Tax Freeze Ices School Funds

TWO Nov. 3 ballot initiatives, one that passed and one that didn't, have put advocates of educational reform between a rock and a hard place.

Gov. Roy Romer (D) campaigned hard for a state sales-tax increase to help fund beleaguered public schools that face shortfalls of $300 million for the next three years.

The sales-tax increase, Amendment 6, did not pass. But Amendment 1 did. It is a measure that freezes taxes, effectively removing taxation from the legislature and putting it into the hands of voters. No new taxes are permitted except those approved at the ballot box (except increases keyed to inflation and population growth).

"Times are tough," Governor Romer explains. "People don't want taxes raised." Some voters, he says, objected to the type of tax Amendment 6 proposed. Few really understood the implications of Amendment 1, he adds. "What we're dealing with is a public who wants good service - excellence in education - but isn't willing to pay for it," Romer says. "It's a classic political problem."

Education advocates say schools in the metro-Denver area will be severely affected by the upcoming revenue shortfall. Denver public schools are already stuffing students into classrooms. In some cases, there are not enough books to go around. Some parents have lost confidence in the city schools.

Judith Albino, president of the University of Colorado, says that "to both not fund our K-12 system and at the same time to go into a tax-and-spending-limitation approach, which takes us to the ballot for any significant increases, just puts us into a different mode of operation. I think the effects will be felt in K-12 most immediately. But our concern in higher education is how we respond to increasing demands and maintain quality.... If K-12 suffers, higher education will suffer."

David Longenecker of the Commission on Higher Education says bluntly, "Either elementary and secondary education are going to be cut back severely or all of state government is going to be cut back pretty severely. This is a state that has very lean funding for higher education. We rank 48th nationally in funding for students."

What's more, he says, "We [are facing] a population increase most of the rest of the country is not facing. Over the next decade we will have a 35 percent increase in our high school graduates."

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