This past week I had the opportunity to visit with colleagues in Illinois, fresh off a state funding victory. I was hosted by Advance Illinois, a member of the Coalition Support Network I’m working with. This year, the coalitions they supported scored a crucial state funding victory in coalition with districts, community organizations, and state leaders. I was there to learn how it happened and what lessons can be applied across the country and to Colorado.
State funding has been a critical issue in Colorado with an overall low funding level compared to most states (ranked 42nd amongst 50 states in per-pupil spending according to Kids Count) and enormous inequality between districts. EdBuild recently highlighted Sheridan and Littleton school districts as having one of the largest income gaps in the nation. Recent attempts like Amendment 66 and ongoing efforts in the legislature and courts have failed to change school finance, and we know this has major implications in every classroom. Policymakers and advocates are surprisingly cynical in sunny Colorado about the chances for meaningful funding changes. Indeed, even though gubernatorial candidates speak about their commitment to this issue, most voters and advocates remain cynical. I brought skepticism with me.
My skepticism melted over the four-hour drive (and multiple Dunkin’ stops) to Springfield IL as I heard about their five-year battle. This was a hard and tough victory in an extremely politically complicated state (if you think the Denver vs rest of the state dynamic is bad, try out the Chicago vs rest of the state relationship). Small, medium and large district leaders worked together and taught themselves how to advocate for the change they sought. I learned how essential Advance Illinois’ work in both advocacy for funding and broader policy questions. Districts depended on them to advance the funding conversation and also for expert advice on what worked. Coalition leaders called the question at tough times when they were told to stop pushing, against “expert” advice. There was broad and common cause, shared values and diverse solidarity. This was bold work in a complicated state.
As I was sitting there, listening to visionary advocacy groups and district leaders talk about their state, I kept thinking – what are the district and state coalitions we still need to build? Failures like Amendment 66 are real, and they hurt. But then there were coalitions like Ya Basta! which brought many groups together to push for better Southwest Denver schools, with lasting impact. But in both cases, advocates working on both issues know there is a ton of work still to be done.
I came back from Illinois re-energized and with a whole new definition of “possible” and some big questions for Colorado. How do we get districts to lead the conversations we know we need to have for the future of Colorado? How can advocacy groups work with local leaders to magnify their voices? How can districts trust advocacy groups with both policy questions and to advance large, more complicated issues at the state level? What level of coordination (and maybe, consolidation) will this require of our advocacy groups?
If we are going to recalibrate our definition of what’s possible for the future of Colorado, let’s start those coalitions now! It may take five years or a decade, but let’s get started.