Proponents of increasing funding for Colorado’s public schools cleared a major hurdle this week in their attempt to ask voters to bump up taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents.
A state panel made up of representatives from the legislature, attorney general’s and secretary of state’s offices on Wednesday approved language for eight different ballot initiatives that, if any one is approved by voters in November, would raise between $1.4 billion and $1.7 billion more for Colorado schools.
While each proposal varies slightly, each would create a new graduated income tax on individuals making more than $150,000. Some proposals would also create a new corporate tax, while others would make modifications to how personal and commercial property is taxed for schools. Some do all three.
The backers of the measures — Martha Olson of Boulder and Donald Anderson of Fort Collins — expect to file another 10 initiatives with the Secretary of State by the end of the month. Altogether, they will ask the state to approve nearly 20 different versions of the same concept. Individuals and groups seeking to put questions on the ballot sometimes float a few different versions of the same question to test political viability.
Ultimately, though, voters will vote on just one of the various proposals — if Olson and Anderson and their network of supporters can gather enough signatures to place one on the ballot.
The state’s approval of the ballot language comes on the eve of the 2018 legislative session where lawmakers are at the midpoint of studying and — if an agreement can be reached — updating the way the state funds its schools.
Taken together, 2018 could be a watershed year for the school finance debate that has bedeviled lawmakers and school leaders alike for decades.
It could also be the year everything falls apart: There’s no guarantee that lawmakers will reach consensus on how to update the funding system. And any ballot initiative faces a steep upward battle — especially after voters made it more difficult to pass such measures.
This election also will also feature a deeply partisan gubernatorial race — the likes of which the state hasn’t seen in decades. And the specter of President Trump’s Washington will loom large in congressional races.
Olson and Anderson, who are working with some of the state’s most ardent supporters of increasing school funding, acknowledged the long road ahead, but said it was imperative for the voters to act.
“It’s an enormous effort,” Olson, a former New York educator, said. “But there’s a growing recognition that something has to be done. … Our kids can’t wait.”
Colorado’s state constitution requires voters to approve all new tax increases. Voters have so far rejected every proposed tax increase for schools put before them. The last time voters considered a tax increase in 2013, it was defeated two-to-one.
And now after the 2017 election, there’s an even higher threshold to pass such constitutional amendments — 55 percent of voters. Voters approved the higher threshold at the last election.
Anderson, who is a father of two students in the Poudre School District in Fort Collins, said he hopes a greater grassroots push and clear messaging about how much additional revenue each school district stands to receive will help them succeed where others have failed.
“The biggest part is building a good base,” Anderson said.
He added that one of the reasons he got involved is because of the growing inequities among school districts that have passed local tax increases for schools and those that haven’t.
“We’ve been lucky, out voters have stepped up,” Anderson said. “But from corner to corner, that isn’t the case. And the challenges we face as a whole really irritates me.”
Not everyone in the education community is anxious to ask voters again for more money.
“Colorado voters have been really clear that they want schools to be prioritized but aren’t willing to invest more,” said Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for conservative education reform policies including charter schools and school quality ratings.
Ragland said he hopes that lawmakers can come up with better ways to spend the more than $6.5 billion in tax dollars the state already sends to schools.
“I’m getting really frustrated with the conversation that nothing can change until we have more money,” Ragland said. “There are things we can do to improve the way we fund schools that can help kids immediately.”
Supporters of increased school funding point to numerous different reports that put Colorado at or near the bottom in spending per pupil. This year the state is spending about $6,546 per student. Conservatives argue, however, that a more accurate number is closer to $10,000 when you factor in local tax increases, grants and federal dollars.
Supporters, likely opponents and political observers all say it is unclear whether the political climate of 2018 will help or hinder their cause.
On one hand, a billion dollar tax increase could hinder the chances of Democrats winning seats. While on the other, progressives and Democrats dissatisfied with the Trump administration are expected to turn out in far greater numbers for a midterm election.
“I have to believe it’s going to be a big Democratic turnout,” said Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver. “I actually think it’s a good time for a progressive ballot initiative. An income tax might not be popular, but given the climate in Washington and the 1 percent doing so well — it may not be a losing position.”
Teske previously sat on the board of Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for greater school funding and that is consulting with Olson and Anderson on the ballot initiatives.
Ragland, the conservative, echoed Teske’s sentiment that Democrats are likely to have a banner year but cautioned that much can change between now and November.
“If you look at who has the wind at heir back, it’s definitely the folks on the left,” Ragland said. “But it’s a long way until Election Day.”