Colorado bill vows education overhaul, but will voters raise taxes to fund it?

Colorado votes Tuesday on a ballot initiative to raise $1 billion to revolutionize education in the state. Outside backers have poured funding into the campaign, but raising taxes is a hard sell.

Brennan Linsley/AP
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock drops off his ballot in advance of Tuesday's vote, in Denver, Friday, Nov. 1, 2013. On Nov. 5, Colorado voters are to decide whether to approve a watershed change for how public schools are funded and could be the largest voter-approved tax hike in state history.

On Tuesday, Coloradans will decide a ballot initiative that could fundamentally change how education is funded in the state.

Voters are being asked to approve a nearly $1 billion income tax increase that would fund a sweeping overhaul of public education in the state. Among other things, it would raise the per-pupil spending in the state, direct more money to districts with more at-risk students, expand preschool for at-risk kids and full-day kindergarten, give funding equity to charter schools, set aside $100 million for an innovation fund, and establish more transparency and accountability for how education dollars are spent.

It has attracted national attention and support from teachers unions, the US education secretary, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as well as vocal opposition from Colorado Republicans and some groups who see it as an unnecessary and expensive new tax that won’t necessarily improve education.

“This represents an entirely new way of thinking about how we fund schools, and how we manage the public investment in education around the country,” says Mike Johnston, a Colorado state senator who is the chief architect of the plan.

Generally, says Senator Johnston, taxpayers have just been asked to trust the state on education matters. “What we’ve said is, we ought to expect something dramatically different. … This represents not just a change in how we fund schools, but what we expect from the way we fund schools.”

One challenge for proponents of Amendment 66: It’s incredibly complex. The Colorado bill that it funds has actually already been passed by both houses of the Colorado legislature, and Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) has signed it, but the law will only take effect if voters also approve the ballot initiative on Tuesday. It would replace the state’s current flat-rate income tax with a new two-tiered system: The flat rate on taxable income below $75,000 would increase from 4.6 percent to 5 percent, and to 5.9 percent for taxable income above $75,000.

“The heart of it is that voters are agreeing to commit more of their income toward education,” says Dan Thatcher, senior policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. “But they’re also agreeing to this 141-page piece of legislation that enacts new school funding formulas. [Those formulas] have never had life breathed into them in this way…. This is unique that voters are voting statewide on what’s one of the most complicated components of state law.”

In most states, Mr. Thatcher notes, any school funding reform is usually accompanied by an infusion of new money, so that no districts lose money as a result of the new formula. But in Colorado, the state has to get voter approval, because of the restrictions that the state’s unusual Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) imposes on the legislature’s ability to raise revenue.

“Economically, this is devastating,” says Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, a libertarian group that is a major opponent of the proposal. In Colorado, 95 percent of businesses run themselves through personal income taxes, Mr. Caldara notes. He calls the measure a tax increase on family businesses as well as families with jobs. “After dealing with the worst floods in Colorado history, the last thing we need is to knock the legs out from an unstable economy.”

He also dislikes the shift away from a flat tax, saying it puts Colorado at a disadvantage to its neighbors. The Wall Street Journal has similar concerns. It came out against the measure in an editorial headlined “Rocky Mountain High Taxes,” criticizing the graduated tax, and saying it would be a 26.6 percent increase on anyone making more than $75,000 a year.

“If it does pass, we'll also know that millions of Coloradans have taken to smoking that marijuana they legalized last year,” the Journal wrote.

But Caldara and other critics also say that the measure doesn’t really deliver on the reforms it claims to promise, and say they aren’t convinced that the extra money will really go toward restoring art or gym classes rather than just backfilling the pension system.

“There’s nothing here that’s truly a reform,” says Caldara. “It’s just a billion-dollar tax increase every year, which is largely unaccountable.”

Proponents of Amendment 66 say that objection leaves them baffled, since the new law would give taxpayers more transparency, and assurances that money would actually go to education, than they’ve ever had before.

“If that’s their concern, they should be the strongest advocates for Amendment 66,” says Johnston. “If they defeat it, we go back to the old system that has no transparency, or accountability, or requirement that dollars be spent on education."

Under the new law there are much stricter controls that ensure that dollars follow students to the classroom and not just fill holes elsewhere in the budget. 

Johnston says it’s easy to see the need for more money in the state’s education system, such as the district in Southern Colorado where some students take classes in an old bus barn, with nothing but a plastic sheet separating them from diesel fumes; or the many 1st and 2nd  grade classes with 36 kids in a class; or the kids who are forced to pay fees in order to take a bus, to get books, or to take art or music. It would provide full-day kindergarten for families who want it and would fund preschool for about 20,000 at-risk children.

But Johnston is most excited about the reforms the overhaul would implement. The state could invest in a longer school day or year through the new innovation fund, and money would be used to attract and retain the best teachers and principals through a career-ladder system. Principals would have more autonomy in spending, and Johnson hopes that not only would the state invest more in the public charter sector, but would also learn from any successes there. And some of the money would help fund implementation of reforms that have already been passed, such as new teacher evaluations, standards, and tests.

“It would fund what is a transformative modernization of Colorado’s education system,” says Curtis Hubbard, spokesperson for the Yes on 66 campaign.

Mr. Hubbard notes that $1 billion has been cut from the state’s K-12 system in the past five years, and says he thinks most voters have seen the effects of those cuts. Even if the ballot measure is passed, Colorado would still rank in the bottom half of states in terms of what it spends on K-12 education. And while the details of how money will be spent will still be left up to districts, Hubbard says that “rather than ask voters for a blank check," the measure that Amendment 66 would fund, "for the first time in any state’s history, laid out a detailed plan for how that money would be spent, ensuring it could only be spent on education.”

While most educators in Colorado have supported the amendment, some local districts have come out in opposition, with certain school board members noting that the new funding measures mean that more new money will be raised by their district than will come into it.

According to Caldara, wealthier school districts like Douglas County or Boulder County will get back less than 60 cents for every dollar they pay into the tax increase.

"They’d be better off raising their own money through local taxes," says Caldara. "If there is one word to describe 66, it’s ‘unfair.’ "

“That is a concern,” agrees Hubbard. “That is also how taxation at the state level works. It’s not a vending machine where you should put something in and expect to get something out. There are districts across the state that have fewer resources and lower property taxes, and as Coloradans, we should be concerned with ensuring that all children have access to a quality education.”

All districts in Colorado, he notes, would receive increased funding under the amendment, but more money would go to certain districts that have more low-income students, English language learners, or special-education students.

Proponents of the bill are vastly better funded, with some $10 million in donations so far, including major gifts from Mr. Bloomberg and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The main group opposing it, Coloradans for Real Education Reform, has raised about $25,000. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has come out in favor of it, saying that if it’s passed, “Colorado will become the educational model for every other state to follow.” And Governor Hickenlooper is a big backer.

But getting voters to approve a tax increase, especially in a depressed economy, is a tough goal, and despite the lopsided funding advantage for supporters of the bill, most observers expect the vote to be very close, whatever the result. In a review of past Colorado ballot measures, Education News Colorado found that since the early 1990s, voters have approved only two measures that affected education funding, neither of which included a general tax increase, while defeating six.

“The tax increases that have a shot at winning have a lot of bipartisan support,” says Caldara of the Independence Institute. “Not a single elected Republican supports this tax increase.”

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