Why are proponents of a statewide billion-dollar education tax initiative clinging to a repeatedly debunked untruth? Petition gatherers for the group Colorado Commits are wearing shirts that say: “Colorado, 49th in Education Spending.” One young man clad in the shirt said only Alabama ranked lower. The problem is neither statement turns out to be true. And campaign organizers should know better. Writing last August for Colorado Watchdog, Ben DeGrow directly took Colorado Commits to task for several other misstatements of school funding facts. But now they’re literally wearing a fallacy he has refuted time after time.
It started seven years ago with his Independence Institute publication “Counting the Cash” (also updated in 2008), which showed how the already-outdated “49th” statistic measured spending as a share of personal income. One of the best ways to increase Colorado’s ranking would be to banish some of the highest earners from the state. If you go by that same logic today, we fall at either 43rd or 47th. “Counting the Cash” also identified at least 10 different states that year which claimed to be 49th in education funding. On his own blog, DeGrow debunked the fallacy in 2007 and in 2008. The Institute’s Ed Is Watching blog stepped up to demolish the myth in 2009, and again in 2012.
Several different sources measure education dollars and cents. They say Colorado ranks somewhere between 26th and 40th nationally in per-pupil spending. Among neighboring states in our region, Colorado stands at or above average. Depending on which source you consult, we spend somewhere between $8,724 and $10,783 a year per student—and those numbers don’t include construction costs, debt financing, or deferred pension promises that taxpayers must fund. Colorado’s decades of pre-Great Recession K-12 spending increases typically were not as big as many other states, leaving us below the average in financial outputs but toward the front of the pack in student learning results. While Colorado clearly is not 49th in education funding, the unanswered question remains: How much money is enough?