Many Coloradans share a strong commitment to improving students’ educational opportunities and outcomes. However, Amendment 66 offers little hope of getting us there.
Starting at a billion dollars a year, the proposal’s cost is deep and significant. Coloradans’ state income taxes would grow by at least 8 percent. Because the proposal taxes earnings over $75,000 at a higher rate, the increased burden on some families and most small businesses rises as high as 27 percent.
The measure not only ties legislators’ hands by requiring 43 percent of all general fund tax dollars to finance preschool-through-12th grade education, but also creates incentives to raise local school property taxes.
Deepening the pain, Amendment 66 unfairly redistributes the money collected. The new funding formula would treat similar students differently based on the schools they attend.
Funds would be heavily weighted toward low-income learners and non-native English speakers, and even more to districts that have larger shares of at-risk students. By leaving Greeley to open-enroll into Eaton or Windsor, as many families do, a student with the same identifiable learning needs would bring in hundreds of dollars less to her new school—simply because her parents exercise their school choice options.
Amendment 66 essentially siphons money from suburban taxpayers to places like Denver and Aurora. For every new tax dollar Jefferson County residents would pay, their local schools would see a 56-cent return. In Boulder County, the return is 59 cents.
Supporters say the measure yields only “winners and bigger winners” among school districts, yet even that claim falters. Non-partisan legislative analysts identify 20 districts that would receive fewer dollars per student. Weld County’s rural Pawnee Re-12 actually would see less revenue after the tax increase. The same is true for some charter schools.
Yet even if funds were distributed fairly, just throwing more money into the system holds very little promise of change. The U.S. spends about two-and-a-half times more real dollars per pupil than 40 years ago, but 17-year-olds remain stuck at the same math and reading achievement levels.
The National Education Association reports that Colorado stands 26th in funding at $10,000 per student, which puts us ahead of most neighboring states. Over the past 20 years, our state’s school districts have increased non-teaching staff much more than student enrollment has grown, costing extra hundreds of millions each year. Less than half of Colorado’s K-12 employees are teachers. Yet budget challenges usually bring threats to cut student programs.
After the long-term funding increases, one in four Colorado third-graders still can’t read proficiently, and 40 percent of high school graduates are not prepared for college-level courses. The numbers for Greeley students are even more disheartening.
Amendment 66’s new funding formula does not tie a single dollar to rewarding proven success in raising student achievement. Most new taxes would backfill budgets, including administrative overhead and unsustainable pension promises.
The initiative’s only clear potential for positive changes would come from using a yearlong average student count (not just once in October), and from enhancing current financial transparency requirements. Both proposals together cost $5 million. That amount easily could be underwritten by $1.6 billion already forecast to be in the State Education Fund, without tapping deeper into the budgets of hard-working families and small business owners.
More money for more of the same is a bad deal. Colorado’s education leaders instead should look to change how we spend dollars on education. Create a cost-saving scholarship program that empowers students in need. Give students more flexible access to high-quality online courses. Start rewarding teachers and school leaders for producing better learning results.
Rather than raise taxes, let’s raise expectations.
Ben DeGrow (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior education policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a Denver-based free market think tank, and author of the recent issue brief “Amendment 66: Unfair and Overpriced.” This article originally appeared in the Greeley Tribune on September 8, 2013 (subscription required to view entire article).