The ballot for the Nov. 6 general election contains Amendment 73, a proposal to amend the Colorado constitution and Colorado statutes to increase funding for preschool through 12th-grade education. The amendment projects that $1.6 billion would be raised in the first year to strengthen the state’s support of public schools.
The proposal would raise the state individual income tax rate for taxpayers whose taxable income exceeds $150,000 and adjust the state corporate income tax rate to cover the increase in funding education. In the case of property taxes levied by school districts, it would set the residential property tax assessment rate at 7 percent and decrease the assessment rate to 24 percent for most nonresidential properties.
At present, the state’s schools are funded as a combination of state, local and federal sources. Total education funding in the state stands at $9.7 billion allocated to school districts through a complicated formula. Every school district begins with a base per pupil funding ($6,546 per student for the 2017-2018 budget). That base gets adjusted due to things like the size of the district, the addition of a “cost-of-living-factor,” application of an “at-risk” factor (if, for instance, the district has many non-English-speaking students) and what is called a “budget stabilization factor” (adopted in 2010 as a budget-balancing tool). With all those determinants applied, the final per-student funding for 2017-2018 ranged from $7,236 to $16,247 across all Colorado school districts.
If the measure were to pass, $866 million of the $1.6 billion projected year-one revenue would go to fund specific programs, including fully funded kindergarten, gifted and talented programming, special education programming and support for low-income students. It would require that the Colorado Dept. of Education provide a five-year measure of how the additional revenue is spent and identify the best practices for promoting continuous student achievement. The state legislature would be given 10 years of implementing the new school finance formula and make necessary adjustments for school districts to achieve equitable results.
Those for the amendment point out that the state needs a sustainable source of revenue to equitably fund public education. During the great recession, Colorado cut funding for public education and has not yet returned to funding levels prior to 2008. In fact, just since the 2010-11 budget year, the state has stripped funding for education by some $7.2 billion. As a result, school districts have had to make difficult choices: freezing teachers’ salaries, increasing class sizes, reducing curriculum choices, going to four-day school weeks, and limiting mental health and counseling services while the need for those services is growing.
Colorado’s state standing in funding for public education has taken a hit in recent years as well. According to the National Education Association’s annual report, Colorado ranks 46th out of 50 states for teacher pay and 42nd in per student funding.
Only two weeks ago, Gov. John Hickenlooper stood in Salida and said that while the state was ranked No. 1 in the country for percent of highly educated population, that was not a reflection of the state’s funding of public education to ensure the children of that highly educated workforce are receiving the best education possible. “Depending upon which survey one accepts, last year Colorado was 44th or 45th in school funding. That is entirely unacceptable if we want to ensure the economic future of our state.”
By comparison, in 1983, at the peak of the state’s oil boom and prior to the state’s ’80s recession, Colorado’s residential property assessment rate for public education stood at 21 percent. It has fallen to 7.2 percent, while the nonresidential property owners were forced to pay a disproportionate share. This bill, say its proponents, would lessen these inequities.
Those against the measure point out that increased funding does not necessarily translate to increased academic achievements and say they would rather the state “find efficiencies” in the current funding levels. They also worry that increasing the state income tax rate might negatively impact the state’s roaring economy, making it harder for businesses to attract and keep employees.
In addition to those general concerns, they say that the measure doesn’t allow the state legislature to adjust the income tax thresholds to account for inflation – not a major concern now but a possible future threat.