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.

Looming threat

Report: Looming financial threats could undermine ‘fresh’ start for new Detroit district

The creation of a new school district last year gave Detroit schools a break from years of crippling debt, allowing the new district to report a healthy budget surplus going into its second year.

It’s the first time since 2007 that the city’s main school district has ended the year with a surplus.

But a report released this morning — just days after Superintendent Nikolai Vitti took over the district — warns of looming financial challenges that “could derail the ‘fresh’ financial start that state policymakers crafted for the school district.”

The report, from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, notes that almost a third of the district’s $64 million surplus is the cost savings from more than 200 vacant teaching positions.

Those vacancies have caused serious problems in schools including classrooms crammed with 40 or 50 kids. The district says it’s been trying to fill those positions. But as it struggles to recruit teachers, it is also saving money by not having to pay them.

Other problems highlighted in the report include the district’s need to use its buildings more efficiently at a time when many schools are more than half empty. “While a business case might be made to close an under-utilized building in one part of the city, such a closure can create challenges and new costs for the districts and the families involved,” the report states. It notes that past school closings have driven students out of the district and forced kids to travel long distances to school.

The report also warns that if academics don’t improve soon, student enrollment — and state dollars tied to enrollment — could continue to fall.

Read the full report here:

 

Teacher Pay

Every Tennessee teacher will make at least $33,745 under new salary schedule

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Some teachers in 46 Tennessee districts will see a pay boost next year after the State Board of Education voted Wednesday to raise the minimum salary for educators across the state.

The unanimous vote raises the minimum pay from $32,445 to $33,745, or an increase of 4 percent. The minimum salary is the lowest that a district can pay its teachers, and usually applies to new educators.

The boost under the new schedule won’t affect most Tennessee districts, including the largest ones in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga — where teacher salaries already exceed the state minimum. (You can see the list of districts impacted here.)

The state’s largest teachers union lauded the increase, which will be funded under the state’s 2017-18 budget under Gov. Bill Haslam.

“Teachers statewide are increasingly struggling to support their own families on the stagnant wages of a public school teacher,” said Barbara Gray, president of the Tennessee Education Association. “It is unacceptable for teachers to have to choose between the profession they love and their ability to keep the lights on at home or send their own children to college.”

Tennessee is one of 17 states that use salary schedules to dictate minimum teacher pay, according to a 2016 analysis by the Education Commission of the States. In that analysis, Tennessee ranked 10th out of 17 on starting pay.

The 4 percent raise is a step toward addressing a nationwide issue: the widening gap in teacher wages. On average, teachers earn just 77 percent of what other college graduates earn, according to a 2016 study from the Economic Policy Institute. Tennessee ranks 40th in that study, with its teachers earning 70 percent in comparison to other graduates.

View the Economic Policy Institute’s data in full: