Subberwal: The true costs of a TABOR education (column)
June 22, 2016
For me, the start of every school year was an exciting time. By August, the freedom of the early summer had dulled to boredom, and I would start to look forward to meeting my new teachers and reuniting with my friends. There were matching notebooks and pens to be bought, reading to be done, backpacks to be packed and regrettable outfits to be chosen.
Once again, this moment of excitement is on the horizon: In two months, Summit County's students will store away their summer adventure gear and flock back into the classrooms of Summit School District.
However, few of these students know that they are receiving their education courtesy of a funding system that has been failing Colorado's students for years.
The crux of this system is TABOR, or the Taxpayer Bill of Rights — a bill that has been a burden to school administrators across the state since its passage in 1992. This legislation is the most restrictive tax and spending law in the country, and Colorado is the only state to have adopted it.
Essentially, TABOR limits the annual growth in state revenues, or funding, to the combined sum of the inflation rate and the percentage change in the population. For example, if inflation for a given year is 2 percent and the population that year increased by 3 percent, then state spending can increase by 5 percent. TABOR prohibits any tax increase without the consent of voters.
In theory, TABOR sounds like a good way to limit government spending to within reasonable bounds, but, in practice, it is much more pernicious. When calculating population increase, TABOR fails to take into account the fact that segments of the population that require the most public services expand at a rate more rapidly than the population as a whole: That is, the number of children and senior citizens increases more rapidly than the number of people enjoying a healthy working prime. Thus, we are restricting these dependent citizens' access to the services they need most.
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The inflation part of TABOR's equation is also deeply flawed: TABOR gauges changes in the cost of goods and services purchased by individuals, rather than the cost in services provided by the government. This is problematic because the cost of public services grows faster than the cost of private consumption. A 2006 study found that while there may have been a short-term increase in employment growth immediately following the passage of TABOR, this growth was not sustained, and, in fact, Colorado's employment growth between 1998 and 2003 was significantly below that of similar states.
Not only has TABOR failed in its mission to buttress Colorado's economy, it has crippled our state's education system. The legislation both slashes mill rates and limits the state's ability to make up the difference with state dollars. As a consequence, total per-pupil funding did not even keep up with inflation in the 1990s. The funding crisis has persisted: In 2013, per-pupil funding was $2,500 less than the national average. Local per-student funding has been shown to contribute positively to student performance — although it is, of course, not the only factor .
These entanglements of policy may seem distantly removed from our everyday lives in Summit County, but the education that I, as well as hundreds of others, have received here has been impacted by TABOR.
Although a prosperous community, Summit County is constantly facing the challenge of funding its schools because of restrictions on taxes and spending. Because TABOR allows for a tax increase as long as it is agreed to by popular vote, Summit County has been able to pass a mill levy override about every three years, which allows for a tax to compensate for TABOR's restrictions and offset major financial damage. However, the depression of revenue sources makes it difficult for the school district to recover from economic hardship; without TABOR, the district could have saved up funds for a rainy day. As state Representative Millie Hamner put it in an interview this week, "If TABOR hadn't been in place, the district would have been able to build up their reserves and address infrastructure needs without having to go to the people."
However, not all districts are lucky enough to pass such mill levy overrides, and their budgets have to be backfilled by the already limited state education funds. As a result, their students' education suffers.
The ripples of this funding crisis have washed over my family as well as many others. My younger sister was born in November, right after the cut-off date to enter school and so would have been the oldest student in her class. Hoping for her to be placed with children closer to her age, our parents petitioned for her to enter kindergarten a year early and received permission from the teachers involved and the school principal. However, the school district prevented her from moving up a year because it meant they would have had to fund kindergarten for an extra student a year early.
Although entering kindergarten a year later has had no serious effects on my sister (as far as I can tell), her story does show how a lack funding can limit the flexibility and resources of a school. Education is the greatest gift this community can offer its children: It is an aid for employment, a set of invaluable skills and the surest way to open someone's mind to the world's diversity and interconnectedness. This is not an issue we can afford to compromise on or to take lightly; it is vital to the survival of our community and our state. We cannot deny Colorado's children of their surest way to understand their world and their place in it.
Kaeli Subberwal graduated from Summit High School in 2015 and just finished her first year at the University of Chicago. She is a summer intern at the Summit Daily.
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