Education reform

State Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, needs a bumper sticker. May we suggest something along the lines of: “You get what you pay for,” or perhaps “Let’s spend where it will do the most good.”

Johnston is the author and principal backer of Senate Bill 213, the first major revision of the state’s school finance system in 20 years. He has been traveling the state explaining what is in the bill and what that means.

Much of that can be summarized as: a lot more than a tax increase. The bill would enact broad and important changes in almost every facet of how schools are funded – so much so that it really should be seen, not just as a school-finance measure but as welcome and much-needed educational reform.To take effect, however, it must be “triggered” by voter approval of an approximately $900 million tax increase this November. Hence the need for some marketing.Exactly what that ballot measure will look like is still unclear, although it seems the issue to be worked out is the form of the tax. Three ideas have been put forward and all would raise the state’s income tax. One would be a flat, across the board rate increase. Two others would be graduated rate increases, one a two-tier system, the other a more progressive five-step plan.

All have good and bad aspects to them, but the two-tier system appears to have the most support. Critics fear the five-bracket proposal would make it too attractive – and perhaps too easy – to raise rates for higher-income taxpayers, while to raise the needed money, the flat rate would have to be high enough to burden low-income families.But all that should be worked out soon and is sure to be made clear in coming months. The details notwithstanding, the fact is the voters will be asked to raise taxes.

With that, though, education will effectively get twice the boost. In addition to the money being asked of the taxpayers, the reforms triggered by a “yes” vote will free another $1 billion for educational spending.

In any case, what Johnston and company want and need to make clear is that the tax is just one component of a sweeping and comprehensive reform package. The details are complex and exhaustive, but overall, the reforms to be triggered by the vote would modernize Colorado’s school-funding mechanism, ensure that the taxpayers’ money is spent in the most effective way, and instill an unprecedented level of transparency and accountability.

As Gov. John Hickenlooper said before signing it, “This bill positions Colorado to be the national leader in terms of school reform and effectiveness.”

Among its many effects, voter approval in November will mean full-day kindergarten statewide, a longer school year in some cases, the chance to move away from the 19th-century agrarian calendar, greater responsibility and authority for principals and, for all but 12 of the state’s 178 school districts, more money. That should also result in more equity for charter schools and direct funding for gifted and special-needs students so that those programs do not compete for dollars with other students.

The list goes on, but the point is simple. Whatever the final form of November’s ballot measure, it will be a referendum on how much we value our future.

The chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court has aptly described the state’s school-funding system as “fundamentally broken.” The question before the voters is whether we will fix it or, as Johnston warns, go “back to each year fighting for scraps at the budget table.”

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