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Colorado school funding measure won’t be on the ballot

A white woman with shoulder-length salt-and-pepper hair and a blue-and-white shirt talks with a Black woman with short-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and a white t-shirt. Both women hold clipboards with signature sheets for a ballot measure. They’re standing against a wall with a mural that shows a cactus and a large Pabst Blue Ribbon bottle.

Lisa Weil, left, and Joyce Brooks discuss the progress of signature gathering outside a restaurant on Colfax Avenue in Denver. Initiative 63 ultimately fell short of the needed signatures to make the ballot.

Erica Meltzer / Chalkbeat

Colorado voters won’t get to decide this November whether to forego a portion of future state tax refunds to better fund K-12 schools. 

Supporters of a ballot measure that would have dedicated an estimated $984 million in future income tax revenue to help school districts recruit and retain educators announced Monday that they had fallen short of the nearly 125,000 signatures needed to get the measure on the ballot this fall. 

Tracie Rainey of the Colorado School Finance Project said the failure was particularly frustrating because the measure had polled well and seemed to have a better chance of passing than previous attempts to increase school funding. 

“It’s unfortunate that the voters won’t be given a chance to vote on something that they value,” she said.

Colorado funds its schools at lower rates than many other states and for more than a decade has failed to comply with a constitutional requirement to increase school funding each year by the rate of population growth plus inflation. Meanwhile, in good economic times, the state must return money to taxpayers if state revenues exceed a cap similarly determined by population and inflation. 

This year, taxpayers are getting refunds of $750 each while lawmakers held back $321 million in state funds that could have gone to schools. 

Initiative 63 would have dedicated an additional one-third of 1 percent of state income tax revenue to education and exempted that money from the cap imposed by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights or TABOR. The measure would have raised almost $1 billion a year for schools, with the money going toward salary increases and other efforts to hire and keep more workers. 

Standing outside a Mexican restaurant on Denver’s Colfax Avenue on a broiling August afternoon a few days before the deadline, Joyce Brooks said she rarely heard no while gathering signatures for Initiative 63.

“It’s easier this time,” said Brooks, a longtime education activist and NAACP member. “They realize what schools, kids, families, and especially teachers have gone through. And they know about the need for more paraprofessionals, and they know that the issue is pay.

“Because of what’s happened, people want to help.” 

Polling conducted for the campaign by Tulchin Research found 64% of respondents were a definite or a probable yes on the measure after they were informed about it. Independent polling done by Magellan Strategies found a similarly high level of support, with more than half of Republicans inclined to vote yes. 

That was substantially higher than pre-election polling in 2018 on Amendment 73, a tax increase on high earners that ultimately failed with just 45% of the vote. 

“That’s what’s painful,” said Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado. “This would win. How much power does the Colorado voter have if things they really want to vote on can’t make it on the ballot?”

Due to high participation in 2018, supporters needed almost 125,000 valid signatures to get on the ballot, compared to 98,492 in 2018. Despite the lower bar, backers of Amendment 73 turned in roughly 130,000 valid signatures after a coordinated campaign.

Weil said people and organizations who had funded past signature-gathering efforts held back, prioritizing other races and promising money for a general election campaign if the measure made the ballot. 

“Nobody wanted to write a big check for the 123,674th signature and then we still don’t make it,” Weil said.

Ballot measure campaigns in Colorado frequently use paid signature gatherers, but Weil said money also pays for postage, for field managers to coordinate volunteers, and for information campaigns to make sure people know where and when they can sign. All of that was lacking this year. 

Rainey said supporters are considering all their options, including trying again another year or persuading legislators to refer a measure to voters. Lawmakers did just that with a proposal to fund school lunch for all students by reducing deductions for high earners. 

Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at emeltzer@chalkbeat.org.

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