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Voices: More money isn't always the answer

The Independence Institute’s Ben DeGrow says Colorado needs a brand new educational system, not more resources crammed into a slightly modified version of the current one.

The bipartisan adoption of Senate Bill 191 teacher evaluation reforms a few years ago was a legislative feat. But in historical accounts of Sen. Michael Johnston’s political career, the fight for SB-191 may be remembered more as a warm-up act for the school finance bill of 2013.

If reports are to be believed, the School Finance Partnership’s long road still has a few more weeks to go before the next key landmark is reached. February should bring us the introduction of Johnston’s school finance legislation. For months he has framed the project as a “grand bargain,” knitting together “bold” reforms with a “bold” request for more K-12 tax revenues.

Any tax increase component will have to be presented to citizens statewide for an up-or-down vote. Unlike the legislative debates over SB-191, this intrinsic piece of the proposal means he will have a very difficult time attracting support from more than a few – much less all – Republicans. The resounding defeat of 2011’s Proposition 103 isn’t the only reason for their well-placed skepticism.

Strictly speaking, though, Johnston only needs fellow Democrats to win the simple majorities in both houses needed to refer a tax measure to the fall ballot. I was glad to hear him express openness to some outside-the-box reform ideas shared at our Dec. 6 “Financing Student Success” panel event. Let funding follow students directly to the schools, and even the courses, of their choice.

But to the degree the bill sponsor is serious about bold improvements, he will face a larger challenge to muster 33 House and 17 Senate votes. The more watered down the reforms are to secure passage, the tougher the sell to Coloradans. If the proposal is light on substance, what else could be used to persuade?

President Obama may have taken to using child props in the national firearms policy debate, but tax hike proponents probably would be loath to follow suit given Sen. Rollie Heath’s unsuccessful precedent with Prop 103. An abstract prop like the “Year of the Student” may have to suffice.

Forget campaign props, though. Citizens would be well served just to have a common set of K-12 funding facts on which we can rely – facts from the Colorado Department of Education. Seeing that the average Colorado student is funded at a rate close to $10,000 might change the dynamics of the whole discussion, TBD or no.

Because our state needs a brand new system, not more resources crammed into a slightly modified version of the current vessel. As Paul Hill noted after the Center on Reinventing Public Education’s years of studying school finance systems: “…money is used so loosely in public education – in ways that few understand and that lack plausible connections to student learning – that no one can say how much money, if used optimally, would be enough.”

Like the little boy who pointed out the emperor’s unclothed condition, someone would raise the inevitable question about the needed overhaul that could benefit students so greatly: Why hold it hostage to another tax hike?

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.

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