As the Colorado budget has shrunk over recent years – thanks to the perfect storm of the economic downturn as well as conflicting constitutional amendments that ratchet down state spending while also requiring baseline funding, or even increases for various line items – the range and extent of services that state government offers have faced unsustainable constraints. Education from preschool through college is at the center of this tension, and Colorado voters will be asked to approve a temporary solution that eases it for the time being. They should heed the request.
Championed by Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, Proposition 103 will ask voters to grant a five-year increase on state income and sales taxes to generate $536 million each year for five years. To do this, income tax rates will increase from 4.63 percent to 5 percent, and the sales tax rate will go up from 2.9 percent to 3 percent. The average estimated impact on Colorado families earning the median income is $132 per year. The investment is well worth it.
For each of the last three years, education at all levels has faced drastic cuts in funding to the tune of more than $628 million in reductions between 2010 and 2012. That outlook does not improve for the foreseeable future, and with Colorado already 49th among states in per-pupil spending, as well as 48th in state higher education spending, there is much room to do better. Proposition 103 is a necessary, if temporary, means to do that.
Arguments against the measure range from ideological opposition to any tax increases under any circumstance to the legitimate claim that more money does not necessarily equal better schools. The former can be dismissed as easily as it was levied: There are basic services in which taxpayers must invest, and that commitment requires increased investment at times. The latter, though, has some merit. Nevertheless, the slow draining of resources has a correlative effect on schools’ ability to keep up with growing classes, new technologies and curricular innovations, capital infrastructure needs, and research. Throwing money at schools is not a guarantee that every student will be a high achiever or every school 100 percent effective. But that is not the premise for Proposition 103. It is a measure that would partially backfill the significant drain on resources that schools have seen in the past three years; it would slow the hemorrhage – not provide a windfall.
That is an important perspective. In Southwest Colorado, schools have struggled to adjust as per-pupil funding has shrunk across all the districts between 2010 and 2012, ranging from $709 per student in Montezuma-Cortez School District to $963 per student in Ignacio School District. If it is approved, Proposition 103 would restore $517 and $599 of that funding, respectively. Schools would not suddenly be awash in cash.
There are many good reasons to invest in education from preschool through college. Well-educated people translate to a well-educated workforce, and a lively marketplace of ideas translates into innovation, which spurs new business development, hiring and tax revenue generation. Investing in that cycle is a sure bet; failing to do so is hardly worth the gamble.
Proposition 103 will not solve all the problems facing education in Colorado. It will, however, ensure that educators and students do not face choices that erode the underpinnings of education in the state. Taxpayers will not have to sacrifice much to ensure that outcome, but failing to do so will force a great sacrifice, indeed.