Spring is definitely here. And, just like the tulips that perennially pop up out of the ground, something else is sprouting: the annual call for more money for schools and teachers. This year’s call also makes the fantastic claim that this can be done without raising your taxes.
I have been watching Initiatives 62 – 65 as they work their way through the ballot measure process and it’s been an interesting ride (eventually proponents will need to pick one version of the measure to move forward with). The upshot of these initiatives is this: 1) they claim that Colorado does not give enough money to education; 2) that more money would improve the problem; and 3) that both issues can be fixed without raising your taxes. While I strongly agree that our educational system is key to both raising our children well and our state’s ability to thrive economically, I disagree strongly with the other claims.
As is often the case with political framing, supporters of increasing school funding try to box people into a false choice. Either you are for increasing funding, or you are a miserly malcontent who dislikes both children and puppies. As a father and a teacher, and as someone who has spent more time than I want to tally on researching school funding, I can confidently tell you that it’s possible to hold the following ideas simultaneously: concern for children in general, concern for my own child, concern for my family’s finances, and the belief that continuing to throw more and more money into education is not leading to a proportional increase in outcomes. We don’t teach children in a vacuum, and we don’t fund education in one either. Money is finite, thus more tax money out of my paycheck is less I can spend at home–on the same daughter the proponents claim to also care about.
Let’s first talk funding. If you are interested in figuring out the amounts and sources of Colorado’s school funding, that information can be found in a variety of places. You can even get breakdowns of how much goes to instruction vs. administration, etc. If you wanted to see how Colorado funds its schools vs. other states, I wish you luck, as I have tried multiple times and still find myself unable to walk away with a firm answer. There are a thousand ways to parse, categorize, and massage the numbers, and lots of groups do just that. For every statistic in the language of Initiatives 62- 65, I could dazzle you with my own (e.g. Colorado is spending more compared to the national average and other states on school administration).
So, are we really behind other states in our funding? “It depends” is about as close an answer as I can confidently give you; it depends on how you define behind, it depends on where you look, and it depends on what numbers you use and how you parse them out. As best as I can tell, and without getting lost in endless arguments over statistics and definitions, we are solidly in the middle of school funding.
A more productive question is what we get for our money—particularly amid calls for yet more. We might reasonably disagree about how much we should be giving to schools, we might be bogged down in statistics, but one thing is clear: every year we spend more and our schools’ performance remains stagnant. Using the Colorado Department of Education’s own numbers you find that from the 2015/2016 school year up to 2019/2020 per pupil funding jumped 13% while sophomore PSAT scores actually fell about 1%. At the same time, the high school graduation rate went up just 3%.
Surely, we should expect a proportionate response here. Our school system is like a broken car where pressing on the brakes a little slows you a little and pressing a lot slows you a little. Is more pressing going to do more?
Likewise, these initiatives push the simplistic idea that paying every teacher more will recruit and retain good teachers. Not so. As Denver Public Schools found, and as I’ve written before, people decide to stay in a job or leave for a variety of reasons–not always just the amount of their salary.
I am not making the equally simplistic claim that educational outcomes are independent of funding. However, we need to be thoughtful in how we spend the funds we do devote to education. Initiatives 62 – 65 just tosses more in the pot to draw from. If past behavior is predictive of future behavior, it’s not a stretch to imagine the education bureaucracy and our legislators taking the extra money and giving more of the same.
Lastly, as anyone who has ever run a household budget knows, devoting more money to something without a sacrifice or earning more is ludicrous. That’s why I chuckle when I read the initiative language that claims all this can be done “without raising taxes.” Following the lead of Governor Polis, the proponents have learned the politician’s trick of using language that is technically correct but misleading. Technically your tax rate won’t jump, but if this makes the ballot and passes, you will be signing away your refunds under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) not just for this year, but the next, and the one after that, and so on. In the end, does your checking account really care whether the government takes $10 out of every $100 you earn or whether they only take $8 and you’re refunded $2 less? Money away from your family is money away from your family.
These initiatives may come from a good place and a sincere desire to help children, but the claims made are not accurate and don’t give a full picture to you, the taxpayer. If the language in these measures is not further challenged in front of the Colorado Supreme Court and you are eventually asked to sign a petition, I hope you remember what it is you are signing away and what it is you (won’t) get for it.
Cory Gaines, a sterling resident, runs the Colorado Accountability Project on Facebook.
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