Lots of petitions, lots of work still ahead

Selling voters on $950 million school finance reform ballot measure will be heavy burden
The Colorado Statesman

After submitting nearly double the number of signatures required to place a school finance reform measure on the November ballot, both sides of the debate have turned their focus to messaging. But convincing voters to back the $950 million tax increase may prove to be difficult.

Proponents — including Democratic Sens. Mike Johnston of Denver and Rollie Heath of Boulder — submitted more than 160,000 signatures on Monday. They appropriately hauled boxes of the petitions to the secretary of state’s office in a large white school bus, which was filled with voters’ signatures.

It only takes 86,105 signatures to qualify for the ballot, so it is likely that Initiative 22 will appear before voters this November as Amendment 66.

Proponents of a petition drive to raise taxes for pre-school and K-12 education pose before submitting more than 160,000 signatures to the secretary of state’s office on Monday.

The initiative started as Senate Bill 213 in the Democratic-controlled legislature, offering a sweeping rewrite of the School Finance Act. The party-line approval of the bill, which was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, completely changed the formula for financing public education.

Sen. Mike Johnston assisted with hauling petitions to the secretary of state's office on Monday. Proponents of a $950 million tax increase to fund education submitted more than 160,000 signatures.

Under the measure:

• All kindergarten students will be funded for all-day school;

• Preschool students will be funded for half-day;

• Enrollment funding will be calculated on average daily membership, instead of a one-day count;

• At-risk and English language learners will be funded twice, to allow for longer school years;

• Studies will be conducted to measure academic growth and achievement in relation to money received by districts;

• Transparency will be offered through a website where taxpayers can track spending; and

• Public schools will receive equitable funding, including charters.

But few of those reforms will be possible without the money to support it, and under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, taxes can’t be levied without a vote of the people.

Sen. Rollie Heath posed with Colorado Education Association member Ami Prichard and her three kids on Monday before proponents of a tax increase for education submitted more than 160,000 signatures.
Photos courtesy of Colorado Education Association

Voters this November would be asked to create a two-tier state income tax rate. Taxpayers earning up to $75,000 per year would see their rate increase from 4.63 percent to 5 percent; and earners above $75,000 would be taxed at 5.9 percent.

Based on the median household income in Colorado of $57,000, taxpayers would see their annual income tax increase by about $132.

“What we want are direct investments linked to high-priority targets that result in changed performance,” Johnston explained outside the secretary’s office on Monday. “We’ll have for the first time the metrics where a taxpayer, a voter, a legislator will be able to see clearly what return they got and be able to change the investment if they want to.”

Heath, who led a failed school finance effort in 2011 to raise about $3 billion in taxes, said he is more optimistic this time. He points out that there is a large coalition behind him, including the business community, teachers, school administrators and education reformers.

Hickenlooper has also expressed his support for the initiative, though he has not widely done so in public arenas. He has, however, told reporters that he plans to campaign for the initiative if necessary. He did not back the initiative in 2011.

“It’s a very different rodeo,” explained Heath. “We have the coalition behind us this time. It was a small group of us [in 2011.] But I felt strongly two years ago that we needed to get the ball rolling, and get the message out there. I think we did that, and I think this is the next step, which is a huge step forward.”

Will Gohl, a policy analyst for Johnston who helped to write SB 213, said on Tuesday evening at a forum in House District 2, sponsored by the Democratic Party of Denver, that a vote this year might be proponents’ last chance at school finance reform.

“If you think we need more funding for public schools, this fall is your chance,” declared Gohl. “This chance is not coming again, I can tell you that. There is not going to be a coalition like this that is this broad with this good of a chance of passing that’s going to come again anytime soon.”

Skepticism runs wild

But at that same meeting in Democratic-leaning HD 2, voters expressed significant reservations. It appeared during the legislative session that proponents’ largest challenge would be convincing Republicans. But it was apparent at the Democratic Party of Denver meeting that voters of all stripes will need convincing.

Perhaps the loudest concern that rang out was over the reform issue itself. Within the education world, there are two facets that have grown.

The first are so-called “reformers,” who believe in moving away from traditional schools in some circumstances in exchange for innovative approaches that include charter schools. Big money interests who see value in replacing underperforming schools with new schools have backed reformers.

On the other side are the traditionalists, those who above all see the value in neighborhood schools and would rather place a focus on improving those schools, instead of replacing them with charters. The traditional facet has been fearful of a privatization of public schools that could lead to “corporate reforms.” Union interests usually back them.

The issue has become the focus of school board races across the country, including in Denver, where candidates have drawn a line in the sand for control over the school board. The Denver Board of Education election will also take place this fall.

Four school board candidates attended the meeting on Tuesday evening, indicating the contentious nature of the school finance debate.

Reform candidates included former Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, who is running for an at-large seat, and District 3 candidate Mike Johnson. Traditional candidates included Mike Kiley, who is running for the at-large seat, and District 3 candidate Meg Schomp.

Also in attendance was traditional school board member Jeannie Kaplan, who is term-limited, and Arturo Jimenez, who also represents the traditional education side.

Jimenez was featured as a speaker on the panel that included Gohl, House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, a Democrat who represents HD 2, and Sue Catterall, outreach director for Great Education Colorado.

Jimenez spoke of the concerns from the traditional education world, though he would not publically support or oppose the initiative.

“There’s a lot of issues around policy where we have a lot of disagreement within the community, and this also gives me the skepticism around a tax increase if it’s tied to the corporate reforms that we’re also talking about,” expressed Jimenez.

“Are we circumventing TABOR for a corporate reform agenda? Are we simply asking for an exemption from TABOR for a corporate reform agenda? What exactly are we doing with this tax increase?” he asked. “Those are all very valid questions.”

Kaplan, who sat in the audience, asked a question around how the money would be tied to charter schools, noting that funding would be provided for an innovation fund.

“The innovation fund really makes me nervous,” she said. “I think it’s a lot of money that’s going to go to charter schools. What is the innovation fund? Is it a fund to fund schools that are non-union schools?”

Neither Johnson nor O’Brien spoke at the meeting. But in separate interviews with The Colorado Statesman, both reform candidates indicated support for the school finance initiative.

“Colorado and Denver are just chronically underfunded compared to some of the more high-performing states around the country…” said O’Brien. “We know that new teachers are not getting training in terms of how to teach reading to kids who are behind.”

“It’s been more than 20 years since we’ve really done anything about it. I think that the cost of providing education — particularly to free and reduced lunch kids, low-income kids, kids with disabilities, English language learners — is way more than is distributed through the school finance formula,” added Johnson.

Catterall pointed to the state’s dismal school statistics, including seeing at least $1 billion in cuts, which has “eroded the rigor of our schools,” she said. In the meantime, classroom sizes have increased, with growth of about 10,000 students per year.

The result has been that enrichment programs, such as music, have been drastically cut, if not eliminated; graduation requirements have been reduced; and teachers have received less support.

Colorado ranks 40th for student-teacher ratios; 49th in achievement; the bottom quintile for technology; bottom quintile for teacher salaries; and 38th out of 40 states that fund early childhood education.

The Colorado Education Association has backed the finance initiative because while salaries are being slashed and support is being cut, the state has still mandated performance requirements under 2010’s Senate Bill 191 and 2009’s Senate Bill 163, which require evaluations tied to performance and accountability. Without proper funding, teachers say they can’t make the leap.

Also at issue is implementing last year’s House Bill 1238, which created the Reading to Ensure Academic Development, or READ plan. The law requires schools to focus on early identification of children with significant reading deficiencies.

Catterall explained that without funding, there is no way to assist teachers and administrators in implementing the requirements.

“They’re holding it together, but they’re really exhausted,” Catterall said of teachers. “I really have to question, is this what we want for our kids?”

Sharyl Kay Lawson, who teachers at Pennock Elementary in Brighton and is a member of the Colorado Education Association, agrees that teachers could use support in the classroom.

“For most of the teachers, what happens in their four walls is what really matters to them,” said Lawson. “Do I have enough money for textbooks? Do I have enough money for pencils and paper? Do we have the materials I need to teach that science lesson?

“We’ve stuck it out through a really hard time the last four years, just constantly seeing our budgets cut,” she continued. “This is like a ray of hope.”

Opposition mounts campaign

But just as that ray of hope began to shine, opponents launched a campaign to fight the initiative. The largely Republican coalition of opponents claim they are fighting for “real education reform” without a tax increase.

At a news conference Monday afternoon, Coloradans for Real Education Reform was led by conservative think tank Compass Colorado and Republican Treasurer Walker Stapleton.

Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso of Loveland, Assistant Minority Leader Libby Szabo of Arvada, Reps. Polly Lawrence of Littleton and Jim Wilson of Salida, also attended the news conference.

The Democrat in attendance was former Sen. Bob Hagedorn, who in 1993 sat on the School Finance Interim Committee. He said this November would be the first time in his life to oppose a school-related tax increase. Much of his issue is with the cost to working families.

“The increase in taxes on these individuals, these families, is going to be $185. Maybe for some of us, that doesn’t seem like a lot of money,” he said. “But when you have four children you’re trying to raise and rent you’re trying to make; clothes and school supplies; trying to celebrate holidays — $185 is a substantial amount of money.

“Our economy is too fragile at this point for implementing this tax increase on working families, as well as small businesses,” Hagedorn continued.

Opponents made several claims, including:

• New money would go straight into the General Fund that could be “hijacked”;

• Business owners would see taxes increase;

• No line-by-line transparency;

• No equitability for charter schools; and

• New money could be used by districts to pay for pension liability.

Proponents issued a fact sheet shortly after opponents’ news conference that debunked those claims, including:

• New money would go into a new fund, the School Educational Achievement Fund, which would be constitutionally protected;

• The initiative would raise the income tax on individuals, not businesses;

• Districts are required to report spending that will be compiled into regular reports on spending and return on investment, which taxpayers will be able to view;

• The initiative would provide equal funding to charter schools; and

• New money would be constitutionally prohibited from being used for pension issues.

Opponents are also concerned that there are no metrics for measuring performance results, despite existing metrics such as graduation rates and achievement gaps.

When asked by The Statesman to provide examples of metrics, the group of opponents was hard-pressed to come up with an answer.

“I wish it was the bill crafters’ job to put measurable goals in the bill…” responded Stapleton. “My experience in the private sector tells me that if you just give somebody a blank check without any deliverables associated with that, you’re not going to get the improvements that you want to get.”

Kelly Maher, a well-known conservative rabble-rouser who is executive director for Compass Colorado, acknowledged that their battle would be an uphill one. Proponents have already raised more than $1 million in just two months.

“At this point the budget has been nothing for Coloradans for Real Education Reform,” laughed Maher. “But there is a group of people here in Colorado who is focused on the children first and creating the kind of outcomes that will make Colorado better for everybody.”

Proponents, however, are not afraid about competing in the messaging category. Gohl said polling has found that their best chance at success is to deliver a personal message to voters.

“Say, ‘I went to a public school and I had an outstanding teacher, and… if I hadn’t had them, if they hadn’t pushed me and I hadn’t fought with them, and I hadn’t hated the homework they gave me, I wouldn’t be where I am today…’” Gohl explained the strategy. “Every kid should have that experience… and we’re not delivering that right now as well as we could.”

Speaker Ferrandino also believes the initiative will resonate with voters when it comes time to vote.

“Most people can get it. It’s pretty simple,” he said. “The real question for the voters is, ‘Do we want to invest in education to create one of the best education systems in this country?’”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com