Colorado school funding hike goes down in flames

Joshua Dunn

Yesterday, Colorado’s voters resoundingly rejected Amendment 66, which had promised to vastly increase funding for Colorado schools and create a world-class system of education. Voters, with some justification, think Colorado already has good schools and were not in the mood to approve the largest tax hike in state history.

Much can be taken away from the results. First, despite being well funded and organized, a greater margin of voters said “no thanks” to Amendment 66 than a smaller proposed education tax increase in 2011, Proposition 103: That measure failed with 63 percent of Colorado voters rejecting it, while Amendment 66 (if the current, almost-complete results hold up) failed by 66 percent. The supporters of Amendment 66 raised over $10 million, including $1 million donations apiece from Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg, which allowed supporters to vastly outspend opponents of the measure. The lucky citizens of Colorado were subjected to seemingly endless ads about how, for a very small price per family, we could do things like add art classes and gym. Of course, the fool’s gold but always-enticing “reducing class sizes” was thrown in for good measure.

Second, the results are a huge repudiation of the Democratic leadership in Denver. Just a few months ago, two Democratic state senators, including the Senate president, were the first recalled public officials in Colorado history. One gets the sense that some of the vote on Amendment 66 was a carryover from the general public anger over how many measures, such as gun control, were forced through the legislature with little deliberation and no bipartisanship. Amendment 66 was itself attached to a Senate bill altering the school funding formula that broke completely on party lines in both chambers. The results of Amendment 66 should make Governor John Hickenlooper and Democrats in the state legislature very worried about next year’s elections. Right now, their best hope is for the Republican party to implode. Granted, given the recent history of state Republicans, that might not be an unreasonable hope. But continuing to pin your hopes for success on the opposing party’s incompetence is not a long-term strategy. Less than ten years ago, Republicans held every statewide office, so eventually they should start fielding electable candidates.

Finally, and a point that will certainly get no attention from the press, Amendment 66 means that school-finance litigation failed once again in Colorado. For several years, Lobato v. State had been working its way through the state courts. In late 2011, a trial court judge, Sheila Rappaport, issued a bizarre and outrageous decision declaring that Colorado was underfunding education by billions of dollars. Other than showing that she had mastered the copy and paste functions on Microsoft Word (the opinion was almost entirely copied from the plaintiffs submissions), the decision proved little. But for supporters of Amendment 66, it was a godsend. Using the same tiresome template from other states, they used it to argue that more money was necessary: “A judge has already declared that we are in violation of the constitution”—etc., etc., etc. Undoubtedly they were hoping the state Supreme Court would uphold the decision so they could use it to put a gun to the voters’ heads (perhaps gun rhetoric should be avoided, but we’ve gotten rather used to it in Colorado).

To their disappointment, the Supreme Court did not comply. This past May, the court roundly rejected the trial court decision. The wisdom of that decision is now even more apparent. At the time, I noted that upholding the Rappaport’s ruling would have been an invitation to “launch a constitutional crisis.” Doing so would have pitted the Court against the people of Colorado, who—under the Constitution—must approve any new tax increase. Given the results yesterday, it is unlikely Coloradans would have gone along with judicially sanctioned extortion. That would have left the court and Amendment 66 supporters in a very uncomfortable position.

However, all is not lost for those who want more education spending in Colorado. While Amendment 66 went down in flames yesterday, Colorado voters—by an almost exactly inverse proportion—approved Proposition AA, which will tax our now-legal recreational consumption of marijuana. Over one-third of the revenue raised from that measure will be dedicated to funding school construction. Perhaps Amendment 66 supporters should now start supporting our marijuana industry. The possibilities for cringe-worthy slogans are endless. I propose, “When you burn, our kids learn.” Regardless, to all the marijuana tourists out there: Please come to Colorado and support our schools. It’s for the children.

Joshua Dunn is an associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado–Colorado Springs.

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