“Raise your taxes or we’ll cut your state funding.” That’s the message politicians would be sending school districts under a new proposal that is being worked on for the 2020 legislative session.
Back in 1994, Colorado enacted the Public School Finance Act, which sets out the formula for how schools are funded across our state. Revenue largely comes from a combination of local property taxes and the state’s General Fund. Then, that money gets distributed back out based on characteristics of the districts, like size and cost of living. Twenty-five years later, politicians on both sides of the aisle agree that the formula needs to be updated. Certain schools districts — especially in rural Colorado — have not been getting a fair share of our state’s education funding.
The divide in school district funding largely occurs because some districts have raised their local property taxes more than others – and some of those increases (mill levy overrides) are not counted by the state in the current formula. Also, the current formula
simply doesn’t focus enough on students’ individual needs. Some districts might have more English language learners or students with disabilities, but those factors are not considered.
A new proposal for the 2020 legislative session to create a “uniform mill levy,” however, would only expand the divide. By requiring a “uniform mill levy,” school districts would be forced to raise their taxes, and if the voters don’t approve, the districts would receive less state funding.
Many school districts in Colorado don’t raise their property taxes – not because they somehow want to game the system – but because the burden of increased taxes is too great. For example, think about what rural Colorado is dealing with: politicians in Denver are going after oil & gas development, which provides jobs and local revenue. The legislature has allowed rural roads to crumble to 48th in the nation. Business investment disproportionately goes to the front range. And now, there are even politicians attacking beef – a $4 billion industry. The idea that rural voters need politicians at the Capitol telling them how to vote is elitism, plain and simple.
You don’t have to be a genius to figure out how a lot of the votes will go. A vast majority of these tax increases will lose, and when they do, the inequity will only get worse. Funding will be cut to the very districts that are being hurt most by the current funding formula. There’s a reason that Proposition CC lost in 53 of our 64 counties earlier this year. It’s because voters don’t trust one-size-fits-all solutions coming from politicians in Denver.
As a former teacher, and a parent of three young kids, I care very deeply about ensuring that every child in Colorado gets a quality education.
Forcing localities to raise their taxes will not make education more equitable in our state. It will, in fact, do the opposite. Instead, we should start counting all of the local property taxes that go to schools in the formula, not just some of them. Once that happens, legislators should create a bipartisan proposal to make the formula more student-focused.
At the same time, we need to have school districts and state legislators work together to ensure that more money is going to teacher pay instead of administrative costs. Currently, only 56% of the money we spend on education actually gets into classrooms. This should be unacceptable.
We all want solutions to help improve our education system – but forcing localities to raise their taxes should be one proposal that is off the table.
Michael Fields is the executive director of Colorado Rising State Action.