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“Shake ‘em up” – Why Prop. 103 failed

This article was written by Kristen Burroughs. She has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago and an M.A. in Philosophy from Yale University.  As a new resident of Colorado, she hopes to contribute to her new home state.

Their plan was clear.  Too clear.  Voters were expected to willingly increase their own taxes so more money could meander along the channels of the education bureaucracy, eventually making its way to kids.

The response was clearer: two-thirds of Colorado’s voters clearly rejected the plan known as Proposition 103.


Here’s a telling anecdote.  As I was writing this essay in grassy park in Colorado Springs, an elderly woman came and sat at my table.  During the course of our conversation, I asked her if she had voted in the last election.  She said never missed an election.  So I asked her what she thought about Prop. 103.  After a bit of memory jogging, she told me that she voted against it because she wanted to “shake ‘em up.”

This doesn’t jive with the usual explanation proffered by media sorts. Most self-styled experts were convinced that Prop. 103 failed because taxpayers didn’t want to further “stifle the economy.” Well, maybe.  It could be the case, however, that its failure was more than the collective harrumph of cash-strapped voters.  After all, these same voters raised their own taxes to pay for increased open space and trails at the same time they refused to give public education a dime.

It is not the case that voters didn’t know what they were doing, that their harrumph was the result of ignorance.  Theirs was a thoughtful rejection. Voters knew the tax increase would have gone to public schools, and didn’t want their money used in that way. 

The truly confused players in the drama of Prop. 103 were its supporters, not voters. These blinkered champions of increased school funding seriously misread the mind(s) of voters.  Proponents presumed – wrongly – that voters wanted to fund education as it is, and by logical extension, would be willing to raise taxes to fund the way education is currently delivered.

Indulge me for a minute and read my $0.02 explanation of why Prop. 103 failed.  I think its failure is linked to three biggies: Homogeneity, proximity and values.  In our not-so-distant past, neighborhood schools were situated in physical communities that shared idiosyncratic information and values. Those were the days of regional accents, cultural distinctives and common educational goals. In those days, too, schools were seeped in the narrowly bracketed range of values that defined their supporting communities.  This regional particularity has been lost.

Today, instead of place-based neighborhoods, a sense of community likely is found among groups of like-minded individuals and families, drawn together because they conceive the world similarly and, in the case of education, want the same sort of learning for their children. This denotation isn’t contingent on address or neighborhood, but on something deeper and more constitutive. In an Internet age in which information is ubiquitous, it is easy to find communities of commonality. On the Internet and in other high-tech ways, families “meet up” with others who share their interests and values. Internet guru Doc Searls says we should look at the Internet as a place, but I can’t quite grok that.

It’s simply a fact that many families have their deepest roots in communities formed on the basis of core values, interests and likenesses.  They want their schools, small tutoring groups and other forms of educational delivery to reflect their communal ties. But a neighborhood-based school, by definition, runs counter to communities based on common values.

This may explain why Prop. 103 failed – voters knew that community can’t be bought.  They felt coerced into accepting the old(er), disappearing notion of community-as-geography.  Whatever the cause, the educationists who supported Prop 103 were, in essence, asking voters to perpetuate the neighborhood, district and state-based system and ignore their deepest communal commitments.

And so, voters felt used.  Misused, perhaps.  Voters had morphed their notion of community into one of likenesses and refused to subsidize the luxuries of  slow and incremental change, a secure work environment, second chances when they fail, and the wherewithal to cling to a fanciful, Mayberry-like neighborhood school.

Voters wanted to set education free from its past.

They wanted to “shake ‘em up.”

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.