From the Statehouse

Voters have a habit of rejecting state education taxes

If Colorado voters this November approve a $1 billion income tax increase to fund schools, they will break a string of defeats for similar measures stretching back decades.

Since the early 1990s, voters have approved only two ballot measures that affected education revenues – and neither of those included a general tax increase. Over the same period, voters defeated six K-12 or higher education funding measures.

And voters haven’t been kind to other kinds of tax increases, changes in debt limits or tweaks to existing financial provisions of the state constitution. Seven of those measures have been defeated, and only three have passed. (Article continues below timeline.)

Ballot measure timeline

See full history of ballot measures.

“It’s a challenging list,” said Wade Buchanan, president of the progressive-leaning Bell Policy Center and a long-time observer of state fiscal issues and battles.

To set some context for this fall’s expected campaign to pass a tax increase for K-12, Education News Colorado reviewed the history of ballot measures back to the early 1990s and interviewed a variety of political observers and operatives.

The tax increase is needed to pay for Senate Bill 13-213, the recent law that would create a new method for distributing school funding. No specific measure has yet been proposed for this November. The civic group Colorado Forum has filed proposals but has yet to decide which one it will attempt to get on the ballot through a petition campaign. Various business interests are still debating which of the 16 tax plans to support.

Most of those interviewed basically agreed with veteran campaign consultant Katy Atkinson, who said, “I think it’s going to be very difficult” to pass a measure. But communications consultant Eric Sondermann added, “You can pass these things. It’s not impossible.”

Patterns in the past

“We have kind of a tough record here when it comes to pitching tax measures statewide,” noted Charlie Brown, director of the Colorado Futures Center at Colorado State University. “Nothing of a huge magnitude has passed.”

Wade Buchanan / File photo

Political observers cite a variety of reasons why some measures passed and others didn’t.

“Most of them didn’t attract the kind of money you need” for the campaign, said Buchanan.

Buchanan and others said that lack of campaign support may have doomed 2011’s Proposition 103, which would have added $536 million in temporary income and sales tax increase for education, and Amendment 59 in 2008, which would have diverted some tax refunds into education.

Mike Melanson of OnSight Public Affairs, who has been advising Colorado Forum, agreed. The 103 campaign didn’t have enough funding “to the point that they saturated the market,” he said. (Melanson also ran one of the few successful tax-increase campaigns, Initiative 35 in 2004.)

Some measures that passed “flew under the radar” and were approved without much opposition because public attention was focused on higher-profile measures in those election years, Sondermann said. Amendment 50, which passed in 2008 and expanded limited stakes gambling with some revenues going to community colleges, is an example.

Statewide ballot proposals have a handicap that often doesn’t affect local tax proposals, such as school bond issues and tax overrides, which voters have a history of supporting.

“The more tangible the issue, the better chance you have of engaging voters,” Buchanan said. “When you go to the state level you get into abstractions. … It’s harder for people to know what you’re talking about.”

Charlie Brown and Sondermann agreed with that analysis. “Coloradans want to know what they’re buying,” said Sondermann.

Fred Brown, retired political columnist and reporter, cited metro-area voter support of stadium taxes, the cultural facilities levy and FasTracks as examples. “People knew exactly what they were getting for their money,” he said.

Is Ref C relevant?

When people talk about the proposed K-12 ballot measure, the conversation often turns to Referendum C.

Referendum C allowed the state to retain and spend for five years revenue that would have otherwise had to have been refunded to citizens under terms of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, the 1992 constitutional amendment that requires voter approval of tax increases and sets ceilings on revenue collections. Ref C, as it’s commonly called, didn’t raise tax rates. It passed with a 52 percent yes vote.

The measure, placed on the ballot by the legislature, was supported by Republican Gov. Bill Owens and was backed by a bipartisan coalition that included large segments of the business community. It was also promoted by a well-funded campaign. Backers of more education spending often say their plan needs the same “broad coalition” that supported Ref C.

Buchanan notes that Ref C provided about as much revenue as the education ballot measure proposes. But, he said, “There’s a big difference” between letting state government keep revenue and “telling people yes, this does raise your taxes.”

Katy Atkinson / File photo
Katy Atkinson / File photo

Atkinson agreed, noting the Ref C ballot language began with the words “Without raising taxes …”

She also said Owens’ support “gave Republicans permission to support” Ref C, and that there’s no high-profile GOP support this year for an education tax increase. Fred Brown noted that in 2005 many other Republicans opposed the measure.

Veteran political strategist Mike Dino said, “I do think Colorado voters have been accustomed to lower taxes for a long time” and that “we’re not in as good an economic time as with Ref C.”

Ref C passed with only about 52 percent of the vote, and a companion debt proposal failed.

Prospects for the campaign

“I’m sure they’re aware this is a tough uphill battle,” Charlie Brown said of the prospective campaign.

Many observers think campaign funding will be a key factor.

1992 a landmark?
The 1992 election saw the passage of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which in many ways has set the course for subsequent ballot measures. That year also saw the defeat of an education-funding-and-reform plan backed by then-Gov. Roy Romer.
Ross Perot
Ross Perot

Fred Brown, retired Denver Post political columnist and reporter, blames it all on maverick third-party presidential candidate Ross Perot.“I think 1992 was a bizarre year because there was such a huge turnout, and it was driven by Ross Perot’s candidacy, ” Brown said. “Anti-government types were energized by the Perot candidacy.”

Brown says that aided the passage of TABOR and Amendment 2 (an anti-gay measure later thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court) and the defeat the schools proposal. “Neither one of those measures would have passed, and maybe the school tax would have passed” without Perot voters, Brown speculated.

“It’s all about how much money you have,” said Buchanan.

Atkinson said the minimum for a campaign is probably $4 million. Sondermann cited $7 million as a reasonable amount, “but it’s probably closer to $10 million.”

Melanson wouldn’t venture a guess on an amount, but he did say, “You have to be funded to the degree that people understand what’s in the measure.”

Observers are of different minds about how voters will swing this year. Turnout usually is lower in off-year elections, and Sondermann noted that voters tend to skew older in those years. (The only measure currently set for the November ballot is a legislature proposal to set taxes on recreational marijuana.)

Others think that pro-education voters will turn out this year, motivated by past district budget cuts and the prospect of future K-12 revenue increases. Supporters are counting on that happening.

“The mood is certainly pro-education,” said Fred Brown.

“I think the political climate has changed,” he continued. “Colorado is more liberal now than it was 20 years ago, so that might make a difference. … But Colorado is more of an independent-minded state. It’s hard to predict what voters will do.”

Melanson sounded a similar note, saying, “The Colorado electorate is a younger electorate now, even in odd-year elections. … The conservative side of the scale was smaller in 2011 than it was in 2005.”

He said his firm started doing research shortly after Proposition 103 was defeated in 2011. “The outlook of Colorado was considerably more pessimistic at that time than it is now.”

But Atkinson noted that some segments of the Democratic Party base don’t necessarily support tax increases.

Gov. John Hickenlooper invariably comes up when people talk about the prospective ballot measure.

The governor’s involvement “will be important to the effort,” Dino said. “We do have a governor who, as mayor, had a lot of good results from putting things on the ballot that had failed in Denver before.” But, Dino added, “There hasn’t necessarily been a commitment by the governor as to the amount of time he’ll spend.”

Hickenlooper has said he’ll campaign for the eventual K-12 measure. But as recently as Wednesday he said he remains “ambivalent” about which variation of the proposed tax increase he prefers.

Atkinson said the governor won’t be the determining factor. “He’s not enough to push it over the top.”

Summing up, schools advocate Lisa Weil said, “I think there’s no question that this is a difficult task,” adding, “The wind is more at our back than it has been for a long time.” Weil is policy director for Great Education Colorado, an advocacy group that supports increased school funding.

Is there enough time?

Some education advocates have been nervous about the fact that a final version of the ballot measure hasn’t been selected.

But most observers feel the campaign will be able to gather the petition signatures needed by the Aug. 5 deadline – particularly if it uses paid petition circulators.

And there’s time to get the campaign message out – “with money,” Sondermann said.

“I think they have time with the message side of it,” Atkinson agreed.

Roll call of ballot measures

Key: Initiative refers to a measure placed on the ballot by citizen petition. A Referendum is a measure proposed by the legislature. Both types can change the constitution or state law.

Crucial measures

Six measures passed over the last three decades have shaped the landscape for government finance.

1982 – Referendum 1: The so-called Gallagher Amendment set new rules and ratios for assessment of property, has had the effect of reducing revenue from residential property taxes and, in combination with TABOR, shifted the bulk of school funding to the state.

1992 – Initiative 6: Known as the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), this constitutional amendment requires voter approval of tax increases, sets limits on annual government revenue increases and requires refunds of surplus revenues. At the local level, voters in many schools districts have opted out of some TABOR provisions, as the amendment allows, but voter approval of tax increases still is required.

Initiative 8: The Great Outdoors Colorado (GoCo) amendment reserves most state lottery revenues for wildlife conservation and open space, locking up revenues that are used for education or general purposes in many other states.

1994 – Referendum A: This constitutional amendment restricted future ballot measures to a “single subject.” Proposed partly in response to TABOR, the measure actually has made it harder for TABOR critics to change that amendment and also had spawned legal quibbling over many proposals.

2000 – Initiative 23: Universally known as Amendment 23, this requires base K-12 spending to increase by enrollment and inflation every year. (For the first 10 years it also required annual 1 percent increases on top of that.) A23 is as beloved by most education advocates as TABOR is by many conservatives.

2005 – Referendum C: This measure allowed the state to retain and spend TABOR surpluses for five years. It also changed some TABOR provisions that drove state revenue limits down in recessionary periods but didn’t allow them to recover when the economy improved.

Tax, revenue, spending and debt measures

This is a list of other revenue and spending-related measures on the ballot in recent decades, including both education-related and non-education proposals. Measures in green passed; measures in red were defeated. Vote percentages are rounded off.

2011

Proposition 103 – $536 million temporary income and sales tax increase for education. Lost 36 percent to 63 percent

2008

Amendment 50 – Expansion of limited stakes gambling with some revenues going to community colleges. Passed 58-41

Amendment 51 – $186 million sales tax increase to fund services for the developmentally disabled. Lost 37-62

Amendment 58 – $321 million increase in severance taxes, part of which would have been used for college scholarships. Lost 41-58

Amendment 59 – Would have diverted TABOR refunds to K-12 education. Lost 45-54

2005

Referendum C –Passed 52-47

Referendum D – Would have allowed the state to issue debt for school, college and highway construction. Lost 49-50

2004

Initiative 35 – A $175 million tobacco tax increase to fund children’s and other health programs. Passed 61-38

2003

Initiative 32 – Proposed changes in the Gallagher Amendment. Lost 22-77

2001

Initiative 26 – Would have allowed use of $50 million in excess state revenues for planning a monorail system along I-70. Lost 34-65

2000

Amendment 23 – Passed 52-47

Referendum F – Would have allowed use of up to $50 million a year in excess revenues to fund school math and science grants. Lost 44-55

1999

Referendum A – Allowed increase in debt limit (no tax increase) for transportation projects. Passed 61-38

1998

Referendum B – Would have retained up to $200 million a year in excess revenues to fund school and college construction and transportation. Lost 38-61

1997

Initiative 1 – A $178 million tax increase for transportation. Lost 15-84

1994

Initiative 1 – A $132 million increase in tobacco taxes. Lost 38-61

Referendum A – The single-subject amendment passed 65-34

1993

Referendum A – A proposed $13.1 million annual tax increase on “tourist-related” items. Lost 44-55

1992

Initiative 1 – TABOR passed 53-46

Initiative 6 – Proposed a 1 percent increase in sales tax rate to fund schools and would have required setting standards and assessments for schools. Lost 45-54

Initiative 8 – Creation of Great Outdoors fund passed 58-41

1982

Referendum 1 – Gallagher, passed 65-34

Full history of Colorado ballot measures

legal opinion

Tennessee’s attorney general sides with charter schools in battle over student information

PHOTO: TN.gov
Herbert H. Slatery III was appointed Tennessee attorney general in 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam, for whom he previously served as general counsel.

Tennessee’s attorney general says requests for student contact information from state-run charter school operators don’t violate a federal student privacy law, but rather are “entirely consistent with it.”

The opinion from Herbert Slatery III, issued late on Wednesday in response to a request by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, was a win for charter schools in their battle with the state’s two largest districts.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

McQueen quickly responded by ordering school leaders in Memphis and Nashville to comply. In letters dispatched to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Director Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, McQueen gave the districts a deadline, adding that they will face consequences if they refuse.

“If you do not provide this information by Sept. 25, 2017, to the (Achievement School District) and any other charter school or charter authorizer who has an outstanding request, we will be forced to consider actions to enforce the law,” she wrote.

Neither superintendent responded immediately to requests for comment, but school board leaders in both districts said Thursday that their attorneys were reviewing the matter.

Chris Caldwell, chairman for Shelby County’s board, said he’s also concerned “whether the timeframe stated gives us enough time to make sure families are aware of what is happening.”

Wednesday’s flurry of events heats up the battle that started in July when charter operators Green Dot and LEAD requested student contact information under the state’s new charter law, which gives districts 30 days to comply with such requests. School boards in both Memphis and Nashville refused, arguing they had the right under the federal student privacy law to restrict who gets the information and for what reasons.

The attorney general said sharing such information would not violate federal law.

The requested information falls under “student directory information,” and can be published by school districts without a parent’s permission. For Shelby County Schools, this type of information includes names, addresses, emails and phone numbers.


To learn what information is at stake and how it’s used, read our in-depth explainer.


The opinion also backs up the new state law, which directs districts to share information that charter operators say they need to recruit students and market their programs in Tennessee’s expanding school-choice environment.

However, the opinion allowed for districts to have a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents of their right to opt out of sharing such information. It was not clear from the opinion if the two school districts have exhausted that time.

A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said Tuesday the district had not yet distributed forms that would allow parents to opt out of having their students’ information shared, although the district’s parent-student handbook already includes instructions for doing so.

Below, you can read the attorney general’s opinion and McQueen’s letters to both superintendents:

Clarification, Sept. 14, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify the school boards’ arguments for not sharing the information.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.