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Time now for innovation to forge ahead

Ben DeGrow is a public policy analyst with the Independence Institute, focusing on education labor issues.

Last night’s election results are a wake-up call. First, what to make of the resounding message sent by the major defeat of Prop 103? If it were a 10- or 12-point loss rather than a 28-point loss, I think you could chalk up the result to a low budget and a weak coalition of support, or to off-year levels of political interest.

But something bigger is at work, across party lines and regions of the state, that cannot be ignored. While the political middle, uninformed as it often is, may be inclined in good times to pay more taxes to K-12 organizations, a real hurt from the economy is amplified by Colorado voters’ general skepticism of tax increases.

Here I think there is a clear gap between those “inside the education bubble” and most people living and working (or just looking for work) outside of it. Even someone like me, an advocate of some bold changes much less inclined to champion the K-12 establishment, but heavily immersed in the educational and political dialogue surrounding school systems, didn’t foresee the size of the anti-103 wave. I don’t have any evidence in front of me to support a claim either way, but it seems worthwhile to consider whether the gap has been growing in the past couple years.

So where does Colorado K-12 education go following the demise of Senator Heath’s tax hike initiative? A couple weeks ago I wrote in a comment on another post on this site:

After 103 fails, Colorado needs to look more seriously not only at restructuring the school finance system so that money follows the child but also at deregulating inputs (maybe charter schools have shown the way) and changing governance structures of K-12 education. Given current federal policies and incentives, it would be anything but an easy task. That, and / or find a creative new funding source or cheer for a major economic recovery — which 103 would inhibit. Because what I think we’re seeing now are the fruits of a system with an unsustainable structure. Even some of the more innovative and resourceful schools and districts are squeezed by these limitations.

I may remain a voice crying in the wilderness, but simply put, a move toward effective, forward-thinking innovation needs to become the priority for K-12 education before any future statewide tax increases can be sought. At least not unless the Colorado Education Association wants to place more bad political bets with its members’ dues money again. My recommendations for ways the state could save money and use it more productively on K-12 education are out there, and open for debate. Perhaps it’s also time for some affluent entity to donate copies of Stretching the School Dollar to school board directors and superintendents across Colorado.

Other ideas? Since the biggest advocates of increased K-12 funding so often compare Colorado’s dismal per-pupil spending ranking vis a vis Wyoming, maybe we could follow the lead of our neighbors to the north. Raise more funds by opening up oil and gas drilling, and collecting the mineral revenues. Without eliminating our state income tax, to match Wyoming. Though that won’t fill the appetites and demands.

On a local level, individual school districts might have better success asking voters for money, though the record there from last night was not much more encouraging. Even tying increased revenue to major promising reforms seems a less promising route than committing to major change under existing budgets. Voters soundly rejected Douglas County’ $20 million mill levy override, designed and advertised as a source of funds to develop a world-class performance pay system. The size of the rejection represents more than just a backlash from the anti-voucher crowd.

They also rejected a $200 million bond proposal in Dougco. Hand in hand with the re-election of Craig Richardson and Justin Williams, and the addition of Kevin Larsen to the board, the bond election result may more clearly chart the future in this already cutting-edge school district. Programs like Douglas County’s Choice Scholarships — a brand of forward-thinking innovation that some other boards, especially those in high-growth areas, may have to look closely at — save modest amounts of operating funds in the short term but greatly enhance the prospect of effecting long-term savings by reducing the need for public debt to build more school facilities.

Pending the courts’ decision, this result only strengthens the hand of those who want to continue and expand the pilot voucher program. And the fact that the pro-voucher candidate slate prevailed intact against the slings and arrows of those who tried to prove their agenda unpopular is a powerful vindication, stands in my opinion as the biggest education news from last night’s election results.

November 1 also should prove a wake-up call for reformers who want to challenge union power at the district level. Denver Public Schools reform candidates were well funded, and ended up maintaining status quo by winning 2 of 3 seats (maybe a third, but the 100-plus vote deficit is probably too much for Jennifer Draper-Carson to overcome). On the other hand, despite all the hoopla about local Republican Party organizations getting involved, the unions showed their natural superiority at the local ground game in Jefferson County, where their two candidates won by significant margins. A more sophisticated and substantially-funded effort from the reform team might have changed the result, but no one can really know.

Conservative-leaning reform candidates in other races yielded a mixed — but largely positive — result, given the odds against them. Too soon to tell how these results will end up affecting the move to promote effective, forward-thinking innovations.

A better investment for reformers, though? Working to move school board races to even-numbered years, on the date of the General Election. But such a change may require the result of another election first.

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