By Richard Tagle, President and CEO of Denver Public Schools Foundation

August 29, 2023

From the first day of preschool to the triumphant strides across the high school graduation stage, there is a solid cost to provide a quality public education to U.S. students. In a climate of tightening budgets and shifting priorities, the urgency of investing in public education has never been more evident. Ignoring this critical investment risks falling behind in an increasingly knowledge-driven global economy.

As President and CEO of the Denver Public Schools Foundation (DPS Foundation), I have had the privilege of witnessing firsthand the transformative power of community support in shaping the educational journey of students. All children and families should have equal access to opportunities and information, regardless of their background. When we collectively invest in public education, we level the playing field, ensuring all students have access to quality teaching, learning experiences, and out-of-school-time activities. A well-educated workforce drives productivity and fuels economic growth. Countries — and states — with strong public education systems are better positioned to adapt to new industries, enhance research and development, and remain globally competitive. 

The Denver Public Schools (DPS) 2023-24 academic year budget is $1.35 billion. Some may say this cost is either outrageous or insufficient to support the more than 89,000 students enrolled in Colorado’s largest school district. However, there will still be an estimated $12 million deficit between what DPS expects in revenue and anticipated expenses. 

Rising demands on schools and educators lead to higher education costs. School budgets frequently fall short of encompassing the emotional, economic, and equity programs America’s public schools are increasingly being called on – and called out – to provide. Inflation is driving up per-student spending without necessarily adding more value. Colorado spends about $1,000 per student less than the national average. Public education is the cornerstone of social equality and economic prosperity. We must bridge the gap. Denver’s future depends on it. 

Public funding as it currently stands is not enough. DPS relies primarily on three revenue streams: local property taxes; general fund dollars from Colorado state sales and income tax; and the State Education Fund. While property taxes sustain basic school operations, supplementary investments can provide enhanced opportunities for students. Additional funding sources are available, however, usage is often restricted. For example, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 added supplemental ESSER dollars (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund) to the mix. The district is relying on those funds to meet the projected $82 million it needs for mental health-related expenses; $4 million for safety supports, and $5 million for capital-related safety expenses. ESSER is scheduled to end in 2024, leaving a $120 million shortfall in need of solutions. While these temporary financial resources are invaluable, it is imperative to find a long-term solution. 

Last year DPS experienced significant challenges, however, triumphs still emerged in classrooms throughout the district. Educators showed up for their students and exhibited unwavering dedication to student well-being, often going beyond the call of duty. Exceptional educators are the heart of our public school system and we need to invest in them. Colorado ranks near the bottom for the average teacher starting salary, hindering the recruitment of quality educators. Teachers sacrifice their time and their finances for students. The National Education Association found educators spent an average of $500 of their own money on classroom supplies each school year. It’s egregious to expect educators to continue shouldering these out-of-pocket expenses. It’s not their burden to carry — it’s ours to share.

Community support for DPS schools and students is happening through grassroots efforts and philanthropy. For example, thanks to generous donors, this past school year the DPS Foundation directed $6 million to improve student outcomes. These funds aided individual classrooms through our A to Z Fund, supported workforce development, funded afterschool programs, supported families through community hubs, and partnered corporations with individual schools through our CLASS framework. Imagine how that impact could grow by combining public, private, and philanthropic forces. 

As we prepare for the new school year, DPS stands at a crucial juncture, poised to shape the future of our city. To truly empower our students as leaders, thinkers, and innovators, we must recognize that investing in their education is critical. While annual school budgets provide the foundation, they are merely a starting point. To put students first, we must collectively commit to bridging the gap between budget limitations and the comprehensive resources necessary for their holistic development. 

If we want Denver to remain a city where families proudly raise their children and young people can see their dreams come to fruition, investment in public education is non-negotiable. The dividends are not just measured in dollars, but in the countless lives transformed and the enduring strength of our shared tomorrow.