Colorado has fought the law on funding schools before. Let’s face it: The law won.
Proposition CC on next Tuesday's ballot is the latest attempt to change the state constitution and steer more state-level dollars toward the classroom, an unceasing campaign in Colorado that never seems to get there.
If Prop CC passes, the rebates Coloradans occasionally get when the economy is booming would instead support education and transportation for yet-to-be-determined one-time costs, like bonuses for teachers, air-conditioning at a rural school, highway exchanges or a little relief from interstate congestion.
Voters have heard it before — in fact, practically every election for a generation — that the state budget doesn’t put enough into roads and schools, and the lack of investment amounts to foolish disregard.
The TABOR Amendment was put in the Colorado Constitution in 1992. A decade earlier voters passed the formula on property taxes, the Gallagher Amendment. Education proponents consider the two laws the terrible twins that prevent adequate investments in teachers and schools. Others come into play, especially the School Finance Act of 1994, but TABOR and Gallagher are the tax measures most hated by those who want to spend more.
Given their lack of success, advocates for education might have better luck looking locally. While voters statewide have been stingy, towns, counties and school districts have given up their TABOR refunds routinely, including all but four of the state’s 178 school districts, to pay for local needs.
Local communities can and do help their schools when they can, according to fresh numbers compiled by the Colorado Legislative Council, the nonpartisan research arm for the General Assembly, obtained by yours truly from Senate Republicans.
Colorado's school districts last year divided up more than $7 billion from the Legislature, according to the state Department of Education. Local taxes for school amounted to nearly $2.4 billion.
That means about a quarter of school funding is a matter for local voters to decide.
Yet, while it sounds great for communities to rally financially around their schools, it leaves a byproduct of haves and have-nots across the state, based on property values and the generosity of those who can afford to vote in new taxes. The rich get richer.
In Boulder, for instance, the school district got $218 million from the state, boosted by $67 million from the local tax base to educate 29,676 students. Custer County, with 362 students, got $3.3 million and nothing locally.
Denver schools received $682.5 million via the state and another $201 million in local funding for 86,231 kids, while Mesa Valley schools received $149 million from the state and just $8.7 million from local taxes for its enrollment of 21,127 students.
The current and former governors, both Democrats, have boasted about their abilities to steer money into schools, though it’s never quite enough to satisfy their critics.
I recall when then-Gov. John Hickenlooper seemed astonished that he was booed and chided as he spoke to the protesting teachers on a green spring day in Civic Center park near the Capitol in 2018.
He spoke of the increases his administration had delivered on education, $1.8 billion, including 9% more for K-12 funding in the previous two years.
Some in the crowd of thousands began to chant, “We want more than words. We want more than words.”
In its annual report in May 2017 the National Education Association union ranked Colorado 46th in the country for teacher pay. The state’s average annual teacher salary of $46,155 was about $7,000 below the national average. That was handy information for teachers when they marched at the Colorado Capitol during the next legislative session.
In 2015, when Democrats controlled the House and Republicans held the Senate, the Legislative Council tried to specify how Colorado stacked up against other states. What they found was a lot of apples and oranges.
Most measures rank our state between 39th and 47th, but the math is fuzzy and doesn't factor in how Colorado's local communities have taxed themselves to make up for the state's shortfall.
“Some of the expenditure differences among states may be due to cost-of-living differences and revenues derived from natural resources,” Colorado legislative analysts wrote in their report wrote in their report to legislators. “For example, New York and New Jersey may spend more per pupil because of cost-of-living factors, while Alaska may spend more per pupil because of revenues from oil and gas, combined with a smaller student population.”
If Proposition CC goes down, then perhaps it's time to ring the bell and convene classes on a new way to pay for education and perhaps make the experience more rewarding students.
The business-and-education nonprofit Colorado Succeeds is scheduled to release a policy paper next week that will be well worth a read for those ready to think outside the ballot box.
The paper is expected to make the case that a lot of good learning happens outside the classroom, at a savings to taxpayers, when businesses and education work together to train future employees for the jobs that will exist.
Maybe businesses will step in as Colorado voters continue to step aside.