Only a few months had passed since the Thompson school district’s board voted to shutter two elementary schools, a desperate move to balance the 16,000-student system’s dwindling budget.
So it was with much more urgency and pep on a recent Saturday morning that dozens of parents, teachers, and local education officials rallied voters here to back two local initiatives and one statewide ballot measure for higher taxes and spending they hope will at least slow a decade of fiscal bleeding.
“It’s not fair that our students don’t get new textbooks or new technology or that we lose so many of our teachers after four years,” said school board member Pam Howard, whose district stretches 300 square miles between Fort Collins and Denver along the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. “I think people are finally realizing that we’re not really kidding around. These budget cuts are serious, and they’re having real impact on our kids.”
In the final stretch leading up to this year’s midterm elections, hundreds of teachers across Colorado staged a blitz in order to pass Amendment 73, which would annually provide more than $1.6 billion more for schools.
Teachers passed out flyers during Friday night football games, sent handwritten postcards to their neighbors, held rallies on busy intersections and, through social media, described the many things their students, due to budget cuts, have gone without: textbooks, qualified teachers, and safe facilities.
In a year when teachers’ unions and school funding advocates in, , and attempted to put measures before the voters that would create new revenue streams for schools—only to see them stripped from the ballot by the courts—Colorado’s ballot measure has a strong chance of passing this year.
While Colorado’s last statewide ballot measure in 2013 failed by 30 percentage points, a recently released poll by the University of Colorado, Boulder says that more than 58 percent of likely voters said they were likely to vote for this year’s Amendment 73. (A 55 percent majority is required for the amendment to pass.)
Public opinion seems to have been swayed when thousands of teachers this past spring skipped work and protested at the state Capitol in Denver over school funding.
But opponents to the measure say while more money is needed for public education in the state, Amendment 73 is poorly written and would only exacerbate Colorado’s funding disparities.
“Simply adding more money to the exact same education system and expecting better outcomes is something that’s refuted by both research and common sense,” said Luke Ragland, a lobbyist who co-chairs “No on 73,” a group that opposes the measure.
He points to a growing list of Republican and Democratic politicians in the state who have opposed the ballot measure or remained on the sidelines. Most notably, Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former congressman Jared Polis hasn’t come out for or against the measure.
Strong Head Wind
Anti-tax sentiment has long been powerful in Colorado.
In 1992, voters decided to curtail the annual growth in state revenue and spending by requiring that it not exceed inflation rates or population growth. Unlike most other states, raising taxes in Colorado can only be done by the public.
That law, known as the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights, or TABOR, has had a dramatic effect on school spending by limiting the amount of money the state is allowed to spend on schools, some researchers and school advocates say.
In 2000, voters passed a law that requires school funding to keep pace with population and inflation growth, but since the recession, the state’s legislature has failed to meet its obligation under that law, forcing schools to miss out on an estimated $7.3 billion.
More than 98 of the state’s 181 school districts, largely due to budget cuts, have four-day weeks, and teachers regularly complain of a widespread staffing shortage that’s resulted in overcrowded classrooms and long-term substitutes.
“Teachers here have really come to their breaking point,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, the president of the Colorado Education Association. “We’re not going to take it anymore. Our students deserve better than this.”
If Amendment 73 is passed, the state will levy a tax on households making more than $150,000 and on corporations to annually pour $1.6 billion into a protected fund for public education.
That money couldn’t be impacted by TABOR or the legislature and must be spent on, among other things, expanding all-day kindergarten and preschool programs, and boosting spending for gifted, special education, and English-language learner services.
Ragland doesn’t dispute the many budget cuts throughout the state. But this ballot measure is not the way to fix the state’s school finances, he said. He points to flaws with the state’s existing school funding mechanism, which hasn’t been updated since 1994 and which he says leaves academically struggling districts with less money to spend.
‘Right to Be Angry’
Similarly, Ragland’s group calculates that while the state’s student population has grown more than 6 percent in the last decade and the teacher pool has grown by 8 percent, the number of district administrators has grown by 34 percent.
The state also has a ballooning pension fund that it has yet to pay down.
“I think teachers have absolutely the right to be angry with how they’ve been treated and not been prioritized,” said Ragland, who also is president of a lobbying group that pushes for more school choice. “But I don’t think more money is the answer to the problems that are facing Colorado schools. I think there are many other things that need to be addressed first.”
Supporters of the amendment say the administrators are necessary to handle the growth in student population and manage accountability regulations. They also say many of those classified as administrators such as counselors, psychologists, and social workers have been hired to help deal with a mental health crisis in schools.
Separate from the statewide ballot question, Thompson is one of 40 districts across the state this year asking for a local bond or mill levy to boost school spending. If the mill levy and bond are passed, the district would get an additional $162 million to spend on school maintenance, keeping class sizes low, and building a new K-8 school.
Because the district hasn’t passed a bond or mill levy in 13 years, the district spends on average $7,800 per student, around $2,000 less than the statewide average.
Board member Howard said she feels this year is different.
“Most people trust teachers,” Howard told a group of 15 teachers gathered at the campaign’s headquarters in downtown Loveland before heading out for a day of canvassing. “Keep it student focused. Appeal to their heartstrings.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 2018 edition of Education Week as Colorado Ballot Measure Tests Voters’ Appetite for Higher K-12 Funding