A Teachable Moment: The Failure Of Colorado's Amendment 66

In a stunning electoral defeat, Amendment 66 -- representing a much-needed re-writing of the byzantine Colorado Finance Act -- went down in flames despite seeming to have everything on its side. The proposal was being watched by educators across the nation who saw the vote as a potential test for many states, especially given Colorado's "purple" status. With two Democratic U.S. Senators, a Democratic Governor and Democrats controlling both Chambers of the Statehouse, it seemed Colorado was ripe for increasing K-12 educational support. Would the Colorado proposal become a model for the rest of the country?

The Amendment's supporters amassed an extraordinary eight-figure war chest -- well over $10 million -- which it used to blanket airwaves, e-mail addresses, social media ads and mailboxes -- in a dominating effort to convince voters to increase taxes by almost $1 billion annually. With state tax collections totaling $10 billion annually, the $1 billion addition represented a substantial increase -- especially with all the new funds permanently dedicated to K-12 education.

Even more poignant was its lack of a well-funded opposition. That, alone, made many pundits believe the proposal 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 recreational marijuana proposal which Colorado voters surprisingly approved in 2012 due, in part, to a lack of organized opposition). If primarily amendment 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 which 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. The case needed to be made that this axiom was true. That case was not made.

• Increasing taxes in a sluggish economy also did not resonate. Colorado's economy is doing well but only by current standards. It has yet to gain the robustness which the state experience for many years. 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 and simply were hesitant to take a chance on finding out in such lethargic economic times.

• 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 than that offered by Amendment 66.

• Changing Colorado's 4/63 percent flat tax from a single rate on net income to a two-tier structure was too great a "slippery slope" for many 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 -- especially to the business community, which views Colorado's flat tax as a major economic development attraction.

• 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. With public pension funds having accrued liabilities in excess of available assets in amounts totaling tens of billions of dollars, some voters feared the new funds would be diverted to backfill some of these obligations and would never make it into the classroom despite proponents claims to the contrary.

Proponents of more funding continue to make the mistake of "going it alone." Years ago, on my public affairs television program, two of the guests debated education funding. One was the President of the Denver Public 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. Such a proposal would generate the same $1 billion annually as the proposal which was just rejected by voters.

The plan I suggested would include a voucher program for financially-disadvantaged families (to give them some of the choices wealthy families already have) and add new support for charter schools (which actually are public schools) to put them on equal footing with traditional public schools.

The proposal would guarantee public schools would 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, unions, administrators and parents happy because their per-pupil funding would increase. At the same time, the rise of private schools (possibly limited to nondenominational ones in the event this requited to pass constitutional muster -- which does not always appear to be the case) and the increase in resources for 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 which will help all of Colorado's children. With the failure of Amendment 66, the opportunity is before us today -- both in Colorado and in every other state.


Aaron Harber hosts The Aaron Harber Show, seen on Channel 3 KCDO-TV (K3 Colorado) on Sundays , and on ION Television and COMCAST Entertainment Television as well as here. He was the valedictorian at Fairview High School in Boulder and received degrees from Princeton and Harvard Universities. Send e-mail to Aaron@HarberTV.com. (C) Copyright 2013 by USA Talk Network, Inc. and Aaron Harber. All rights reserved.