School Finance

A66 backers try to sort out reasons for big defeat

Voter aversion to tax increases and mistrust of government doomed Amendment 66, supporters of the proposed tax increase said Tuesday night after the ballot measure went down to resounding defeat.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver

But supporters, from Gov. John Hickenlooper on down, promised that they’ll continue to work to improve school funding – although few concrete ideas about how to do that were on display at a subdued Yes on 66 “party” at the Marriott City Center.

“The individual voters we thought we had said they weren’t sure they could trust government,” said Democratic Sen. Mike Johnston of Denver, a prime backer of A66. “We caught people at a bad moment,” explaining that he felt the recent federal government shutdown and the failings of the federal health insurance website soured voters on another big government program.

Andrew Freedman, Colorado Commits to Kids campaign manager, said internal polling in recent days showed that external events such as the federal shutdown had eroded earlier support for A66.

A key Johnston ally, Democratic Sen. Rollie Heath of Boulder, said the recent devastating flooding also distracted voters. “It made it hard for people to focus,” he said.

Johnston also said the election results raise the question, “Have Colorado voters decided they don’t want to change their tax burden?”

With more than a million votes counted late Tuesday night, A66’s yes vote was only 34 percent, compared to 66 percent voting no.

The amendment was defeated in nine of the state’s 11 most populous counties: Adams, Arapahoe, Douglas, El Paso, Jefferson, Larimer, Mesa, Pueblo and Weld.

Even in two reliably Democratic counties, Boulder and Denver, the “yes” votes were clinging to leads of about 1 percentage point in late returns.

The defeat came despite a professional, $10 million campaign in favor of the amendment. A loose coalition of opponents spent less than $1 million. And the margin of defeat was about the same as that for Proposition 103 in 2011. That initiative proposed a much smaller, temporary tax increase to fund K-12 and higher education, and that campaign raised well under $1 million.

A66 proposed a permanent, two-step increase in state income tax rates that was expected to raise $950 million in the first year. That money was needed to fund the reforms contained in Senate Bill 13-213, a law that now remains on the shelf with A66’s defeat.

Gov. John Hickenlooper
Gov. John Hickenlooper

The mood was already somber as amendment supporters gathered in the hotel’s ballroom Tuesday evening, with many people anticipating the defeat. Interestingly, there were no monitors in the room showing results or TV news bulletins.

About an hour after the polls closed, a parade of speakers came to podium to thank campaigners for their hard work and to promise continued work on improving funding for Colorado schools.

Johnston said, “Democracy is not always easy, but it is always right. … The supporters and opponents of this measure both want the same things … great education, a strong economy and a healthy state. What we disagreed about was how to pay for it, and that was the narrow questions that were decided tonight. … We need to restart this conversation as a state.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper said, “Every great social victory is based on a number of failures. There are always setbacks before we get to that ultimate success. … We’ll keep working on this.”

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia had the same sentiments, saying, “We need to come back, we need to continue to fight for kids. … We know that kids can live up to our expectations. … Our kids have every right to have high expectations for all of us.”

Freedman said, “Please take tonight not to mourn but to celebrate what we’ve all been through.”

While promising to keep working for better school funding, advocates had no answers Tuesday night about what that effort might look like, saying time is needed to figure out exactly why voters didn’t like A66 and to plot a way forward.

Asked if he would try to advance pieces of the SB 13-213 package in the 2014 legislature, Johnston said, “I can’t answer that yet.”

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder
Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder / File photo

Heath, asked about the 2014 session, said, “I don’t see a lot of very monumental things happening.” He said there needs to be a focus on implementing existing education reforms, such as educator evaluations and the early literacy program. “If we can get all of that right I would be very happy.”

Chris Watney, head of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, echoed that, saying, “We need to regroup and focus on the things that already are in law.” The campaign two years ago started the studies and discussion that helped lead to SB 13-213 and A66.

“I think tonight was a decision about taxes,” not education reform, Watney said.  That point was echoed by Tony Salazar, executive director of the Colorado Education Association, who said “the anti-government sentiment was strong.”

A66 would have provided significant funding for implementation of reforms such as new academic standards and teacher evaluation, and Salazar said the defeat puts successful implementation of those programs “at risk.” But he added that “it’s too early to say” if delays might be needed in some of those initiatives.

Bruce Caughey, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, probably spoke for many in the room when he said, “It does feel like a body blow. … We need to take a little time and regroup.”

Other education tax proposals

Voters in several individual school districts also were stingy Tuesday.

According to information compiled by the Colorado School Finance Project, returns showed bond issues or tax overrides failing in Commerce City, Canon City, Elizabeth, Westminster, Bennett, Cheyenne County, Estes Park, Fremont Re-3, Estes Park, Lake County, Lewis-Palmer, Meeker, Walsh, Wiley and East Grand.

An $80 million bond issue passed in Littleton. It didn’t require new taxes but continues and existing one. A Fort Morgan bond also was successful. And six small districts – Creede, Haxtun, Kim, Limon, Moffat 2 and South Conejos – trying to raise local matches for state Building Excellent Schools Today grants apparently also were successful.

state of the state

Whitmer: Michigan needs ‘bold’ changes to fix schools — not just more money

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her first State of the State address on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Michigan’s new governor called for “bold” changes to the way schools are funded — though she’s not saying what those changes could be.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who took office last month, devoted a large part of her first State of the State Address on Tuesday night decrying a “crisis” in education defined by alarming declines in childhood literacy.

Those declines can’t be blamed on students or schools, she said.

“Our students are not broken,” she said. “Our teachers are not broken. Our system has been broken … And greater investment alone won’t be enough.”

Whitmer offered no specifics about the reform she wants to see, but said she didn’t think incremental changes would be enough to fix Michigan schools.

“Phony fixes won’t solve the problems,” she said.

“A government that doesn’t work today can’t get the job done for tomorrow,” she said. “That ends now. As a state, we must make the bold choice so we can build a stronger Michigan.”

Whitmer is expected to propose her first state budget next month. She said that budget will “give our frontline educators the tools they need to address the literacy crisis.”

Her comments come amid a growing chorus from education and business leaders across the state who have called for funding schools differently, giving schools more money for students who cost more to educate, such as those who are learning English or living in poverty. That would be a departure from Michigan’s current system of giving schools largely the same amount per student, regardless of that student’s needs or background.

A report from Michigan State University last month found that Michigan had seen the largest education funding decline in the nation since 2002 and currently has one of the nation’s lowest funding levels for students with disabilities.

Changing school funding could pose a challenge to a Democrat working with a Republican-controlled legislature.

Whitmer’s hourlong speech was greeted warmly by Democrats who cheered her policy proposals but drew less support from people across the aisle.

At one point, she seemed concerned that only Democrats stood to applaud a line about “generations of leadership” failing Michigan children.

“I know Republicans love education, don’t you?” she asked.  

Whitmer invited Marla Williams, who teaches special education at Detroit’s Davison Elementary School, to the speech. She praised her for “tireless” advocacy that includes visiting children when they’re sick and doing their laundry.

“That’s because she — like so many Michigan educators — knows teaching is more than a career. It’s a calling,” Whitmer said. “I want to send a message to all the devoted educators across Michigan: You’re not failing us. We have been failing you.”

Detroit teacher Marla Williams waves during Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address.

The only specific education policy proposals Whitmer offered in her speech involved helping high school graduates attain career certificates or college degrees.

She proposed a scholarship program called MI Opportunity Scholarship that would guarantee two years of debt-free community college to qualified high school graduates.

Whitmer said this would make Michigan the first midwestern state to guarantee community college to all residents, but the impact would be minimal in the 15 cities — including Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo — that already offer free community college through Promise scholarships.

Whitmer’s proposed scholarship would also provide two years of tuition assistance to students seeking four-year degrees at nonprofit colleges and universities. She said the option would be available to all Michigan students who graduate with a B average.

The Detroit Promise scholarship pays the four-year tuition for students who earn a 3.0 grade point average and score above a 21 on the ACT, or a 1060 on the SAT.

Whitmer’s scholarship proposal bears some similarities to a popular Michigan scholarship called the Michigan Merit Award that gave scholarships to students who earned high scores on a state exam. That program was cut from the state budget over a decade ago.

First Person

Denver teachers are stepping up. It’s time for Colorado voters to do the same.

PHOTO: Kirsten Leah Bitzer

I’m a Denver social studies teacher, and I am striking today with my colleagues as we fight to make teaching in Denver schools a sustainable career.

Yes, it must be noted that Denver Public Schools is top-heavy, and more of the district’s funds should be directed toward professionals who have direct contact with students. But amid this pitched battle between district and union, it’s also important to realize that our current moment does not exist in a vacuum.

Twice in the last six years, we’ve watched ballot initiatives that would have significantly increased Colorado education funding fail. Amendment 73, which lost last fall, was projected to raise $1.6 billion a year. Much of this revenue would have gone to local districts, which could have boosted teacher salaries and added programming for students.

Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights played a significant role in creating this situation, through its draconian limits on our representatives’ ability to raise additional needed funds and its requirement that ballot measures effectively be presented to the public with the costs as a headline and the benefits as a footnote.

But there are other forces at work here, too. Last year, the state’s Chamber of Commerce and business-oriented lobbying groups celebrated the demise of Amendment 73, the latest attempt to bring Colorado’s education funding to an appropriate level — even as some business leaders have expressed concern over the lack of fully prepared graduates.

The result? Denver Public Schools’ and the teachers union’s proposals are currently separated by $5 to 8 million. While our state’s $345 billion economy booms, we are fighting for scraps.

It shouldn’t be this way. An investment in teachers is an investment in our students, and in our civic and economic future. This is challenging, essential work that requires us to contend with competing answers to a recurring question: What is the purpose of schooling? As teachers, we work to balance many answers, from teaching our subject matter to instilling work skills, modeling interpersonal skills, developing citizens, and cultivating creativity.

As a social studies teacher, I’m driven to help my students understand the world as it is while also giving them the tools to reimagine it. So as my colleagues and I strike, I hope my students and my neighbors will think about what education activist Margaret Haley said 115 years ago.

“A grave responsibility rests on the public school teachers and one which no fear of opposition or misunderstanding excuses them from meeting,” she said. “It is to organize for the purpose of securing conditions that will make it possible for the public school, as a democratic institution, to perform its proper function in the social organism, which is the preservation and development of the democratic ideal.”

This is why we are organizing, today and in the future. We deserve pay that is commensurate with the demands of our work and a level of education investment that reflects the vital importance of our schools.

When the district and the union reach an agreement, which I am confident will happen soon, we will be closer to that goal — but we will not be there yet. Whereas teachers in West Virginia and Arizona were able to pressure their legislators to raise pay statewide, Denver teachers are stuck negotiating with a district starved of funding from above. Our state cannot endure this neglect forever.

The next time education is on the ballot, I hope Coloradans will invest in our students and our future.

Peter Wright is a teacher at Denver’s Northfield High School, serving students from Stapleton, Park Hill, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch, and beyond.