negative impacts when they couldn’t attend school in-person during the pandemic. It’s baffling that fixing the deep inequities exacerbated by COVID-19 somehow wasn’t a priority for our legislative leadership this year.
They chose the bees — and numerous other pet projects — over kids, deciding to kill a bipartisan bill that provided a solution to a problem affecting hundreds of thousands of kids.
Want to help protect bees? Raise some of your own or plant some sunflowers.
But don’t stiff the kids instead.
Brenda Dickhoner, Ph.D., is president and CEO of Ready Colorado, an education-reform advocacy organization that believes all children have a right to a high-quality education.