Fact check

War of words ratchets up in casino expansion campaign

The launch of five video ads by supporters of Amendment 68 has kicked off the 10-week media battle over expansion of casino gambling in exchange for providing extra funding to the state’s schools.

The proposed constitutional amendment will be on the Nov. 4 statewide ballot. If passed it would allow opening of a full casino at the Arapahoe Park racetrack in the southeast suburbs, with a portion of the revenues devoted to K-12 funding.

The campaign pits the Rhode Island casino company that owns Arapahoe Park against the gambling corporations that own existing casinos in Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek, the only places casinos currently are allowed by the state constitution. (See this Chalkbeat Colorado story for background on the amendment.)

As with almost all ballot measure ads, the pro-A68 spots produced by Coloradans for Better Schools reduce complicated policy issues to quick sound bites – there’s only so much one can or wants to say in a 30-second spot.

Here’s Chalkbeat Colorado’s analysis of the assertions made in the five ads. (Some claims are repeated in multiple ads; others are made in only one or two.)

Schools are underfunded – The adequacy of school funding can be a subjective issue. Most people in the Colorado education world agree that schools are underfunded compared to what other states spend, to past per-pupil funding rates or compared to actual costs. But a few in conservative circles dissent from that view and think Colorado schools have plenty of money.

Colorado school funding 40th in U.S. – The ad doesn’t cite the source of this stat. The never-ending funding adequacy debate — even among people who support higher funding — is complicated because different groups use different figures and grounds for comparison. You can see a variety of funding comparisons linked from this page on the Colorado School Finance Project’s website. (That group generally favors higher spending.)

How much K-12 revenue – The ads variously refer to “more than” $100 million or $114 million in annual revenue for schools. Legislative analysts who study ballot measures have estimated $114 million could be generated — but not until 2016-17. Analysts also readily acknowledge the difficulty of predicting revenues from taxes on businesses that don’t exist now. State ballot measure projections have been wrong in the past, and “sin taxes” have been an unsteady revenue source for education in the past. (See this detailed Chalkbeat analysis for more information on that history.)

“A huge investment” – The definition of “huge” may depend on whom you ask. The $100 million or so in new revenue would equal about 1.7 percent of the current $5.9 billion in basic school support provided by state and local taxes.

How many new casinos – The amendment would allow casinos in Arapahoe, Mesa and Pueblo counties. The ads say it “permits expanded gaming at no more than three horse race tracks that already have wagering.” The phrase “already have wagering” may sound like there’s more than one, but Arapahoe Park is the only track that currently meets the amendment’s requirements. No horse tracks with wagering currently operate in Mesa and Pueblo counties, and tracks in those counties would have to operate for five years before they’d be eligible to open casinos.

Carpetbaggers – One ad warns that “out-of-state Nevada and Missouri gambling companies” are opposing A68 to “protect their monopoly.” Several casinos in the three mountain towns are owned by out-of-state companies, and they have contributed heavily to Don’t Turn Racetracks into Casinos, the opposition committee. As noted above, Arapahoe Park is owned by an out-of-state gaming firm, and opponents are targeting that company in their advertising. As for monopoly, the three towns have a geographical monopoly on casinos, but the existing gaming halls don’t have a business monopoly. Any company that wants to open a casino in those towns can do so — if it meets state and local regulatory requirements.

The tax bite – The pro-A68 campaign ads emphasize that schools will get additional revenues “without costing taxpayers one penny.” It’s true that the amendment does not propose any increases in income or sales taxes. But opponents jumped on this claim with both feet, issuing a news release that argues passage of A68 could create new costs for taxpayers in Arapahoe County and would cut into gambling business in Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek, thereby reducing tax revenues that now go to local governments, historic preservation and community colleges. The opposition statement hinted that taxpayers might have to backfill those losses. Those opposition claims are speculative about what might happen in the future, but the legislative staff analysts do project an Arapahoe Park casino would cannibalize revenues from the three mountain towns.

Coloradans for Better Schools launched the ads this week on network stations in Denver, Colorado Springs-Pueblo and Grand Junction this week, according to a spokeswoman. The opposition group hasn’t announced its TV ad plans, but opposition mailers already are landing in mailboxes.

Two of the new ads feature a teacher and a former administrator, but education groups traditionally have been lukewarm or hostile to such sin-tax proposals, which usually have been developed without consulting the education community. On Thursday evening, the Denver school board passed a resolution opposing A68.

Read the full text of A68 here.

budget debate

Under the House budget plan, suburban districts would get more money while some urban districts would get less

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Kindergarteners using the computer at IPS School 90.

Suburban schools, English-learners and virtual schools would fare well under the Indiana House’s 2017 budget plan, while Indianapolis Public Schools and other urban districts would see drops in state support.

In the Republican-crafted two-year budget draft, presented to the House Ways and Means Committee today, Indiana schools are projected to get an extra $273 million to support student learning, a 2.8 percent increase overall. Basic per-student funding that all districts get would also increase to $5,323 in 2019, up 4.6 percent from the $5,088 they received in 2017.

Much like in 2015, almost every district in Marion County would see a slight increase in state funding, with the largest bumps going to Beech Grove and Perry Townships. Each would get nearly 8 percent more in tuition support — the state’s contribution that funds each student’s education. Both districts’ boosts can be attributed in part to growing student populations.

Only one district in the county is expected to lose funding. IPS would see a big decline in state aid under the proposed budget, down by nearly 5 percent. That’s partially because enrollment is projected to decline over the next two years. But the largest drop would come from a reduction in the “complexity index” — extra dollars districts receive to educate poor students. That amount would fall by $9.4 million by 2019.

During her campaign, state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick called for adjustments to the complexity index, but House lawmakers kept the calculation as it was. It will continue to rely on how many families qualify for food stamps, foster care and welfare programs.

Although IPS and other urban districts — such as those in Gary, East Chicago and Hammond — lose either tuition support, per-student funding or both, many township and suburban districts saw increases.

In order to cover those increases in a year when state revenues are less than expected, Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, chairman of the budget-making House Ways and Means Committee, said the state did have to make cuts.

The House plan axes money for teacher performance bonuses. Last year, Indiana paid $40 million for the bonuses, which varied widely from district to district. High-performing teachers from wealthier districts got as much as a few thousand dollars, while those in poorer urban districts, such as Wayne Township, received less than $50.

Brown said the priority was finding a way to increase funding for all students.

“We made the decision, especially in this tight first year, to see what we could do to boost the foundation for every child in Indiana,” Brown said.

That move is likely to see pushback from the Senate. Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, said he’d like to see the bonuses continue, albeit in a fairer way.

The House plan would also increase the budget for English-learners by 50 percent, going to $300 per student in 2018 and $350 per student in 2019, up from $200 per student in 2017.

Virtual charter schools, previously funded at just 90 percent of what other schools receive from the state, are bumped up to 100 percent under this plan. The proposal comes as Indiana’s online schools have struggled to find success — each one received an F from the state in 2016.

However, Brown argued they should be treated the same as other schools because “every child is equal.”

The overall $273 million boost to schools would also include an 11.3 percent increase in funding to Indiana’s taxpayer-funded voucher program, where families can use state dollars for private school tuition. Contributions are expected to move to $163 million in 2019, up from $146 million in 2017 due to higher anticipated participation.

The House plan sets aside less than what Gov. Eric Holcomb and McCormick have endorsed, but Brown said that the House’s plan — unlike Holcomb’s — is based on what was actually spent in 2017, not what lawmakers originally appropriated. State school districts enrolled fewer students than anticipated, so less money was spent.

The plan still has to pass out of Ways and Means before it heads to the full House, likely sometime next week.

The budget also includes:

  • $20 million per year for the state’s preschool program
  • $1.5 million per year for developing teacher “career pathways.”
  • $1 million per year to improve school internet access.
  • $2 million over two years for schools to use toward counseling and student support services, such as ones provided through groups like Communities In Schools.
  • $5 million over two years in incentive grants for schools and districts that consolidate services
  • $500,000 per year for dual language immersion programs
  • Kids with the most severe special needs would get a 4 percent increase in per-student funding over the next two years.
  • $12.5 million per year (up from $9.5 million) for the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program
  • $12.5 million per year for the Charter and Innovation Network School Grant Program

Chalkbeat reporter Dylan Peers McCoy contributed to this story.

one hurdle down

Charter school funding bill clears Senate Education Committee

A student does classwork at James Irwin Charter Elementary School in Colorado Springs. (Denver Post file)

A bill that would require school districts to equally share money from local tax increases with charter schools cleared its first legislative hurdle Wednesday.

Senate Bill 61 advanced out of the Republican-controlled Senate Education Committee on a 4-3 party-line vote.

Supporters testified during a hearing last week that charter school students deserve equal access to taxes their parents pay each year.

Charter schools receive public money but operate independently, with greater autonomy over budgets, curriculum, and hiring and firing. Currently, it’s up to districts whether to share revenues from local tax increases with charter schools, and practices vary.

Opponents said the state would set a dangerous precedent, essentially breaking a compact between school boards and voters who approved tax increases known as mill levy overrides. Under the bill, charters would get a share from such tax measures approved by voters in the past and any that win approval in the future.

The bill was sponsored by state Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, and Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat. It is expected to win Senate approval but its future is cloudier in the Democratic-controlled House. Similar legislative efforts have failed in the past.

“What this bill is really about is the funding disparities that exist,” Williams told the Senate committee Wednesday. “Charters are public schools. They are schools that all our children attend … I don’t think any kid should be systematically underfunded because of the type of school they attend.”

Democrats on the education committee raised a number of concerns. Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat, said that while she fully supports school choice, the state has not been adequately funding the public school system.

“We are in a financial bind as a state,” Todd said. “I don’t believe that it is our role to step in and tell the local school districts what they have to do and how they are going to spend their money. Where does that stop?”

Democratic Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, who represents portions of Jefferson County, said she struggled with the bill. She too cited the financial pressures on districts, which continue to face shortfalls under Colorado’s complicated school funding system.

“I really feel at this time I can’t tie the hands of my local district people with another mandate from the state,” she said.

Sen. Tim Neville echoed other Republicans in saying he supports the bill to bring equality to school funding. He also pointed out that mill levy overrides approved by voters this fall included no language excluding charter schools.

The committee vote was 4-3, with Republicans Hill, Neville, Bob Gardner and Kevin Priola voting yes, and Democrats Todd, Zenzinger and Mike Merrifield voting no.