A statewide ballot measure going to voters this November purports to solve Colorado's public education funding woes without raising taxes.
Amendment 39 mandates that Colorado school districts spend at least 65 percent of their budgets on classroom instruction. But the seemingly innocuous initiative has jolted many local education proponents, who say the "one size fits all" curative ignores the diversity of needs among Colorado's 178 school districts.
The so-called "65 percent solution" would mean guaranteed funding for any item directly linked to "classroom instruction," such as teacher and librarian salaries, books and computers. But the money would have to come out of budgets for administration, counseling, cafeteria services and building maintenance services that tend to more greatly impact students attending older schools, and those in low-income areas. And with limited transportation dollars, rural school districts would have to scramble to bus students to schools.
"There are real responsibilities that don't fall on the shoulders of classroom teachers," says Heather McGregor, a spokesperson for the Bell Policy Center, a Denver-based think tank that opposes Amendment 39. "Children can't learn if they are hungry."
Amendment 39 is part of a nationwide campaign by First Class Education, a Washington D.C.-based organization working to pass similar legislation in all 50 states by 2008. The 65 percent plan was created by Patrick Byrne, president of the merchandise clearance Web site overstock.com. In the past year, the initiative has succeeded in three states and failed in 11 others. Colorado is the only state with the 65 percent plan on the ballot this November.
State House minority leader Rep. Joe Stengel, R-Littleton, who chairs First Class Education's Colorado branch, claims the measure isn't as Draconian as its opponents say. While 166 districts about 93 percent would have to shift spending if the amendment passes, they would be required to do so by only 2 percent each year, until they reach the new standard.
"The core function is teaching our kids," says Stengel. "It is not having a world-class bus service, a five-star cafeteria or tons of counselors and administrators. Let's put our resources to the area that is most important and that is teaching our kids."
Amendment 39's critics say classroom spending does not correlate with student achievement. According to the Bell Policy Center, there are 19 Colorado school districts that spend less than 65 percent of their budgets on classroom instruction but still score highly on reading and math exams. Academy District 20, Lewis-Palmer District 38, Cheyenne Mountain District 12 and Manitou Springs District 14 all match this profile, with student proficiency levels above 90 percent.
Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Manitou Springs, says the initiative's creators pulled the 65 percent spending guideline "out of the sky." In an effort to defeat Amendment 39, he, along with Sen. Sue Windels, D-Arvada, drafted a counter ballot measure called Referendum J. It mandates that Colorado school districts spend 65 percent of their budgets on "services that directly affect student achievement" a much broader category that includes principal and support staff salaries, as well as teacher training and student testing.
There are only three school districts in Colorado that don't already meet Referendum J's requirements. Deborah Fallin, spokesperson for the Colorado Education Association, says her group helped to write Referendum J when it realized that an anti-39 campaign could cost several million dollars to launch.
"It was offered by the Legislature as an alternative," she says of Referendum J. "Our focus is to defeat Amendment 39."