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$950 million Amendment 66 stirs emotion, controversy 

Are the kids all right?

Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify the original assertion that the state "would ask many school districts to hold elections asking for higher [property tax] rates." The state wouldn't "ask" for this; it would, however, create a strong incentive for doing so, as can be seen at the end of the story's first section.

Amendment 66 is claiming star status on November's ballot.

The statewide tax increase, which would raise $950 million for education, has thus far been the subject of impassioned pleas for the welfare of the state's children, outraged diatribes, and rumors of conspiracy. It would cost the average Colorado family $133 a year (based on the median household income of $57,000) — money that proponents say is needed, but opponents say is an overreach.

The tax proposal caps off years of arguments that have led to a host of laws and ideas aimed at raising more education funds, as well as a high-profile lawsuit. In May, the Colorado Supreme Court decided Lobato v. The State of Colorado, ruling against the plaintiffs' claims that the state's education funding system was unjust.

That same month, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed Senate Bill 13-213, which will completely revamp the state's education system, provided voters approve its companion funding element — Amendment 66.

Amendment 66 proposes a two-tiered income tax system. Tax rates on taxable income under $75,000 a year would go from 4.63 percent to 5 percent. Those who make more than $75,000 per year in taxable income would pay 5 percent on the first $75,000, and 5.9 percent beyond that. The money would go into a dedicated fund for education, which proponents say would protect schools from cutbacks in another recession. (Since 2009-10, state education programming has been cut by $78 million, says Department of Education director of public school finance Jennifer Okes.)

But Amendment 66 would not displace other, more volatile funding sources. The state would still be responsible for funding education, which is expected to cost it $3.54 billion in this school year alone. In fact, the state would be required to spend 43 cents of all sales, excise and income tax revenue on education under 66. And, because it's already required by law, any surplus in the state's general fund will also be directed into the state's education savings account. In Colorado's last fiscal year, which ended June 30, that surplus was $1.1 billion.

Local district funding, mostly sourced from property taxes, would also remain in place should 66 pass. In fact, under the new law, the state is setting new standards dictating what part of a district's budget is considered the state's responsibility, and which is considered to be a local responsibility. The state won't demand that all underfunded districts shepherd through tax increases to meet these new standards. But some districts that fail to do so may be prevented from asking for some other tax increases in the future.

Looking at reform

If you want to understand how complex the debate around 66 is, take a look at SB 213 — all 141 pages of it.

This isn't a shrinking violet of a bill; Curtis Hubbard, spokesperson for the pro-66 campaign Colorado Commits to Kids, says that under it, the state would pay more to educate low-income kids, those who are learning to speak English, gifted and talented students, and special needs children.

Other dedicated chunks of funding would provide for full-day kindergarten for all kids, and preschool for 25,500 at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds. Charter schools would see increased funding to bring them more on par with funding for traditional schools, while small and rural districts would also get extra money. A special "innovation" grant fund of $100 million would allow schools to add proven programs such as summer school and longer school days.

There would also be greater accountability. Detailed reporting of expenditures would be required on the school, instead of the district, level. That information would be fed into an online database and tied to student achievement data in an effort to show which reforms are working.

"Amendment 66 would help implement and fund several very important education reforms that Colorado has enacted in recent years," Hubbard says. "Those include reforms to school and district accountability, teacher tenure, academic standards, and making sure children can read by the third grade. But those reforms are hindered by Colorado's outdated funding system for education."

More detailed explanations of how the money would be spent are available at the campaign website, coloradocommits.com. But it's worth noting that the most controversial chunk — $374.3 million — would go to teachers and staff. That money could be used for items like additional hires, or the performance-based raises outlined in Senate Bill 10-191.

SB 191, which passed with bipartisan support, changes the way teachers will be evaluated in the state and alters the rules for tenure. The purpose is to make it easier to fire under-performing teachers while rewarding the best ones, but the law — which is just going into effect — has drawn criticism from some teachers' unions. In fact, as the Gazette first reported, two of those unions recently struck a deal with the state Board of Education that gives them five more months to challenge the law.

The fact that SB 191 could ultimately be overturned is one of the objections of Amendment 66 opponents, but there are plenty of others. Penn Pfiffner, co-chair of Kids Before Unions, says he worries that SB 213 spends too much time dictating to districts how to raise revenues (by determining appropriate local mill levies and setting caps). At the same time, he says, the bill doesn't mandate that state money be spent in the classroom.

That's raised worries — and a hardy debate — over whether any of the funds could be used to plug the state's troubled pension fund. (Hubbard counters that the law is clear that the money can only be used for education reform and programmatic enhancements, as narrowly defined, and that an annual audit will ensure compliance.)

"You lose a lot of control that you used to have in your communities in terms of how you raise money, and how those revenues will be directed at the state level," Pfiffner says. "When it comes to spending, in spite of the proponents' representations, there's a lot of it that's unaccountable."

About that tax

Reforms aside, many voters may simply want to know whether the tax hike is really needed.

One gauge: In its most recent report, the National Education Association found that the average total government spending per pupil in Colorado was $9,953 (including both local and state taxes) in the 2010-11 school year. That put Colorado 26th in the nation for spending, below the country's average payout of $10,669 per pupil.

Over the years, many have argued that Colorado schools are grossly underfunded, and that the disparity of funding between rich and poor schools is too high. They point to classes being held in broken-down trailers, and kids reading from decades-old textbooks.

Hubbard says that opponents have sought to paint the tax as a 27 percent increase. But he says that's a trick of math — a person would have to have a huge income to pay 27 percent more on their taxes: "The reality given the two-step is you would have to earn several million more a year [for that to happen]."

But opponents of 66 maintain that the tax increase is too large, and they argue that it, and the reforms it would fund, create inequity — in taxation because it impacts wealthier residents more than poorer ones, and in the reforms because poor schools would get more money from the state than wealthier ones. Pfiffner also worries that 66 requires 43 cents of state tax dollars go toward education funding. What happens if there's an emergency, he asks, or another area of very high concern?

But Pfiffner's biggest objection to the tax is simple: He doesn't think it will work. He notes that other laws have already increased state funding of education over the decades. Still, he notes, test scores haven't shot up.

"The proponents are suggesting the largest tax increase in [Colorado] history," he says, "to effect changes that they really haven't addressed very well."

stanley@csindy.com

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