In a stunning electoral defeat, Amendment 66 — representing a much-needed re-writing of the byzantine School Finance Act — went down in flames despite seeming to have everything on its side.
Its supporters amassed an extraordinary eight-figure war chest — well over $10 million, which it used to blanket airwaves, email addresses, social media ads, and mailboxes — in a dominating effort to convince voters to increase taxes by almost $1 billion annually. Even more poignant was its lack of a well-funded opposition. That, alone, made pundits believe it would pass either due to the enthusiastic response of voters or, at the minimum, it would slip through unnoticed by a disengaged, off-year electorate (similar to the marijuana proposal, which voters surprisingly passed in 2012 due, in part, to a lack of organized opposition). If only supporters voted in a lackluster turnout, the proposal was sure to pass, right?
Who could be against smaller class sizes, returning art and music to the classroom, funding preschool for at-risk kids, imposing tougher standards on teachers’ classroom performance, and helping poorer school districts in desperate straits? That would be the same as voting against the American flag and apple pie.
The proponents, however, failed to address key issues on the minds of many voters — relying on their money, ads and organization to win support. These issues included challenges that have been in the public eye for years but have been intentionally ignored by higher tax proponents.
• Many voters do not believe spending more money on education automatically results in a better education for students, proportional to the dollars spent. And increasing taxes in a sluggish economy did not resonate. Given the chronically poor results in many school districts across the state and nation, despite major increases in per-pupil spending, many voters understandably question whether or not spending more actually accomplishes much.
• Although charter schools were included in the sharing of revenue, they continue to remain at a financial disadvantage to traditional public schools. Mustering support from charter school families requires a greater commitment.
• Changing Colorado’s flat tax from a single rate on net income to a two-tier structure was too great a “slippery slope” for voters to risk (i.e., why not three tiers in a few years and then four?). A true flat tax has many attractions. Going backwards was not palatable.
• Many voters were worried a significant portion of the new tax funds would be used to pay outstanding retirement obligations. They realized this meant the funds would not go into the classroom.
Proponents of more funding continue to make the mistake of “going it alone.” Years ago, on my public affairs program, two of the guests debated education funding. One was the president of the Denver School Board. She wanted more funding for the classroom. The other was a proponent of funding charter schools and offering vouchers for private schools. I suggested they both could get their way if they teamed up.
My idea was for the two sides to join forces and seek new tax revenues such as a one penny increase in the state sales tax which would be totally dedicated to kindergarten through high school education funding. This would include a voucher program for financially disadvantaged families (to give them some of the choices wealthy families already have) and new support for charter schools to put them on equal footing with traditional public schools.
The proposal would guarantee that public schools always be funded at least at the same level as prior years, even if the schools were to lose enrollment. This should make the public school teachers, administrators and parents happy because their per-pupil funding would increase. At the same time, the rise of private schools and increase in charter schools would foster competition among all schools. This could only be good for students as each school was pressured to do better.
Until those seeking statewide tax increases for public education decide to join together with their opponents, they are unlikely to succeed. Now is the time to reach out and develop a plan that will help all of Colorado’s children. With the failure of Amendment 66, the opportunity is before us today.
Aaron Harber hosts “The Aaron Harber Show” on Channel 3 KCDO-TV (K3 Colorado) on Sundays, and on ION Television and COMCAST Entertainment Television as well as at www.HarberTV.com. He was the valedictorian at Fairview High School in Boulder and received degrees from Princeton and Harvard Universities. He can be reached at Aaron@HarberTV.com.