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Needy Students, Higher Taxes, and State Power Highlight Colorado Election

Denver

The election with the most potent and intriguing mix of education-related ingredients in 2013 might be in Colorado, where voters will decide on a proposed change to the state constitution, Amendment 66, that would use an income-tax increase to add about $950 million in funds annually to state public schools. It purports to be essentially a reboot of school finance in the state, and in the words of state Sen. Mike Johnston, a Democrat who has devoted two years to the plan, "This is a model for the rest of the country, if Colorado can pull it off."

Supporters say additional the money will be targeted in a variety of important ways to trigger significant improvements in student achievement, while helping out those districts with big populations of low-income students and English-language learners. After years of budget cuts that have stripped away roughly a quarter of the state's previous K-12 funding, the pro-Amendment 66 forces believe that it will help those who need help the most, while implementing new provisions to obtain more accurate data about both school enrollment and school performance. "Adequacy" and "equity" are two terms that often come up with the amendment's friends. It all would come at a cost of $133 a year more to the average Colorado household in new taxes, they say. It's a system with similar features to the new funding scheme California adopted this year. 

What do opponents say? Amendment 66's detractors argue the tax hike of roughly 27 percent on those making over $75,000 a year (and 8 percent on those who earn less) will knock over a Colorado economy just getting back on its feet after the Great Recession; that there's no guarantee that Amendment 66's promise to direct the money to classrooms and not administration will be kept; and that many districts (some high-performing ones in particular) would be better off if the state had simply decided to raise the $950 million additional taxes and apply it to the current, existing formula. And that alleged $133 increase to the average household, they say, is bunk. 

I'm in Denver to cover the campaign. The election takes place Nov. 5, although people can begin submitting their ballots by mail to the state on Amendment 66 in mid-October. By law, since this represents a state tax increase, the amendment (which gives legal force to Senate BIll 213, authored by Johnston and signed by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper) must be approved by the voters before its provisions goes into effect. The Colorado School Finance Project has an Excel sheet detailing that the new K-12 funding system would boost Colorado's per-student spending on average up to about $7,410, from roughly $6,650 in the 2013-14 school year—those figures include both state and local sources. The plan also calls for repurposing existing funds, so the total fiscal impact goes beyond $950 million. What's the breakdown? Colorado Commits to Kids, the umbrella pro-Amendment 66 campaign, has a pie chart that it says gives the answer:

800px-Amendment66piechart.png

And the Colorado Legislature even has a handy tax calculator to help residents figure out just how much their own tax bills would change due to Amendment 66. 

But with less than a month to go before voters have final say, the public's view of Amendment 66 isn't necessarily bright. A two-tiered poll of 600 likely voters from a right-leaning pollster showed 44 percent opposed to it and 38 percent in favor when they received a basic description of the plan, and the opposition grew to 52 percent when a more detailed description was provided, the Denver Post reported Oct. 1.

Kevin Larsen, the vice president of the Douglas County school board, which unanimously approved a resolution to oppose the amendment, said that his county schools were being "extorted by the state" and would pay significantly more in new state taxes than they would receive in new K-12 revenue. 

"What we should be doing is pushing more of the balance of funding to school districts, not the state," he told me. (You can see a copy of the Douglas County resolution below).

I'll have more from Colorado in the next few days.

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