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Why I’m torn over Prop. 103

Vinny Badolato is vice president of public affairs at the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

I am a nerd about voting. I love elections. I am very passionate about engaging in what I believe is the most important civic duty we are expected to perform as Americans. I usually can’t wait to get my ballot in the mail (I like the convenience of the mail ballot system, but I do miss the old process of going to the polls), tear open the envelope, fill in the lines, and bring it to a polling place (I also always hand deliver my ballot; I don’t trust putting it in the mail).

It is election season again and this time, however, I am not as excited as usual. It’s not that there aren’t any interesting items on the ballot. There’s an important school board election in Denver, and I have the opportunity to vote for the at-large and District 5 seats. Denver also has an important question that directly impacts the competitive marketplace for businesses in the city. What I am not excited about is the state question, Proposition 103. It’s not that I don’t think it is a critical question on a crucial issue. I am not excited because I am honestly torn as to what answer I am going to choose.

As we all know by now, Proposition 103 is a citizen initiated ballot question that raises state income and sales taxes for five years with the additional revenues earmarked for K-12 and higher education. Coming from a household where all current and future wages come either directly or indirectly from public education, one would think that voting yes would be no-brainer. But while the question seems straight forward enough, the reality is that the question – and its meaning – is far from straight forward. And that’s why I can’t decide.

Proposition 103 comes at a time of a sluggish economy and stubbornly high unemployment in Colorado, coupled with significant and massive state-level cuts to education funding. Looking at the former, we are in a time when the vast majority of us are strained to make ends meet on a daily basis, and I am not sure that there is the stomach in the electorate to pass new taxes. I do have to interject here that coming from NY and DC, our overall tax rates in Colorado are laughingly low (and subsidized through outrageous fees), so an increase in taxes makes sense to me. But I don’t know if right now is the time for an across the board income and sales tax increase, especially when those taxes disproportionally impact Coloradoans that can least afford it.

Colorado’s inadequate support for K-12 and higher education

But this is an education blog, so let’s spend a little more time on the latter. Colorado does not adequately fund public education. The notion that public education has grown fat with funding since the mid-1970s with little to show in terms of results is a red herring. That may be somewhat true in the aggregate, but it doesn’t take fully into account the layers of mandates and requirements that have forced increased investments along with the fact that we actually assess the performance of every kid these days, as opposed to previously when huge numbers of kids slipped through the cracks.

Additionally, when you disaggregate to Colorado, we have not kept pace with national numbers and are way down on the list in terms of total funding. We have recently drastically defunded already extremely lean K-12 and postsecondary public education systems in Colorado over the past few years. In K-12, the last few years of cuts put us approximately $800 million under where we are “supposed” to be according to Amendment 23. And the impact on the ground of those cuts was brought home this week at the PEBC sponsored Superintendents Forum in Denver. It hurts to hear directly from metro area superintendents about what is being sacrificed due to the cuts, especially since I have two boys who will be in the public K-12 system in a few years.

I want to keep this post focused on K-12, but I would be remiss if I don’t mention higher education. As a former national higher education policy analyst, I am both appalled and embarrassed when I compare Colorado’s higher education funding to the rest of the nation. We’ve been lucky that Colorado is a great place to live and that we have been able to import large numbers of highly educated people (the so-called “Colorado Paradox”). I truly fear that our continual defunding of higher education in favor of placing the funding burden squarely on the backs of our kids and families will not only put a degree out of reach for many Coloradoans at a time when a postsecondary credential is essential, but will also drive or keep away many of our imports to states that hold a vibrant public postsecondary system in a higher regard.

So why not fully support Proposition 103? It provides a new revenue stream for education. But I have trouble fully supporting 103 because it is – and is being sold as – a mere five-year bandage to just “stop the bleeding”. There is no plan on how to use the new revenues that Proposition 103 would bring in, other than that it has to go to public education (statutorily, by the way, and statute can be amended). And I believe that the lack of a plan and long term thinking is a major deficiency.

Some like to say that “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” and I agree. Our current education funding crisis should be driving serious actions (I don’t say “conversations” because there are too many of those with no results) on addressing our fiscal house and funding systems.

Big challenges don’t lend themselves to small solutions

Our state is handcuffed by dueling constitutional provisions that ratchet down revenues and virtually prevent the intake of more revenue while at the same time requiring annual increases in revenue expenditures for education that we don’t have. All the while under the requirement that we pass – or at least appear to pass – an annual balanced budget.

Meanwhile, our education finance act has not seen a major restructuring since 1994; before standardized testing, charter schools, the SPF system, the growth model, CAP4K, teacher effectiveness, and a myriad other major reforms both enacted and being proposed. Combine that with the gradual, but steady, decrease in local share that puts more strain on state coffers.

And let’s not forget the impending judicial decision on a major school finance case that can potentially have major ramifications for the system. We also have extensive federal mandates and rules to contend with. Finally, this is all plays out under Article IX, Section 15 of the state constitution that requires “local control” of education – i.e. the convoluted provision co-opted by everyone at some time or another to justify individual agendas – that is arguably in direct conflict with Section 2 of the same article that calls for “the maintenance of a thorough and uniform system of free public schools throughout the state.”

What we are left with is an education policy landscape full of overlapping and disjointed layers of laws and regulations and a funding system that is chock full of inequities and inefficiencies at both the state and local levels with competing groups playing the winners and losers game to protect their interests. Meanwhile, our system chugs along as it has for a century, and it’s our kids who stand to lose. What we should be doing during this time of financial crisis is reevaluating where we are, where we want to get to, and figuring out a better way to fund it. For me, this means a fundamental shift in the entire system and delivery of public education in Colorado that is capable of evolving to meet the needs of the kids it serves.

I highly recommend a little-celebrated recent book from Rick Hess, “Education Unbound”, that talks about the promise and practice of “greenfield schooling” as a place to start that conversation. A reformation of the system is possible, if we are willing to get serious about it.

I am not naive. Scrapping the current system for something new and all-encompassing that focuses on individual students and not districts or even schools takes incredible political will and seems next to impossible in our current environment. But it is what we must do. Instead, we are offered a Band-Aid when this patient needs major reconstructive surgery. We are asked to kick the can down the road five more years when a large number of our current crop of state and local policymakers are term limited for a new group of policymakers to grapple with. And that is a shame.

So I am torn. It feels like a cop-out to support a revenue increase without a plan to get smarter about our public education system in Colorado. I will likely vote in favor, however, mostly as a statement that we as a state have be able to raise more revenue and fund our current and future system better. But I am not happy about it.

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