School finance

Monday, volunteers from the group Colorado Commits to Kids delivered box after box of signed petitions to the secretary of state’s office in Denver. Having gathered about 160,000 signatures – almost twice the number they need – backers are confident that they have more than enough to get their proposal to boost school funding on the November ballot.

Now, the real fight begins. And the shape of that is already becoming clear.

The proposed initiative would raise the state income tax, fund a series of education reforms passed by the state Legislature earlier this year as Senate Bill 213 and improve the state’s funding formula for K-12 schools. The new system would better reflect variations in median income and the number of at-risk students.

The measure to go before the voters – temporarily called Initiative 22 – would fund half-day pre-school and full-day kindergarten. It would help reduce class sizes overall and boost support for gifted and talented students, as well as at-risk kids and those just learning the English language. Those programs would get grants totaling more than $180 million. SB 213 allows principals more flexibility in spending decisions, while also increasing transparency.

All districts would benefit, but the intent is also to alleviate funding discrepancies and unfairness. Schools in Cortez would be the biggest winners in Southwest Colorado with an estimated increase in state funding of $1,400 per student.

The overall effort is grounded in two facts: Colorado schools are still suffering from budget cuts necessitated by the recession, and Colorado business leaders understand the critical importance of education to the economy. One of the groups behind the effort to pass Initiative 22 is the Colorado Forum, a business organization that understands and touts the direct, demonstrable link between good schools and a healthy business climate.

Nonetheless, there is already opposition, and it takes a predictable form. There are fears the money generated by the tax hike would simply disappear into the general fund, that business taxes would also be raised and that charter schools would not benefit. State Treasurer Walker Stapleton has been suggesting that the money could be diverted to fund pensions.

Supporters say none of that is true. According to Colorado Commits to Kids, the money from the tax increase will go to the State Education Achievement Fund and can only be spent on existing education programs and the reforms enacted in SB 213. All state spending on schools would be transparent, plus SB 213 requires specific additional reports on spending and the return on investment taxpayers can expect from improved outcomes. The initiative would help fund charter schools equally, while the additional transparency required would help parents make informed school choices.

The real issue with this initiative simply is that it includes a tax increase, and people do not like taxes, some for ideological reasons. Framing that in classic fashion, state Rep. Libby Szabo, R-Arvada, said, “Initiative 22 is a billion-dollar tax hike that will hurt the struggling families and businesses of our state.”

Except that no additional taxes on businesses are included, and the tax hike being proposed is small. Colorado now taxes income at a flat rate of 4.63 percent. Initiative 22 would create a two-tiered rate with the first $75,000 in income taxed at 5 percent and any income above that at 5.9 percent. Someone with a taxable income of $35,000 would see a tax increase of about 36 cents per day.

More to the point, the children of Colorado’s “struggling families” are exactly the people this is intended to help. What is good for them, not politics, should be the focus of this discussion.

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