Like a broken record stuck playing one of the greatest flaws in this great state ad nauseam, voters will likely be asked again to tax themselves to fund Colorado schools.
The education news outlet Chalkbeat reported this week that a group of advocates for increased school funding cleared the first hurdle in getting a tax increase on the ballot in November. Nic Garcia reported that any of eight measures that are being proposed would adjust Colorado’s flat income tax into a graduated income tax (taxing wealthier individuals more) to raise somewhere between $1.4 billion and $1.7 billion more for Colorado schools every year.
The ballot questions are similar in size and approach to Amendment 66, which the state’s voters resoundingly defeated in 2013. More than $10 million was spent lobbying voters to approve the tax, yet it still failed. Supporters of this new measure must be gluttons for punishment.
This constant noise from school funding advocates would be annoying if the need wasn’t so acute.
By some accounts, Colorado schools are underfunded by more than $800 million, a deficit known as the negative factor and calculated based on how much less the state has spent on schools than was mandated by the voter-approved Amendment 23. But that number is somewhat arbitrary (as is the formula capping state spending, as determined by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights).
A better assessment of Colorado’s school funding simply looks at what schools receive per pupil from all sources — federal, state and local.
According to data collected by Great Education Colorado — a group that is among those advocating for increased school funding — per-pupil funding varies drastically by school district, but on average the funding levels lag significantly behind districts in other states.
Correcting the school funding formula so it is more equitable is an important part of the puzzle, but so is addressing the fact that in general, Colorado’s education funding pie is too small to adequately meet the needs of students. Half of Colorado’s school districts have schools that are running four-day school weeks, presumably to save money. Teacher salaries in rural areas are dismal even when accounting for the low cost of living in those communities. And schools struggle to offer competitive wages.
We supported Amendment 66 because it did much more than just throw money at Colorado’s education system; it was tied to important education reforms and an effort to fix the broken funding formula. It was an imperfect proposal, but it was better than nothing. Throwing money at schools won’t necessarily increase student learning, but statistics support the fact that smaller class sizes, more instruction hours in a school year, attracting higher-quality teachers, and offering robust interventions for students who have fallen behind do improve student performance.
Gov. John Hickenlooper is proposing a multimillion-dollar funding increase next year over and above the Amendment 23-mandated increase. And state revenues are projected to grow by more than $1 billion in two years, raising the prospect of additional education resources. In an ideal world, the state would find a way to meet education funding needs without a tax increase. But there are competing interests for every discretionary dollar.
It’s early in the process. There is much to consider with a tax increase of this magnitude. But we are encouraged these advocates are willing to play the same old broken record in the hope that someone is listening. We are.