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.
Amendment 66 ties legislators’ hands by requiring 43 percent of all general fund tax dollars, plus the new billion in revenue, to finance preschool-through-12th grade education. The measure also punishes many districts by withholding state funds if they don’t further increase their local property taxes.
Deepening the pain, Amendment 66 unfairly redistributes the tax dollars 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 choosing to leave a high-poverty district to open-enroll into a higher-performing system, a student with the same identifiable learning needs would bring in hundreds of dollars less to her new school.
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 found 20 districts that would receive less money per student. Two rural districts and six charter schools would end up with fewer dollars as a result of the billion-dollar tax increase.
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 students in some areas 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.”