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Colorado Amendment 66: Is it right for schools?

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Mail-in ballots on their way to voters this week carry a question with far-reaching impact on the way Coloradans tax themselves and spend money on education.

Amendment 66 asks for a $950 million tax increase to fund a recently passed law, Senate Bill 213, that would implement school reform and change the way the state distributes dollars to its 178 school districts.

The new law touches on many aspects of school finance, starting with changing the way the state counts student enrollment. It also intends to channel more money toward early-childhood education, at-risk students, English-language learners, charter schools and locally determined innovations such as longer school days and years.

Advocates frame the tax increase as a crucial investment in education that will vault Colorado into a position as a national leader in reform.

“It’s a transaction,” said Gov. John Hickenlooper, who supports the measure. “Everyone has to decide: Is this worth what we’re giving — $950 million? I’d argue it allows us to go out and say it’s the most comprehensive education-reform initiative in the history of the United States. And if it passes, it will make us a national model for public education.”

Criticism of the measure touches on several key arguments: The tax burden would be too great in a recovering economy; there’s not enough reform in the overall package; and fairness issues abound, including disparities in districts’ return on investment.

The tax issue has been a tipping point for business support of the measure. Most business groups have remained neutral on Amendment 66, but those that have come out against it, such as the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce, cite the two-tiered state income tax proposal as the deal-breaker.

The new tax structure doesn’t change the state corporate rate, but small businesses that report business income on personal tax returns would see an increase.

“We have a flat tax in Colorado, nice and simple, and we need to keep that,” said John Brackney, president and CEO of the group. “Otherwise, the next issue will come along and it will be a slippery slope of every legitimate interest saying it’s just a tweak, let’s do three, four or five (tiers).”

Major overhaul

The measure would provide the first major overhaul to the state’s school finance system in nearly 20 years. It would attempt to make state and local shares of district funding more equitable by resetting the equation for funding lower-income districts.

It would pour $165.5 million into full-day kindergarten and $77.5 million into preschool programs. It also targets $100 million for education-innovation grants, such as expanded school days, and $381.3 million for student testing, professional development for educators, early literacy and school accountability.

It promises a net gain in funding for every district and financial transparency through a website that would allow the public to track spending at the school level.

“There’s not a single district in the state that loses revenue on this,” said Sen. Mike Johnston, the Denver Democrat who carried the bill.

What does it mean to a taxpayer’s bottom line?

That depends on where they fall within the proposed two-tiered state income tax system that does away with the 4.63 percent flat rate. Taxable income up to $75,000 would be subject to a 5 percent levy; income over that amount would be taxed at 5.9 percent.

For example, households with $35,000 of taxable income would pay an additional $130 annually; those with $85,000 would pay $405 more; and those with $135,000 would pay $1,040 more.

The financial impact of Amendment 66 goes beyond the tax increase alone, because it also frees up more than $600 million in existing education funding and redirects it to target programs.

Leaders from most school districts have thrown their weight behind the measure, but some quibble with the new system of divvying up the funding, which will provide larger sums of money those with greater concentrations of English learners and children in poverty.

In Colorado’s rural areas, which account for 82 percent of the state’s school districts and 23 percent of the student population, the reaction to Amendment 66 has varied. The Colorado Rural Schools Caucus, which has 136 members statewide, avoided the issue until a couple of weeks ago, when it decided to support the measure.

For the caucus, the key selling point is the influx of resources, particularly to areas where assessed property values are low and mill levies run high, limiting availability of local resources for schools. New money could also help make up for five years of recession budget cuts.

“For us, it’s an equity issue,” said George Welsh, superintendent of the Center School District in the San Luis Valley. “It’s not perfect. But the way it takes into account your size and at-risk population and distributes dollars that way is a whole lot more equitable than what we’re currently doing.”

The Center School District could get an extra $1.8 million if the amendment passes, which bumps up its funding by 40 percent. Per-student funding at the school district is expected to grow 32 percent to $9,937.

The new law would address concerns around Amendment 23, which calls for annual increases in K-12 funding tied to inflation. SB213 would instead earmark 43 percent of the state’s general fund for education, which proponents say would both protect education funding and also avoid crowding out the rest of the budget.

It also provides a reserve fund of $600 million, accrued from the first year of new tax revenues, that could mitigate cuts in lean years.

“If the budget drops again, you have padding to protect K-12,” said Johnston, “which both protects K-12 and prevents K-12 from eating the rest of the budget.”

Critics such as former state legislator Norma Anderson, the Jefferson County Republican who carried the last school finance act in 1994, contend that the 43 percent would not sufficiently fund K-12 education under the law and that base funding would need to come from the remaining budget.

The new law would include money to advance existing but unfunded reforms. Professional development money would augment the educator evaluation system passed in 2010 and put into effect this school year. Other dollars would address early-literacy development mandated by last year’s passage of the READ Act and implementation of the Common Core State Standards.

Another major change would be the mechanism for counting students for funding purposes. The current one-day count near the start of the year would be replaced by a year-long tally that would effectively transfer per-pupil funding if a student changed schools.

Opponents such as Bob Hagedorn, a former Democratic state legislator from Aurora, see the measure as a “missed opportunity” for reform, even though it does contain money to help charter schools.

“I don’t think it’s enough of a step forward,” said Hagedorn, who characterized the charter school enhancements as simply a means to quell political opposition to the tax increase. “It’s much better than the status quo. But on the other hand, they could’ve done a lot more.”

Far from perfect

Van Schoales, CEO of A+ Denver and the outgoing president of Colorado League of Charter Schools, said that while the measure remains far from perfect, it does offer major reforms.

Under the new law, the Charter School Institute would get funding equal to the average of what school districts are spending on mill levies. Charters could leave school districts that are not sharing their mill levy dollars and sign on with CSI. The law designates $18 million for charter capital construction.

“What ended up in Amendment 66 will be the best school finance law for charter schools in the country,” Schoales said.

Some districts would see less return on their tax investment than others.

The Douglas County School District would get nearly $52 million, an increase of about 14 percent. The district’s per-pupil funding would grow by more than 9 percent to $6,995, according to state estimates.

Board members of the Douglas County School District voted unanimously to oppose the measure. They argue that residents in Douglas County will be paying an additional $90 million to $100 million in taxes, but the district will get only $50 million in extra funding.

“Fundamentally, the issue from our point of view is that we’re going to pay a dollar, and the state, after it processes it, will send 50 cents back to us. We think that’s a bad deal,” said board member Doug Benevento, who is seeking re-election.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg defended the system of doling out education dollars. He said if the amendment failed, districts with low property-tax wealth would be left behind.

“The rich will get richer and poor will get poorer,” Boasberg said. “Denver actually has significant property wealth, in part because of its commercial property, but for other poor communities like Commerce City, Greeley, Mapleton and Aurora, they are the ones who would suffer really badly.”

Boasberg said the additional funding is critical to closing the achievement gap between white children and minorities, and between poor students and their more affluent counterparts.

Kevin Simpson: 303-954-1739, or

Amendment 66

Below are estimates that show how the state’s six largest school districts will fare if voters approve Amendment 66 in November.

Adams 12 Five Star

Funding before Amendment 66: $272 million

Funding after Amendment 66: $309 million

Funding change: $37 million

Percent change: 14 percent

Per Pupil before Amendment 66: $6,463

Per Pupil after Amendment 66: $7,076

Per Pupil Change: $613

Percent change: 9.5 percent

Aurora Public Schools

Funding before Amendment 66: $262 million

Funding after Amendment 66: $325 million

Funding change: $63 million

Percent change: 24 percent

Per Pupil before Amendment 66: $6,933

Per Pupil after Amendment 66: $8,104

Per Pupil Change: $1,171

Percent change: 17 percent

Cherry Creek Schools

Funding before Amendment 66: $336 million

Funding after Amendment 66: $371 million

Funding change: $35 million

Percent change: 10 percent

Per Pupil before Amendment 66: $6,576

Per Pupil after Amendment 66: $7,016

Per Pupil Change: $440

Percent change: 7 percent

Denver Public Schools

Funding before Amendment 66: $561 million

Funding after Amendment 66: $693 million

Funding change: $132 million

Percent change: 23 percent

Per Pupil before Amendment 66: $7,045

Per Pupil after Amendment 66: $8,131

Per Pupil Change: $1,086

Percent change: 15 percent

Douglas County School District

Funding before Amendment 66: $399 million

Funding after Amendment 66: $451 million

Funding change: $52 million

Percent change: 13 percent

Per Pupil before Amendment 66: $6,388

Per Pupil after Amendment 66: $6,995

Per Pupil Change: $606

Percent change: 9.5 percent

Jefferson County Public Schools

Funding before Amendment 66: $523 million

Funding after Amendment 66: $594 million

Funding change: $71 million

Percent change: 14 percent

Per Pupil before Amendment 66: $6,486

Per Pupil after Amendment 66: $7,112

Per Pupil Change: $627

Percent change: 10 percent

Source: Colorado Department of Education, Colorado Legislative Council and Denver Post calculations

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  • comment avatar Jana October 13, 2013

    The best investment this country can make is in early childhood education. The early years are so vitally important in brain development and student achievements. If this amendment helps to achieve that end, we will all be much better off.

  • comment avatar Tara October 13, 2013

    Spin it anyway you like it’s still just throwing more gas on a out of control fire. Can’t keep throwing money at a problem with the threat that school children will suffer if you don’t. First prove you can competently manage what’s there before you ask for more. It’s getting real old the excessive funding for schools and the very poor results that come from it.

  • comment avatar SchoolMom October 13, 2013

    This legislation has several hundred pages of stuff some of which is good, some not real change, and some which I think is actually harmful. The state legislature does not know what it is doing when it comes to education and has passed unfunded mandates to the districts. About half of 66 is going to fund those mandates which I think will do more long-term harm than good.

    If there is real concern for kids there will be a push to get rid of the bureaucratic mess and increase productivity tools for teachers and students.

  • comment avatar Farah4 October 13, 2013

    I have a few questions. Why is the funding increase to the school districts larger than the funding increases to the per pupil funding? Is the difference for more administrative costs? When there is a tax increase proposed, I would like to see the total monies that the school districts are receiving from property tax, state funding and federal funding and the total number of kids in that district, how many teachers are on the payroll and how many administrative people are on the payroll. What is the payroll for teachers? What is the payroll for administrative personnel? What is the transportation cost per pupil? Are the cafeterias making or losing money? Until these statistics are released I will always vote no and would probably vote definitely no if the actual waste is exposed.

  • comment avatar Karen October 13, 2013

    Yes, I will vote on it. Despite all the bureaucratic garbage people are talking about, this is for the kids and our educational system is broken.

    • comment avatar Kathryn Johnson October 17, 2013

      Unfortunately, nowhere in the proposed amendment does it say that the increase in income tax will go to the schools. It does repeal the prior part of the law on school funding and replaces it with the new tax. BUT, it’s like apples and oranges. Whereas before the law stated that a tax of “one-third of one percent” on federal taxable income would go to the school fund, the new law says a minimum of 43% of ALL STATE REVENUE (sales tax, income tax, and excise tax) that is collected shall go to the school fund. Proponents of this amendment are using smoke and mirrors to make us think that the new tax will go entirely to the schools, when in reality NOTHING in the proposed amendment says the additional “thirty-seven one hundredths percent” will go to the schools. VOTE NO. This amendment might provide greater funding for the schools, but I believe it also adds revenue to the general fund, but no one is telling us that. I do not oppose providing additional monies for the schools, but this new law is not going to do what the television ads claim.

  • comment avatar Steve October 20, 2013

    Amendment 66 TV ad supports are not telling you the whole truth

    Read the facts! They say it only cost $133 which is unrealistic unless your income in near the poverty level. If you and your spouse make $75K it will cost you $952/year.

    The millions it raises cannot spent wisely in a year and will only create fraud. Do you want the government spending more of your income

    Think about it and Vote no on Amendment 66

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