Tuesday, June 11, 2013

One Billion for Schools: Reform or Bailout?

Supporters of the public school system in Colorado were disappointed that the Colorado Supreme Court did not rule there is a constitutional right to a “uniform and adequate” school system as defined by the plaintiffs and requiring a massive increase in public funding of the current system that serves 863,561 (includes 30,375 preschoolers) (2012) children in 178 school districts (179 with the Charter School Institute).

But, putting more money into the K-12 public system is always on multiple tracks: some local, some statewide, some legal, some legislative and some by ballot initiative. Reflecting that, Colorado voters will be asked to support a legislative-approved one billion dollar tax increase ballot issue in November.

Its chance of passage is mixed:
  • Although Colorado has moved to the left on a host of issues in recent years – gays, guns, drugs, etc. and last November local schools were very successful with tax referendums – a statewide income tax increase will be unprecedented.
  • Local schools and statewide funding tend to be framed differently for voters. People know more about their local districts, but have less knowledge and no positive feelings about providing the state more money.
  • There are reform elements in the package, but they tend to be at the margin. Incentives for improvements and funding for charter schools still reflect modest levels. Most money goes to equalize the current system.
  • Lurking in the background is the pension overhang story, which is often highlighted by news accounts of California’s irresponsible public pension commitments. Some believe the Colorado PERA system is as ill-managed as California’s and that a significant amount of the annual funds in this initiative will be diverted by local districts to prop up prior pension promises.
  • The 2013 electorate will look more like the tax unfriendly 2011 voters than the generous 2012 turnout. Off-year turnout tends to attract only committed, older and more passionate voters. In 2011, they buried a much more modest school funding package.

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