School finance measure flush in funds, but lawsuit could dampen efforts
The Colorado Statesman
UPDATE: This story has been updated to include a response by Denver Public Schools on Oct. 9 to the "mutual consent" section of the story.
Supporters of a $950 million tax increase to fund education released their first two television ads this week and announced support from Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, while opponents filed a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the ballot drive.
Hancock spoke Tuesday outside Clayton Early Learning Center in Denver, where supporters drew multi-colored stick figures in chalk and a Colorado Commits to Kids “Yes On 66” banner on the pavement in front of the podium where the mayor delivered remarks.
Colorado Commits to Kids is the issue committee established to support the initiative, and Amendment 66 is the ballot question voters will decide this November.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock rallies Tuesday outside the Clayton Early Learning Center in Denver in support of a tax increase measure to fund education.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman
“Today I am proud to say that I endorse and I am voting for Amendment 66 because I want to give all Colorado kids the best chance to compete and succeed in a global economy,” stated Hancock. “And as a graduate of Denver schools, as a parent of Denver kids and as the mayor of the capital city, I ask our voters to vote yes on Amendment 66.”
Voters are 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 $133.
The initiative stems from Senate Bill 213 this year, in which the Democratic-controlled legislature rewrote the School Finance Act. The law calls for all-day kindergarten; reforms to enrollment funding; more money for at-risk students and English language learners; measurements of academic growth and achievement; spending transparency; and equitable funding for all public schools, including charters.
But little of that is possible without money from the tax increase.
“Not only is this about making Colorado’s school system the top in the nation, it’s about preparing our kids — all of our kids — to compete and succeed in the 21st century marketplace,” continued Hancock. “It’s about closing that ever-widening achievement gap and helping out at-risk youth beat the odds.”
Charlotte Brantley, head of Clayton Early Learning, highlighted the need for early childhood education. She joined Hancock on Tuesday.
“Amendment 66 will provide additional money for the Colorado Preschool Program, creating more than 25,000 preschool spots for at-risk 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds,” explained Brantley.
Supporters have been buoyed by significant financial support from the education reform community, as well as individual well-known philanthropists. Proponents have raised more than $5 million in about four months.
Significant contributions have included $700,000 from Gary Community Investment Company, founded by Denver oilman Sam Gary; $750,000 from the Colorado Education Association; $50,000 from Stand For Children; $650,000 from philanthropist Pat Stryker; $250,000 from billionaire David Merage; $100,000 from Kaiser Permanente Financial Services; $100,000 from DaVita Total Renal Care; $500,000 from Education Reform Now; $500,000 from Ben Walton, of the Walton Family Foundation, started by the founders of Walmart; $200,000 from the Rose Community Foundation; and $1 million from the National Education Association.
The contributions have bought at least a couple of television ads, which claim that the tax increase would bring significant change to Colorado’s schools.
The first 15-second spot highlights how the tax increase would place more teacher aides in the classroom; the second 15-second spot states that voters can bring back gym class if they back the tax question.
“These ads demonstrate what a ‘yes’ vote on Amendment 66 will deliver,” said Andrew Freedman, campaign director. “By voting ‘yes’ on Amendment 66 we can have smaller class sizes, more one-on-one attention for students and restore programs that have been eliminated or reduced as school districts have worked to balance their budgets in recent years.”
A recent study by the Colorado Fiscal Institute, Bell Policy Center and Colorado Center on Law and Policy — organizations that support the school reform movement — suggests that Amendment 66 would restore the state’s ability to raise enough money to meet its schools’ needs, as well as make the income tax structure more like those in neighboring states.
“For decades, Colorado had a tax system that reflected taxpayer ability to pay,” explained Carol Hedges, executive director of the Colorado Fiscal Institute. “Since changing to a flat tax in 1986, we have slowly depleted our capacity to fund schools and other important priorities that improve our economy.”
Lawsuit filed to invalidate petition signatures
But critics of the tax increase say that it raises taxes on Coloradans at a time when they can’t afford it. Opponents also worry that it would create additional costs on business owners, that it would do little to reduce class size, and that some wealthier counties would end up footing the bill for students in other parts of the state.
Coloradans for Real Education Reform, the opposition committee, filed a lawsuit this week in Denver District Court seeking to invalidate at least 39,555 signatures collected by proponents during the petition drive.
Colorado Commits to Kids submitted 165,710 signatures in August for then-Initiative 22, but only 89,820 of the signatures were validated after a review by the secretary of state’s office.
Proponents had paid Washington, D.C.-based FieldWorks at least $779,047 for petition-gathering activities. That number has since climbed to over $1.4 million for ongoing canvassing activities by FieldWorks.
The initiative needed 86,105 signatures to make the ballot, meaning proponents only gathered 3,715 more signatures than were required. If the courts invalidate the 39,555 signatures alleged by opponents, then it would far exceed the number necessary to reject the ballot drive.
The secretary’s office conducted a line-by-line review because the initiative failed a random sampling of valid signatures. State law requires a line-by-line review if the random sample shows the number of valid signatures falls between 90 percent and 110 percent of the 86,105 signatures needed. The percentage of presumed valid signatures was 107.88.
Opponents, however, say a more thorough review of the signature gathering effort has revealed additional problems.
“The Initiative 22 campaign paid an out-of-state signature gathering firm over $1 million to collect enough valid signatures to place the initiative on the November 2013 statewide ballot,” said Jonathan Lockwood, spokesman for opponents. “The integrity of this signature-gathering process was called into question after the Colorado Secretary of State invalidated 75,890 signatures, which represents 46 percent of the total number of signatures gathered.”
Opponents highlight several potential problems, including several circulator affidavits that were not notarized, verifying the type of valid identification presented by the circulator; circulators did not include permanent address; and circulators did not present valid identification.
“By previously invalidating over 75,000 signatures, the secretary of state already highlighted the serious compliance issue with Initiative 22’s signature-gathering process,” added Lockwood.
Proponents have shrugged off the complaint, suggesting the opponents are simply trying to divert attention away from the issue.
“We should be having a policy discussion — not playing political games,” said Freedman. “These signatures were validated as being from Colorado voters who want to see Amendment 66 on the ballot. Coloradans clearly want — and deserve — the right to vote on Amendment 66.”
Battle erupts over teacher accountability
Meanwhile, there is another potential legal battle underway that some fear could jeopardize the school finance reform effort. Negotiations have failed to prevent a challenge to Senate Bill 191, which in 2010 implemented a new teacher evaluation system to bring greater accountability.
The new evaluation system is based in part on student performance and test scores. Unions, including the Colorado Education Association and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, have expressed concerns that part of the law is being used to fire teachers for financial reasons, not based on merit.
The provision in question deals with mutual consent, and the focus is placed on Denver Public Schools, which has eliminated about 200 teachers due to a reduction in building, explained Mike Wetzel, spokesman for the CEA.
“That process has nothing to do with educator effectiveness, it has nothing to do with teacher evaluations,” he said. “It has to do with a financial shortfall in a certain building.”
Prior to SB 191, teachers that were let go due to no fault of their own had priority placement in another school to teach that same subject. But Denver Public Schools has used the mutual consent provision to require that teachers gain acceptance through the consent of a principal in another building before they are permanently placed, according to Wetzel.
He said the problem is that many of the teachers are experienced veteran teachers who are having a difficult time finding positions in other buildings.
“They’ve used this as an opportunity to get rid of these effective, experienced teachers to cut cost, and when you cut a teacher who is an effective educator and use a portion of an educator effectiveness law to actually keep them out of the class, that is completely ironic,” said Wetzel.
He said one of the reasons CEA is supporting Amendment 66 is because it would solve many of the budgetary issues that are causing certain school districts to reduce teachers.
“If we pass Amendment 66 and we get more funding into the schools and support the system better and give districts more resources, there’s hope then that districts wouldn’t reach this point where they feel compelled to fire their most experienced, competent, caring educators in the first place,” added Wetzel.
The State Board of Education recently voted to give unions more time to file a lawsuit. The deadline had been Sept. 1, but the board extended it for five months. The new deadline is past the November election for Amendment 66.
Denver Public Schools, however, said the mutual consent issue is not about finances, but is really about providing the best opportunity for students.
“It’s critically important for our schools to be able to hire the best teachers for their students," explained DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg. "Forced placement was harmful for students, schools and teachers, and was particularly inequitable for our kids in poverty because their schools had to take most of the forced-placed teachers. We do not want to go back to those days. This issue has absolutely nothing to do with economics; it has everything to do with the opportunity for our kids to have a high-quality teacher in each and every one of their classrooms.”
Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat who supports the initiative, is concerned that threat of a lawsuit could hurt not only the reform effort, but also the funding drive itself.
“We understand that some may use this lawsuit as a reason to oppose Amendment 66,” the governor said in a statement this week. “We respectfully disagree. The best way to protect Colorado’s education reforms is to support Amendment 66 this November.
“We want to make clear to the people of Colorado that we are determined to protect the foundational reforms embodied in SB 191 and further advanced by the recent passage of SB 213, and funded by Amendment 66…” Hickenlooper added.