DENVER — In one poor school district in Colorado’s San Luis Valley,
students take classes in a bus garage, using plastic sheeting to keep
the diesel fumes at bay. In another, there is no more money to tutor
young immigrants struggling to read. And just south of Denver, a
district where one in four kindergartners is homeless has cut 10 staff
positions and is bracing for another cull.
For decades, schools like these have struggled to keep pace with their
bigger and wealthier neighbors. On Tuesday, Colorado will try to address
those problems with one of the most ambitious and sweeping education
overhauls in the country, asking voters to approve a $1 billion tax
increase in exchange for more school funding and an educator’s wish-list
The effort has touched off a fevered debate in a state that two decades
ago passed one of the nation’s strictest limits on taxes and spending.
It is emerging as the latest test of whether Democrats can persuade
voters to embrace higher taxes by tying them to school funding.
Outside money is pouring into the state. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg
of New York, who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to support gun
control here, has given $1 million to the school campaign, as have Bill and Melinda Gates,
whose foundation is one of the largest philanthropic organizations
involved in public education. Teachers’ unions have contributed at least
$4 million, and other pro-labor groups have given thousands.
The referendum will ask voters to replace the current flat state income
tax rate of 4.6 percent with a two-tier system. Residents with taxable
incomes below $75,000 would pay 5 percent; taxable incomes above $75,000
would be taxed at 5.9 percent. “Big Change. Small Price,” declare commercials supporting the measure, known as Amendment 66.
The amendment would also require the state to direct 43 percent of its
budget to schools, ending the current system of tying increases to the
rate of inflation.
Supporters say the measure would provide enough money to revolutionize
education for a generation. Opponents, which include anti-tax groups and
Republican politicians, say it would raise taxes on struggling families
and businesses with no guarantee of a better education.
“It’s a very hard sell,” conceded Gov. John W. Hickenlooper, a Democrat and the measure’s highest-profile advocate.
In 2010, Colorado spent about $9,306 per student, among the bottom 10
states in the country, according to data compiled by Education Week.
Over all, the publication ranked the state’s education system slightly
behind the national average.
Amendment 66 would make full-day kindergarten standard across the state.
It would set aside more money for students who do not speak English,
have learning disabilities or come from poor families. It would send
more money toward charter schools,
as well as districts in poorer areas that cannot easily raise property
taxes to buy computers or raise teacher salaries. The measure would also
let people go online to track how schools spend every dollar.
“Total transparency, school by school,” Mr. Hickenlooper said. “No state’s ever done that.”
The prospect of more money for all has united two usually warring
factions, teachers’ unions and the charter school movement. But most
business groups have either stayed on the sidelines or expressed worry
about the effects of a tax increase on small businesses and job
creation. Most Republicans have lined up in opposition, eager to beat
back a big tax increase and deal Mr. Hickenlooper, who is up for
re-election next year, an embarrassing political defeat.
The opposition is being vastly outspent. The main group opposing the
measure, Coloradans for Real Education Reform, has raised $24,400,
according to state campaign finance figures. Much of that comes from the
Independence Institute, a libertarian research group based in Denver.
Some opponents in richer school districts also object to new funding
formulas that would pump more money into poorer schools and those with
more students at risk of dropping out. They say the measure’s attempt to
even out imbalances between wealthy and struggling schools would just
create new disparities.
“It’s a bad deal,” said Doug Benevento, a school board member in
conservative Douglas County and the father of a third-grader and a
kindergartner. “One hundred million dollars would leave our county.
Roughly $50 million of that would return.”
In California last year, the Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, won
passage of a referendum temporarily raising taxes for the first time
since 2004 by framing the $6 billion tax increase as a way to save
California’s underfinanced public schools. But here, the effort might
hinge on which Colorado shows up to vote on Tuesday. Will it be the
Colorado that legalized marijuana,
embraced expanded background checks for gun sales and twice supported
Barack Obama for president? Or the Colorado that, in September, ousted two state senators for embracing new gun control laws?
“It’s winnable, but it’s going to be tight,” said Mike Johnston, a
Democratic state senator from northeast Denver and an architect of the
education measure. “There are a lot of question marks on this one.”
Among them are new election rules that allow voters to register as late as Election Day.
As the election approaches, supporters have begun a $10 million push to
mobilize voters who might otherwise tune out during an off-year
The two sides are debating each other on radio stations and at community
centers. Volunteers are knocking on doors and handing out leaflets. The
state’s newspapers have taken sides. The airwaves are filled with
commercials offering promises that an average tax increase of $133 per
household would fund more teachers’ assistants, art and gym classes and
expanded early childhood education, which have been gutted by budget
cuts since the recession.
Opponents said they were worried that school districts could use the
money not to pay teachers or decrease class sizes but to meet their
soaring pension costs.
But George Welsh, the superintendent of Center School District in
southern Colorado, says the money could forestall more hard choices.
Cuts have whittled budgets bare, he said, forcing the district to pare
vocational programs in the high school and raise fourth- and fifth-grade
class sizes to 30 students. Elementary art is long gone, and after a
federal grant was exhausted, the district can no longer offer reading
tutoring to all of the students who need it.
If the funding measure passes, the district stands to receive an
additional $2,413 for each student, an increase of 32 percent over the
current level of $7,523. If it fails, Mr. Welsh said, the district may
have to cut more.
“We just don’t have the money,” he said.