These posts are the opinions of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of A+ Colorado.


Can We Finally Fix Colorado’s Broken School Finance System?

By Van Schoales

In spite of the largest blue wave to hit Colorado in many decades, voters turned down Amendment 73, the tax measure to increase funding to public education. How can this be?

Many school districts across the state are clearly struggling for funds. Few have full-day kindergarten for all students. Colorado currently has one of the lowest teacher wages relative to other states, dead last in one recent study. In an attempt to recruit more teachers (and potentially, though not definitively, cut costs), most Colorado school districts have moved to a four-day work week even though it is not clear there is a huge financial savings. And housing remains out of reach both in rural communities and the Denver Metro area alike.

Colorado’s spending on schools has slowly dropped from above average, relative to other states, to now below or far below average depending on the particular analysis. The differences in funding between some neighboring Colorado districts are among the worst in the nation, e.g. Yuma and Liberty. Students who are in the same geographic areas, but sitting in different school district boundaries, have dramatically different opportunities for a quality education.

And not surprising, Colorado’s NAEP scores have remained flat over the last decade. In 2017, 79% of Colorado seniors graduated from high school, but the latest data from the Colorado Department of Higher Education indicates 36% of those that enter college require a remedial course. We know that far too many high school graduates do not have the knowledge or skills to get a living wage job or succeed in college.

There is a massive school achievement problem in Colorado that is fueled by a massive school funding problem. Funding alone will not drive achievement as we know from the many highly funded ineffective east coast districts, but it is a necessary condition. Denver School of Science and Technology would probably not get the results they do now in Denver if they had to operate with no additional local mill funding or no outside private funding. Funding, along with a well-managed student focused school, filled with committed and effective teachers, gets results.

Given the need for funding, it is worth taking a deeper look at why Amendment 73 did not pass.

What happened with Amendment 73?

First, 55% approval is a very high bar. The polling for 73 was never that strong (needed to solidly poll in the upper 60’s to 70’s to pass). Colorado voters have historically had a strong reluctance to support statewide education funding increases (especially if it is thought to fund schools in other communities that have failed to pass their own local taxes). 73 went down for many of the same reasons Amendment 66 was crushed.

Second, Amendment 73 did not have the political players or coalitions necessary to get it passed; there were few supporters on the Republican side, and many influential Democrats seemed lukewarm. Even Jared Polis, our Governor-elect, who ran on a plank of funding full-day kindergarten and quality education for all, could not muster the will to support 73. Our current governor, John Hickenlooper did not campaign for it and the only prominent community leader, representing conservatives or business leaders who support the effort, was Dan Ritchie. Many school districts had their own bonds and mills on the ballot which makes it that much harder for voters to want to fund their own local schools and fund a state-wide tax. The results in JeffCo show that Amendment 73 garnered 47% of the vote while the local JeffCo school district mill and bonds 5A/B won with 55% and 50%. Colorado is still very purple when it comes to taxes outside of Denver.

The 73 campaign needed a broader coalition, better campaign messaging, and far more funding (probably north of 5 million dollars for a statewide initiative, Amendment 66 had $12 million).

There was no question that Amendment 73 would have helped relieve pressure on the lowest funded school districts, but it did nothing to change the basic constitutional structure for school finance in Colorado which is why we are here now. Instead of just 3 constitutional constraints, Tabor, Gallagher and Amendment 23, we would now have 4 with the addition of 73.

Regulating tax policy through constitutional amendments has had both intended and unintended consequences on how money is raised and how the government can function, preventing any countercyclical investment. While 73 attempted to address some of the underlying challenges with Gallagher, (by stabilizing the mill levy rate) and TABOR (by raising money outside the general fund) it was unclear what unintended consequences might arise by addressing some of the challenges of the tax conundrum while not changing much of the fundamental structure.

The other significant problem with 73 was that it was unclear how the additional money would be spent. Some districts might increase teacher salaries, while others might reduce class sizes or add another day of school while others may invest the funds to improve reading. The decisions around spending is up to the school districts and their boards. While this respects local control and vastly different education contexts, it could likely result in differentiated impacts on student learning. Interestingly, there seems to be some consensus across the political aisle that teacher salaries need to be increased. Leading Republicans including Gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton called for increased teacher salaries.

Any major tax increase requires a grand bargain, e.g. raise taxes and get better schools. Amendment 73 suggested that you might get better schools but did not promise any details other than the funds would go to school boards to decide how best to use the funds. Districts could do whatever they wanted with the funds (local control). A Denver taxpayer gets to pay more for Sheridan schools but the district could decide to pay administrators more, buy new iPads, or pay teachers more. Giving more money to a school district without any clarity about how it will be used is a recipe for failure for Republicans, some Democrats and most Independents.

Granted that it is difficult to make changes to school finance with so much tied up in the state constitution with Tabor, Gallagher and Amendment 23, it is understandable why 73 is attractive to those wanting more funding for Colorado schools and teachers. Unfortunately, I suspect that education funding will have to get far worse before most voters are motivated to change Tabor or the other constraints on school finance. Coloradans, even Democrats appreciate their low taxes.

Problems with School Finance in Colorado

One of the fundamental problems with school finance in Colorado is that it is a bit like the frog in the slowly boiling pot. The creep towards the bottom in funding is relatively slow and hard to notice. There are also loopholes for the wealthiest communities to raise local taxes which makes the challenge less dire for a particular community. Denver and other relatively wealthy communities can continue to raise local bonds and mills while those communities with relatively small tax bases have difficulty passing any bonds or mills. This difference accelerates the divide in Colorado between the rich and poor leaving many students behind.

Given current state policy and the need to raise funding for public schools, so that we can have a shot at educating our children for the workforce and democracy needed in Colorado, here are 4 necessary next steps before attempting another school finance overhaul:

1. Educate the public: Shed light on the state of education funding, the relationship to local community schools and what can be done with increased funding community by community.

2. Build bipartisan coalitions: Colorado seems blue today but is clearly very purple when it comes to statewide tax increases. Only ⅓ of voters are officially Democrats. School funding increases cannot be led solely by Democrats, teachers and school administrators. Business leaders and Republicans have to be part of a coalition if they want to pass a statewide initiative.

3. Tie funding to objectives: Colorado is still a small government, low tax state, even if communities like Denver are very willing to tax themselves for specific initiatives. Any significant increase in funding must have clear outcomes whether it is increased teacher pay or student achievement. Throwing funding at existing school systems without a high-level of confidence that it will do anything to change specific problems is likely a recipe for failure in Colorado. Funding must be linked to specific improvements whether it be paying teachers more, supporting improved student outcomes and/or more students ready for work or the next level of education.

4. Effective Policy design: Amendment 73 was better designed than previous efforts to increase education funding statewide (it was not a regressive tax that mostly affects lower income families). The existing constitutional constraints must be addressed and there has to be some relationship to education outcomes. The spending side must be more closely tied to student needs and context. It cannot be a blank check.

Colorado has a new Governor strongly committed to improving public education. He pledged to work across all of our political and cultural divides to get more done for all of us. We also have a newly Democrat controlled legislature that is inclined to support more funding for schools. Hopefully these circumstances provide Colorado a great opportunity to work across all of our divisions to come up with a solution that most of us can support. With 66 and 73 crushed, third time could be the charm.