In an optimistic State of the Speech address, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis pledged to invest more in education, from preschool classrooms to college campuses, and highlighted his past policy successes, including free full-day kindergarten and the launch of universal preschool. 

This is the last State of the State address of Polis’ first term and at times sounded more like a campaign speech for his second term. 

“Helping kids get a great education is not only the most important work of the state but also the passion of my life’s work,” said Polis, a former State Board of Education member and founder of a charter school network.

He drew a standing ovation from both sides of the aisle when he thanked educators for their work during the pandemic.

“I want to thank every educator and school staff member who has done their part, done more than their part, to help keep Colorado schools open,” he said. “There is nothing more important to the future of our state than educating Colorado children.”

While promising to invest more — more in youth mental health, more in child care and preschool, more in K-12 schools, more in workforce training and higher education institutions — Polis’ speech did not go into details of new policy initiatives.

Polis’ proposed budget calls for increasing spending on K-12 education by almost 6%, saving money for future education needs, and reducing the budget stabilization factor — money that lawmakers hold back from K-12 despite constitutional requirements to spend more — to its lowest point since the Great Recession. His budget calls for just a 1% increase for higher education. 

Democratic lawmakers said they wanted more for higher education institutions that have been underfunded for decades and lost enrollment during the pandemic.

Senate Education Chair Rachel Zenzinger said her biggest concerns relate to the long-lasting impacts of the pandemic, with declining college enrollment causing cascading effects on the workforce and the economy.

A state commission developed recommendations about how to use federal relief money to connect people with training to gain credentials and degrees that will lead to good-paying jobs. Polis said those recommendations “will help create a thriving workforce where everyone in every community, in every corner of the state can live long and prosper.”

“I would have liked to hear more about restoring funding to higher education,” Zenzinger said after the speech. “These will not be lasting changes if we don’t fund them, if they’re built on top of a crumbling foundation.”

Speaker of the House Alec Garnett praised Polis after his speech for a “well-rounded message” that included calls to invest more in classrooms and on teachers.

“The idea that we’re going to continue to build out universal pre-K is amazing,” Garnett said. “These are things that Coloradans should feel really, really excited about.”

But Garnett echoed Zenzinger’s hope that Polis and the state can do more for higher education.

“I think higher ed continues to be a cost point for many, many families,” Garnett said. “And I think you’ll see the legislature working on issues like that.”

Polis said he worked with superintendents to reopen schools, and he touted his efforts to offer testing supplies and masks to students and teachers. He also praised the resilience and determination of Coloradans in addressing COVID, giving a shout-out to Central High School students in Mesa County.

With the help of school staff, Central students set up a series of vaccination clinics before many of the teens were able to be vaccinated. The students, he said, “ended up working 10- to 11-hour days to get more than 1,300 community members vaccinated.”

Despite the resilience of teachers and the resources provided by the state, COVID cases continue to strain school staff and cause disruptions. Schools have needed to go remote to address outbreaks and pushed already burned out teachers to a breaking point. 

State Rep. Tim Geitner, a Falcon Republican, said Polis didn’t address the damage done while schools were closed.

“There was applause and whatnot for keeping the schools open. The schools were shut down,” Geitner said. “And the test scores demonstrate that 50% of Colorado students are not at grade level when you look at reading, and when you look at mathematics, that’s a problem that is not something to applaud for.”

Geitner said state dollars should go directly to families so they can make the best possible decision for their students.

Polis, in contrast, highlighted the ways state dollars are helping children through new programs, naming families and educators throughout his speech.

He talked about Grady, whose mom Melyssa Mead was able to quickly find him mental health support through the I Matter website that launched last year, and Benjamin, whose mom Alexis Ramirez can send him to kindergarten without paying tuition

He also pointed to the work of wellness coordinator Brian VanIwarden and school counselor Stacy Andrews, part of a growing behavioral health team led by Jamie Murray in Cañon City Schools. In the past, they were dependent on grant programs and couldn’t plan long-term. They hired people and trained them, only to lose them to permanent, better-paying jobs. 

With more funding in last year’s budget, the district has hired counselors for every school and can offer classes in coping skills and emotional health for every child, starting in kindergarten, with more support for students who need more help, they said in a post-speech interview. The district can also offer more competitive pay and ensure counselors aren’t responsible for more than 250 students each.

“We can build the skills and traits in kids that it doesn’t really matter what the world in 10 years is like,” VanIWarden said. “Having this funding allows us to build that capacity. Whether the world changes or not, now they’re ready to cope with that.”

With pressure from lawmakers on both sides to spend more this year on education, Polis said his focus is on sustainability for the long run. His budget proposal socks money away specifically for education in the event of a future economic downturn.

“You cannot support programs like this if money goes up one year and goes down the next,” he said in an interview. “It’s better to sustain a level of increase over several years.”

Gov. Jared Polis high-fives state Rep. Mike Weissman after delivering his State of the State address. Democratic leaders praised Polis’ vision even as they said they want to see more attention to higher education.

Jason Gonzales covers higher education for Chalkbeat Colorado, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado in partnership with Open Campus.