The upcoming November election includes a ballot initiative on education, but many Coloradans are failing when it comes to the facts.
Amendment 66 is a two-tiered income tax increase that would raise an additional $950 million in its first full year to fund public schools.
Currently in Colorado, education funding is generated mostly through local property taxes and excise taxes. Amendment 66 would enact a new School Finance Act formula in Colorado for the first time since 1994, under Colorado Senate Bill 213 which passed in May.
For state-taxable income of $75,000 or less, the state income tax rate would increase from its current flat rate of 4.63 percent to 5 percent. Incomes more than $75,000 would be taxed at 5.9 percent.
The reforms require that 43 percent of the state’s budget be spent on education, meaning 43 percent of state excise, sales and income taxes would be transferred to the State Education Fund every year. The state and school districts currently spend about $5.5 billion per year on school operating costs. Under the amendment, Summit County School District would receive an additional $2.6 million, bringing its total education budget to $23.2 million.
The following statements have been put to the test, addressing some of the misinformation surrounding Amendment 66.
If Amendment 66 passes, the average Coloradoan will pay an additional $133 per year.
Depending on income and tax deductions, Coloradans could pay a lot more or less than $133 every year. The best way to understand the tax increase is to use the state’s online calculator. The $133 figure comes from state statistics, using the median household income of about $58,000. According to the Colorado Department of Revenue, the 2010 median federal taxable income for Colorado was $31,815 — a tax increase of $118 under Amendment 66.
Amendment 66 keeps money out of administration.
Senate Bill 219, which would be enacted if Amendment 66 passes, does specifically fund some purely administrative costs, such as allowing districts to be reimbursed for the costs of holding elections seeking property tax increases. The bill requires transparency for the funds, with a public website used to trace the spending. It also requires a study to evaluate the return on investment for taxpayers every four years.
The amendment would bring back gym and music classes, and allows more teacher aids to be hired.
There’s no specific language in the legislation guaranteeing more gym classes, because Colorado is a local-control state, meaning school districts can prioritize where the money goes. The largest share of the new tax revenue, as outlined in Senate Bill 213, goes to incentives for high-performing teachers and principals. There is also money set aside to specifically fund full-day kindergarten and expand preschool for qualifying children. Senate Bill 191 has already changed the way all educators in the state will be evaluated. It would put $165.5 million into full-day kindergarten and $77.5 million into preschool programs. It also includes $100 million for education-innovation grants, such as expanded school days, and $381.3 million for student testing.
“The State of Colorado is doing some forward thinking with things like early childhood and teacher effectiveness, but the funding has not been there to support it,” said Summit School District president Margaret Carlson. “Amendment 66 will provide the support in funding and allow people to execute these things.”
Colorado already has a $1 billion education surplus.
Colorado’s Legislature does have more than $1 billion sitting in the State Education Fund, which could be put into schools and serve the same purpose as the proposed amendment. But that money would only buy one year of reform. Because Amendment 66 offers money from taxes, that money will be available starting in 2015 and beyond.
The money will go toward teacher pensions, not the classrooms.
Amendment 66 requires money go to actual education programs and their workers. While the money can’t legally go toward propping up the pension fund, new teachers and workers will be hired, and they will get benefits, including the pension program. While it’s therefore possible for school districts to use this money to help pension funds, districts are already contractually required to meet pension obligations.
“Instead of using this revenue to fund the programs we outline in Senate Bill 213, people think somehow we’ll use the money to bail out the pension system,” said Colorado House District 61 Representative Millie Hamner. “That is not the intention.”
Local school districts have no control on how the money is spent.
The law gives flexibility to schools and districts to use the additional funding. It does give specific funding to some things, but local districts can also raise mill levies — local taxes districts can raise themselves for additional spending.
Amendment 66 changes how school funding is calculated.
The law would remove the requirement that school funding increase yearly by at least the rate of inflation. Part of the new criteria would be the number of English-language learners in a school district, and the number of at-risk students based on free and reduced lunch numbers. Therefore, the reforms reallocate money based more on need than student enrollment.
The money can be spent without future voter approval.
The ballot initiative, if approved, would “allow all tax revenues attributable to this measure to be collected and spent without future voter approval.” It also provides a reserve fund of $600 million, accrued from the first year of new tax revenues.
“It goes into the general education fund so it’s at the whim of the people who control that,” said Eric Buck, Summit County Republicans vice chairman.
Certain counties would not receive all of what residents pay.
Because Amendment 66 increases spending in areas with more students from low-income homes, some school districts will not see a full return on what they invest. Certain wealthier counties will not receive as much increased funding as residents pay in. Poorer districts generally receive greater state funding relative to local funding, since property tax revenue in poorer areas usually can’t support modern school funding.
The money Colorado spends per student is one of the lowest numbers in the country.
Opponents use a statistic from the National Education Association, which says Colorado ranks 26th in total per-pupil K-12 spending, while the education advocacy group Great Education Colorado has the state ranked 42nd, weighted for regional cost differences. Colorado currently spends approximately $6,600 per student, compared to the national average of $10,700.