For Democrats at the Capitol, there is no such thing as a bad time to pass a huge tax increase. Never mind that we are already spending $20.5 billion on the budget. Never mind that unemployment is still hovering around 7%. Never mind that just two years ago, Coloradans convincingly defeated Proposition 103 (the most recent attempt to raise billions in taxes).
This year, Governor Hickenlooper and Democrats in the legislature are pushing for a $1.1 billion tax increase to fund SB-213. Instead of reforming an unsustainable PERA system, a large chunk of the proposed tax increase will go to backfilling it. With the Colorado Supreme Court recently siding with the state in the Lobato case, proponents of the tax increase will be pushing even harder to convince Colorado voters to back the proposal before the November election.
The premise behind this bill is that the current system is not equitable or accountable enough. If that is the case, why not address those issues before asking tax payers for more of their hard-earned money? We can all agree that our K-12 education system is in need of further reforms. When looking at a bill like this, however, a couple of pertinent questions arise. First, should sensible reforms be held hostage to this tax increase? Second, can anyone tell us what specific student outcome goals (increased graduation rates, etc…) we will reach by spending this $1.1 billion?
Senator Johnston deserves some credit for bringing the debate on education reform front-and-center over the last few years, but the Democrats in the legislature have made a mistake by taking an all-or-nothing approach to this bill. Instead of passing reasonable reforms separate from the massive tax increase, they have decided to let partisanship trump “what is best for the children.” While they have every right to take this approach to any legislation, it is also important to remember that nothing revitalizes a struggling political party quite like the overreaching of the party in power.
There are several reforms in this bill that would rightfully gain bi-partisan support if they were separated from the tax increase. Moving away from a single “count day” would encourage schools to hold onto their students for the entire year –and for them to take in new students as the school year progresses. Also, requiring districts to report school-level costs is a step in the right direction in regards to accountability.
There is no doubt, however, that additional reforms (not found in SB-213) would be good for students. We should work towards a system that takes a more bottom-up approach to funding – because the current system tends to feed the bureaucracy on top. We could pass a parent-trigger law – which would empower parents to reform or shut down failing schools if a majority of them think it’s best for their kids. We could also develop a standard for mandatory retention of students that are several grade levels behind in reading (and provide them with additional support).
Additionally, we could develop a program (one that would pass constitutional muster) to provide targeted tuition credits for low income children that attend low performing schools. At a minimum, we could provide a scholarship tax credit for people that donate to qualified non-profit organizations that give scholarships to low income students so they can attend private schools.
Even though Democrats have a majority in the legislature, Republicans have not done a good enough job of influencing the education debate. Part of the problem is that Republicans don’t have a single state legislator that is an educator (while the Democrats have 15). After this tax increase fails in November, Republicans will have to make the case that student and parent-centered reforms will help improve education across the state. If Republicans want to begin to turn the political tides in Colorado, now is the time to start leading on the issue of education reform.
Michael Fields is a 4th grade teacher at a charter school in Aurora, and a Republican candidate for Colorado House District 37 in 2014. This op-ed originally appeared in the Colorado Observer.