Colorado voters could see a $1.6 billion tax increase for education on their November ballots.
Backers of a major school funding measure have been cleared to gather signatures by the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office. The measure – going by Great Schools, Thriving Communities – would increase the corporate tax rate and increase income taxes for people who earn more than $150,000 a year, as well as change how residential property is taxed for schools.
“Colorado schools are severely underfunded right now, and this initiative is a way we can ensure that every student has access to the supports they need for success,” said Susan Meeks, a spokeswoman for Great Education Colorado, one of the groups supporting the measure.
Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires that voters approve any tax increase, and voters have twice before rejected statewide school funding measures, most recently in 2013.
To get on the ballot this time, supporters need 98,492 valid voter signatures. Amendment 71, approved in 2016, requires that those signatures be gathered in every state Senate district in the state, imposing – by design – a logistical and financial hurdle on all constitutional amendments. (A federal judge has suggested that requirement might violate the U.S. Constitution, and it’s not clear right now whether it will remain in effect.)
The tax measure calls for:
- Raising the corporate income tax rate from 4.63 percent to 6 percent.
- Raising the income tax rate from a flat 4.63 percent to between 5 percent and 8.25 percent for people earning more than $150,000. The highest tax rate would be paid by people earning $500,000 or more.
- Setting the residential property assessment rate at 7 percent for schools. That’s lower than it is now but higher than it is predicted to be in 2019 because current law has the unintended effect of gradually reducing the residential assessment rate.
- Setting the non-residential property assessment rate at 24 percent, less than the current 29 percent.
According to a fiscal analysis by the state, the average taxpayer earning more than $150,000 would pay an additional $519 a year, while those earning less would be unaffected. The average corporate taxpayer would pay an additional $11,085 a year. The change in property taxes would vary considerably around the state, but based on the average statewide school levy, many property owners would pay $28 more on each $100,000 of actual value in 2019 than they otherwise would. Commercial property owners will see a decrease, and total property tax revenue collected by school districts would go down statewide.
If approved, the taxes would generate an estimated $1.6 billion that would go into a new “Quality Public Education Fund.” The vision is that this money would be distributed to schools in accordance with a new school finance formula backed by nearly all of the state’s superintendents and under consideration in the legislature this year.
The new funding formula, which would increase per-pupil funding in accordance with student characteristics like being gifted and talented or learning English as a second language, only goes into effect if voters approve the tax measure. If that plays out, no school district would lose money on the deal, and some would see significant increases in funding.
If lawmakers don’t pass a new funding formula, but voters approve the tax measure, schools would still get more money. The ballot measure calls for an increase to the base amount of per-pupil funding, plus extra money for students with particular needs, money for public preschool, and money for full-day kindergarten.
Full funding for kindergarten has been an elusive Holy Grail for education advocates in Colorado.
“Our measure is addressing the needs of the kids head on,” said Donald Anderson, one of the backers of the tax increase. “You can see where we’re raising this money and you can see where it’s going, and it’s very transparent in a way that voters will be able to get behind.”
Anderson is a stay-at-home father of two children in the Poudre School District in Fort Collins who has been active on school issues.
The ballot measure also contains a provision that requires the state to keep spending what it already does. That is, lawmakers can’t lean on this new money source and divert existing education spending to other needs.
Luke Ragland of the conservative education reform group Ready Colorado supports the idea of weighted student funding contained in the proposed new finance formula, but he doesn’t think Colorado’s education system needs a huge infusion of cash – if voters even go along with the idea.
“I don’t understand why the presumption is that spending more money will make things better,” he said. “Spending money on the same things won’t produce different outcomes.”
The education spending measure could be sharing space on a crowded ballot with a governor’s race, a transportation measure, and more.
The most recent attempt to raise money for schools – Amendment 66 in 2013 – was rejected by 65 percent of voters. That measure affected all taxpayers by imposing a 5 percent income tax rate on those earning up to $75,000 and a 5.9 percent rate on those earning more. It also involved a change to the funding formula, but one that caused some districts to lose money.
Is this a good time to try again for an education tax increase? Backers of the idea say there’s only one way to find out.
“We have one of the best economies in the nation right now, and it’s the perfect time to be investing in our students,” Meeks said.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.