Randy Wyrick

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September 18, 2013
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School tax campaign kicks into high gear

EAGLE-VAIL — Colorado’s schools need more money, but it also must be spent more wisely, say advocates of a statewide income tax increase.

Amendment 66 would raise almost $1 billion in the first year, and probably more in ensuing years if Colorado’s economy continues to improve. However, the process began by cutting $1.3 billion from the state’s education budget, said State Sen. Mike Johnston, who helped write the amendment and the accompanying Senate Bill 213.

The proposals would change how Colorado’s education dollars are allocated, partially shifting from student population and local property tax rates to need.

None of those changes will happen, though, unless voters approve Amendment 66 on Nov. 5.

To illustrate his point, Johnston compared the two-step process to building a car.

“Senate Bill 213 is the car, but it’s like parking it in the garage because you can’t buy gas. Amendment 66 is the gas,” Johnston said.

He said even if Amendment 66 passes, Colorado will still be in the bottom third of per-pupil funding among the 50 states.

“It’s not a Cadillac we’re building by any stretch of the imagination,” Johnston said.

Johnston was at Homestake Peak School on Wednesday afternoon to drum up support for Amendment 66. The Vail native earned degrees from both Yale and Harvard and served as a principal of an inner-city Denver high school for six years. Senate Bill 213 had its origins in an informal staff gathering after school, one of those solving-the-world’s-problems discussions.

“The hope is to build a system from cradle to college and dramatically change what it means to be a kid in Colorado,” Johnston said.

Accountability, transparency and equity

The reforms aim first at simplifying Colorado’s arcane education funding formula, requiring that 43 percent of the state’s budget be spent on education.

“The beauty of this 43 percent structure is that 43 cents of every dollar goes to education,” Johnston said. “The goal is not to be the top spending state in America; the goal is to be the top outcome state in America.”

The reforms would also reallocate money based more on need than on student enrollment.

Among the new criteria would be the number of English language learners in a school district, as well as the number of at-risk kids in a school district, based on kids eligible for free and reduced lunch. Eagle County schools have about 50 percent at-risk kids, said Superintendent Jason Glass.

Under the new formula, Eagle County’s schools would receive another $4.3 million in state funding.

Colorado’s charter schools could take a hit, since their student populations tend to be more Anglo and affluent, Johnston said.

“You ought to serve a population that looks like the population in your district. If not, your school will no longer be subsidized for that,” Johnston said.

The reforms would also require financial transparency not currently available anywhere. The money would follow students to their schools, where teachers and principals would have much more freedom to spend it as it’s needed, instead of simply following state mandates, Johnston said.

However, schools also have to make every expenditure available to the public.

“If you don’t like how those dollars are spent, you can change it through the local school district and school board,” Johnston said.

The good news is that Colorado’s economy appears to have begun to turn a corner, but that’s not enough, said Lisa Weil, of Great Education Colorado, which is campaigning hard for Amendment 66.

Not loved by all

Not everyone loves it. The policy package tied to approval of the tax increase proposal raises four primary concerns, writes Ben DeGrow, of Colorado’s Independence Institute.

• A redistribution scheme that unfairly burdens taxpayers in certain communities.

• A constitutional mandate that restricts the legislature’s ability to allocate resources.

• A funding formula that creates inequities based on where a student is enrolled.

• Inadequate policy changes that offer no real hope of better student outcomes.

Colorado Treasurer Walker Stapleton has expressed concern that the money could be used to pay for rising pension and health care costs for teachers instead of improving education. Johnston counters that it would be both illegal and unconstitutional under the proposals.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or rwyrick@vaildaily.com.

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The VailDaily Updated Sep 18, 2013 10:27PM Published Sep 25, 2013 04:21PM Copyright 2013 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.