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Tax-Hike Vote Looms for Colorado K-12 Funding Overhaul

Colorado could prove to be an interesting test case for just how receptive voters are to big changes to K-12 funding, in the wake of landmark education legislation that state lawmakers approved last week.

As I've written before, the plan crafted by Democratic Sen. Mike Johnston emphasizes drastically improving school attendance figures, and mandates funding for full-day kindergarten and half-day preschool, as well as revenue equalization for high-needs districts based on their share of low-income and English-language learner students. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, is expected to sign the bill in his state.

These sort of ideas are gaining traction in a few other states, most notably in California, where "weighted funding" is being pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, although even relatively liberal lawmakers aren't clambering over each other to adopt his plan.

But as an excellent summary from EdNews Colorado points out, it's one thing for policies to be popular among legislators; it's quite another for these ideas to complete a migration to success at the ballot box. In order to pay for the Colorado plan, voters in that state will have to approve a roughly $1 billion tax hike. (Colorado requires any state tax hike to ultimately be put to voters.) Todd Engdahl writes that advocates from both the business and education communities are supposed to decide soon on a single ballot measure that voters could give the thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Apparently, there's even disagreement about whether the measure should be on the ballot this year, or put off. And a separate piece of legislation requiring a 2.7 percent increase in basic per-pupil funding is also headed to Hickenlooper. Could too many cooks in the state's K-12 kitchen spoil the campaign?

When I spoke to Jane Urschel of the Colorado School Boards Association last month, she emphasized that it's an open question how much Hickenlooper will lobby the public to support the tax increase, regardless of the expectation that he will sign the bill. He has a re-election campaign of his own to worry about in 2014.

And what about the Colorado Supreme Court? It has a case under consideration, Lobato v. Colorado, that could completely upend what Johnston is trying to accomplish. The suit, filed back in 2005, alleges inadequate K-12 funding from the state. A lower court ruled in the plaintiffs' favor. In light of the just-passed bill, will the justices rule that the plaintiffs' complaints have been answered by legislative action? Will they rule for the plaintiffs and require lawmakers to go back to the drawing board to devise an entirely new funding scheme? Justices don't have to worry about what lawmakers do, but between the per-pupil funding hike and the tax increase legislation, they've likely at least taken notice of significant efforts to change the way education funding works in Colorado.

In any event, the situation in Colorado shows that whatever recent policy approaches gain popularity among officials, each state has sometimes unique hurdles that advocates have to clear, and even with the majority party's backing (Colorado is controlled by Democrats), victory in such matters is far from assured.

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