09/12/2012 02:42 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Back To School: Colorado Board Of Education Representative Elaine Gantz Berman Describes The State's Educational Landscape

Some of the biggest and best news in Colorado this year is that education funding isn't being cut in the state's budget for the first time in years.

Colorado has held onto its average per pupil funding at $6,474 with the lowest per pupil funding at $6,058.86. To help put this good news in perspective however, the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data shows that Utah spent the least on per pupil funding, out of all 50 states and D.C., at $6,064.

With the number of students attending Colorado schools slated to surpass 817,000 this year, educators in the state continue to face challenges that are often summed up as "doing more with less." Last year the state made education news as a judge ruled during the Lobato v. State of Colorado case that Colorado is not upholding it's own constitutional education standards of providing a "thorough and uniform system of free public schools throughout the state." That decision will likely continue to forge Colorado history as lawmakers and state board of education members seek an appeal and those in agreement with the ruling have to stay on legislators because there was little to no guidance in the ruling as to how to achieve a more thorough and uniform education system throughout the state.

Colorado State Board of Education member Elaine Gantz Berman (D-Denver) took time out of her busy schedule to talk with The Huffington Post about what the state's educational landscape looks like now.

You have said publicly that you voted against appealing the Denver District Court’s Lobato decision in an op-ed published in saying, “I cannot come up with any reasonable rationale to defend the status quo of how we fund schools.” What do you think would be an appropriate or ideal way to add funds to schools? In other words, what would you like to see happen?

Colorado has unusually low property taxes. People who move here from other states are stunned with how little we pay. The idea of raising taxes is far from a popular solution but if (we) believe we need to reinstate the billion dollars which have been cut from schools over the (past) four years, I'm not sure we have much choice.

The $1 billion cut from schools over the past 4 years are due to a combination of factors: districts have not received funding for increases in students, the state has cut funding to schools, and property values have declined cutting revenues received from property taxes.

What are the problems you see with the current school finance formula? Where is it falling short of school's needs, and do you think it is meeting them in any school?

The intent of the current school finance formula is to distribute funds equitably across the state. For those areas of the state that are poor, they do not and cannot generate the same amount of revenue even though their mill levies from their property taxes may be the same. For example, a one mill tax increase in Agate, Colorado will generate considerably less than a one mill tax increase in Denver. This means that many rural districts are in worse shape financially than districts like Boulder, Douglas and Denver. We need to develop a new school finance formula that takes into account the capacity for local districts to generate revenue through property tax. We also need to direct resources into proven programs which will impact the unacceptable achievement gap between anglo students and students of color.

What are some examples of things Colorado schools still desperately need?

If you were to ask any teacher in any classroom in Colorado, I would venture to say they all spend their own money on school supplies. Some schools are still using antiquated text books when the Soviet Union still existed. Many schools are desperate for air conditioning and have delayed the opening of school to later in August. DPS did just this because of the unbearable heat last summer. More than 1/3 of all districts in the state have moved to a four-day school week to save money on heating in the winter and the high cost of fuel for their buses.

If we want our students to be prepared for jobs in all sectors, they need computers and access to the internet. We take this for granted in the Denver-Metro area, but it is not the case in many parts of the state.

Many small and rural districts have struggled to provide their schools the high-speed broadband connections necessary for 21st Century learning to take place. One example is Silverton School District which is a small remote school district in the south west part of the state that has struggled to get high speed broadband in their school district for many years.

Douglas County School Board has found itself in the news a lot lately. First with a voucher program allowing public school students to opt out of the system and into a private school, a February Romney endorsement, a ballot proposal to sever union ties and now lawsuits that claim that last action is illegal. Can you please talk a little bit about how politics makes its way onto school boards that are supposed to be nonpartisan, and how it can affect school boards?

I fervently believe that all school boards, including the State Board of Education and the CU Board of Regents, should be nonpartisan. I should note that neither the State Board nor the CU Regents are nonpartisan, we are elected according to our party affiliation. As policy makers for public education, our decision filter should always be what we think is best for the students. I welcome a legislative proposal to address this issue. Unfortunately, whichever party has the majority on either of these boards at the time, will be reluctant to support this change.

Public education has become increasingly political over the past couple of decades. This is very unfortunate, we should be able to debate and discuss the merits of reforms without the influence of party platforms. Certain education issues have become associated with one political party or the other. For example, choice and charter schools was initially associated with the Republican Party. I am a supporter of both and I am a life-long Democrat. Party politics have no place on school boards. The issues are touchy enough without further complicating the deliberations.

Are there any new tools being integrated into schools this year? For example, in El Paso County there's talk of utilizing iPads as a learning tool. Or how else are Colorado educators being innovative?

There are many new approaches to school this year. There is a great deal of attention being paid to expanding the school day, the school week and the school year. The Colorado Legacy Foundation has issued a request for proposal for schools interested in piloting more time, more technology, and more community partnerships. People interested in learning more about the expanded learning opportunities RFP, should check out the Legacy Foundation website. There is also growing excitement around a new approach to teaching called "blended learning"- this combines the more traditional "teacher in the classroom" with the use of technology and computers with the teacher as a resource.

Too much screen time or use of the computer for students is not optimal. But the combination of teacher-led classes and the use of technology could be ideal. Students (and adults) of all ages are hooked onto iPads, PDA's and computers. The education system needs to keep pace with the direction students are moving -- because today, in 2012, they are leading the way, not the educators.

To get an idea of what a vision for public education in Colorado and the country could like in years ahead, watch this video:

Interview continues below video.

What do you think is behind the current "trend" behind charter schools or online schools? What's the appeal for parents/students? And what are some of the drawbacks?

Charter schools are no longer new in Colorado. Actually, we were among the first states to enact charter school legislation. As with traditional public schools, there are exceptional charter schools and underperforming charter schools. They offer another option for parents and this is a good thing. I would say that charters are not a passing trend, they are here to stay and schools like Denver School of Science and Technology and West Denver Prep, now called Strive, are among the best in the state. I would add that a district like DPS has many other non-charter schools that are equally high-performing such as the Denver School of the Arts, the Denver Center for International Studies and neighborhood schools such as Steck, Steele, University Park, Bromwell and many more.

Manual High School started class much earlier this year to provide more time for their students and is looking for ways to give them more opportunities for hands-on learning. Do you think this approach is one that other Colorado schools may seek to emulate?

Yes, the U.S. has an unusually short school year. It makes no sense that our students are out of school for three consecutive months. They forget over the summer and time then has to be spent reviewing what was learned the previous year. Our school calendar is way, way out of date and needs to be changed.

What are Colorado schools doing to close the achievement gap? Please give us an example of some of the strategies being utilized.

The achievement gap in Colorado is alarmingly wide. We seem to be doing a reasonable job educating middle class students but there is much room for improvement when it comes to educating our low-income students, many of whom are children of color. Schools that are seeing success use tutors for students who are not at grade level and need additional assistance; after-school and Saturday programs; providing rigorous courses and expecting the student will succeed -- failing is not an option.

How do you think SB 191 -- the educator evaluator bill that largely ties student performance to principal and teacher evaluations -- will affect teachers? Can you share some of the initial feedback?

SB 191 is a revolutionary piece of Colorado legislation that ties 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation to the performance growth of their students. The Race to the Top initiative led by Education Secretary Arnie Duncan is partially modeled on Colorado's bill. It is too early to tell the success of this new way to evaluate teachers. We are optimistic that with teacher involvement in the development of the evaluation model, teachers will embrace and support the new approach. Stay tuned!

How does Colorado measure student success?

We measure individual student success by a number of different measures:
1. Through the state test, which previously was called the CSAP, and now called the TCAP, we measure individual growth from one school year to the next. The expectation is all students will gain a minimum of a year's worth of growth in a subject area.
2. Through graduation rates -- the expectation is that every student will graduate high school ready to enter the work force and college.
3. College acceptance rates -- the expectation is that all interested students apply and are accepted to college and, that once attending college, will not need remediation classes to keep up with college-level courses.
4. All students will become good citizens and contribute back to their community and vote in all elections!!!!