School reforms hinge on Colorado tax vote

7:15 PM, May 21, 2013   |    comments
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DENVER - Governor John Hickenlooper signed into law a sweeping set of school finance changes that will only happen if voters approve a separate ballot question that brings in enough new income taxes to pay for them.

"We need to spend our school dollars in a more targeted way," said Hickenlooper.

In signing SB213, he enacted several new targets for spending, including:

  • Incentive programs designed to reward teachers based on their effectiveness with students
  • Statewide full-day kindergarten for all children
  • Lifting the cap on the number of three and four-year-olds who can be admitted to pre-kindergarten classes
  • Higher state funding levels for "at risk" students
  • A $100 million innovation fund to give competitive grants to schools and districts (would fund strategies like longer or added school days)

The total cost comes out to roughly $900 million for all the reforms in the nearly 200-page bill.

That amounts to nearly a one-third increase in state spending on public schools.

Proponents are still crafting the language they want to put on the ballot in November. They've yet to decide whether the question will seek a flat-rate income tax hike or a progressive rate, putting more of the burden on higher income taxpayers.

Depending on the plan they choose, supporters say the average Colorado income tax bill would increase by $250 to $450 per year.

Either way, it'll be a bigger overall tax hike than Prop 103, which was soundly rejected by the voters in 2011.

"That was a new investment without any new reforms to the system," said Sen. Mike Johnston (D-Denver).

Johnston argues this ballot question will be better received. Along with the taxes from the ballot question, SB213 will provide a website to track every dollar of education spending in Colorado.

To make sure the effort actually get better results for kids, it's all subject to a four-year review.

However, opponents are already organized under a name that doesn't beat around the bush.

"We are 'Coloradans against Unions Using Kids as Pawns,'" said Jennifer Kerns, a Republican operative who speaks for the group.

The focus on unions comes from the fact that we're talking about a big cash infusion to the school system, which is largely staffed by union members.

Opponents emphasize that the tax increase won't stop with just the first billion dollars.

"If you look at the last time school funding was adjusted in the state of Colorado, it was 20 years ago," said Kerns. "So if we're looking at the next 20 years, this is really a $20 dollar tax increase."

For supporters, the fact school funding hasn't been overhauled in 20 years is precisely the point.

"Most of the folks who are opposed that I've talked to are folks who just categorically don't believe that we should make any investment in K-12 at all and that the status quo is adequate," said Johnston.

A public poll in April by the Magellan Group found a mixed bag about the future of the proposal.

A narrow majority of voters supported the general idea of increased taxes to fund education. When the poll asked about more specific flat and progressive tax plans, opposition increased to 55 percent or more.

There are no statewide races for public office in 2013, which means turnout is likely to be lower than it would next year.

The language of SB213 allows for a five-year window, so supporters may attempt to pass a tax hike again if they fail this November.

(KUSA-TV © 2013 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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