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Colorado budget proposal seeks workforce development, math instruction funds

A teacher writes out a math lesson for a student
Helping students learn math would get priority in Colorado Gov. Jared Polis’ January budget update. Polis also proposes free training for Coloradans to get in-demand jobs. Erica Seryhm Lee for Chalkbeat

Colorado residents could get access to free training for jobs in education, health care, construction trades, and other sectors that have more openings than qualified workers, under an updated budget proposal from Gov. Jared Polis.

Expanded workforce training — including some free college — was among several education proposals from Polis. He also proposed a major expansion of after-school tutoring focused on math and science skills and state money to help employers offer on-site child care. 

Polis announced the proposals at a press conference Tuesday. They expand on his November budget request and address areas of growing concern for employers, workers, parents, and education advocates. 

Polis, who will be sworn in for his second term next week, said there are more job openings in the state than people qualified to fill them, part of a growing skills gap. Polis wants to spend $70 million over two years providing free training primarily at community colleges to get residents the skills they need for in-demand jobs.

In math, Colorado faces a worsening trend of students falling behind. Polis’ proposal would provide a short-term fix, with $25 million to expand after-school programs focused on science, technology, engineering, and math. The budget would also set aside $3 million in state and federal money for math instructional materials and teacher training — a step toward a longer-term solution.

Tuesday’s announcement adds to the $42.7 billion budget Polis proposed in November. He also proposed updates that include property tax changes, housing relief, and clean energy tax credits. 

The November budget included $9 billion next year for K-12 education and $86 million more for student financial aid and college and university operations. Polis’ budget serves as a starting point. Six lawmakers on the Joint Budget Committee will craft a budget proposal for their colleagues in the House and Senate to vote on.

In prioritizing workforce development, Polis hopes to expand on work last year to train more qualified workers.

“Price is a barrier, especially in these challenging professions,” Polis said.

Lauren Larson, Polis’ budget director, said the money would go to address an “arising crisis.” Even doubling the number of high school students with the necessary training wouldn’t meet workforce needs, she said.

And the state has a large pool of older adults who could benefit from training. Colorado is a highly educated state, but many of its low-income residents have trouble getting the education and training they need to get in-demand jobs that pay well. The pandemic has caused fewer residents to attend college or get training, worsening the problem.

To address the labor shortages, lawmakers, education, nonprofit, and business leaders last year released a report on how to spend $100 million in one-time federal pandemic relief money to boost workforce training. Colorado leaders noted that the state would also need to continue investments over the long term. 

The $70 million in new state money that would be spent over the next two years would provide free training in early childhood education, teaching, law enforcement, fire and forestry, construction trades, advanced manufacturing, and nursing fields — all experiencing shortages, Polis said.

The governor wants the money to help educate more than 35,000 students and expand short-term community college programs to train more than 250 additional nurses annually, according to a Polis spokeswoman.

The proposal builds off $61 million the state invested last year to train and support health care workers, with about $26 million going to the Colorado Community College System.

The free training has paid for tuition, fees, and books, but students can also use federal and state grants and scholarships to offset living costs like day care, transportation, and other life expenses, Larson said. 

State and national test data shows K-12 students lagging in math skills. 

Colorado has made a concerted effort in recent years to improve reading instruction: making sure all early elementary teachers have special training, requiring school districts to update their curriculum, and pushing university programs to give teacher candidates the best practices for teaching reading. 

But the state has made no similar push on math instruction — and evidence shows math skills suffered more during remote learning than did language arts. State and national test scores show larger declines in math and slower recovery, with the declines more significant among older students. 

Polis’ $28 million for after-school programs and math resources is not on the same scale as the effort Colorado mounted in reading.

Still, he said, “We want to make sure we turn around this trend in Colorado.”.

Polis also included $10.5 million to expand work-place child care initiatives. He added that the state will be able to provide more hours of free preschool than originally expected.

The state should be able to provide at least 15 hours of free preschool for families, he said. Low-income families will be eligible for more, he said. The original goal was 10 hours.

Polis included $10 million in his November budget to help with the rollout of universal preschool. 

“There could of course be a few areas where because of capacity there’s still 10-hour programs, but in general, most families will be able to benefit from 15 hours of free preschool for their 4-year-olds next fall,” he said. “We’re very excited about getting that right.”

Jason Gonzales is a reporter covering higher education and the Colorado legislature. Chalkbeat Colorado partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage. Contact Jason at jgonzales@chalkbeat.org.

Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at emeltzer@chalkbeat.org.

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