With the great recession fading from the rearview mirror and housing prices climbing in Denver and Front Range communities, Colorado continues to show signs of a healthy economy. Colorado revenue is expected to grow 4 percent in the current fiscal year and 5.2 percent in 2017-18.
The sunny economic picture is a stark contrast to the dark state of K-12 public school funding. It is widely acknowledged that student funding has decreased over the past two decades. In 1980, per pupil funding was $232 more than the national average. By 2013, this number had fallen to $2,070 less than the national average. If you multiply $2,000 by the enrollment of your neighborhood school you can imagine the loss of funding Colorado school districts have been facing.
The slow erosion of K-12 funding is due to a number of legislative decisions made starting in 1982. In short, the combination of the Gallagher Amendment and the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) have created a stranglehold on the state’s ability to collect, retain and spend revenues.
A succession of school finance legislation including Amendment 23, Referendum C, Mill Stabilization and the Negative Factor were aimed at propping up funding for K-12 education. While providing short-term gains, the long-lasting impacts have created a black hole of funding.
In 2009 the state legislature, unable to fund schools at the level dictated by Amendment 23, created a budget stabilization factor called “The Negative Factor.” The negative factor allows the state to pay less than the school funding formula calculates they should get. It’s a nicely framed IOU. The negative factor amounted to $381 million less funding for schools in 2010-11. This year, it is expected to be more than $800 million.
The negative factor has forced school districts to spend from their reserves, cut sports, enlarge classes, freeze salaries, create a four-day school week, eliminate technology updates, reduce building maintenance, cut professional development and close schools. Each cut hurts students, but increasing cuts year after year erodes district and school initiatives to provide a high quality education for Colorado students.
A strong state economy plus increased revenues should provide the solution to our underfunded schools. However, the revenue limits created by TABOR prevent legislators from moving these monies into the education budget.
In short, when the state economy grows beyond the TABOR cap, taxpayers receive a rebate. The last time this happened was in 2015 and rebates averaged $15 to $41 per taxpayer. Fairly small potatoes for many taxpayers, many who are unaware of the refund.
If these monies were utilized for education, districts would have had an additional $200 million in 2015. The estimated TABOR rebate for the current fiscal year is $270 million. These funds resting in the state coffers are ready to fund over 1,800 schools yet, based on current law, they must be returned to the voters. While voted into law in 1992 to protect Coloradoans from legislators increasing taxes without the consent of the voters, TABOR puts a stranglehold on increased revenues the state receives during periods of economic growth.
Sentate Bill 267, a bipartisan bill to help rescue funds for rural schools by adjusting the hospital provider fee, is a valiant effort created by state Senators Sonneberg and Guzman. If passed, this will create an infusion of $400 million for rural schools. This would put a band-aid on rural school funding but is not a long-term solution. If it fails, as similar bills have, it will be due to the belief that it is unconstitutional to alter TABOR. Other opponents believe that to change TABOR would be an attempt to make government bigger. House Bill 1187, a republican-sponsored attempt to adjust the revenue caps within TABOR, failed earlier this year.
Utilizing state revenues to fund schools adequately is not making government bigger. Reducing school funding annually since 2010 is government not doing its job. It is common sense that fully funding our schools now will create a strong workforce for Colorado in the future. The time has come for our state legislators to break down the partisan walls and find a solution to TABOR. A study to decide how to adjust, rewrite or eliminate TABOR is a logical first step. Next, our legislators need to present the voters with a ballot measure to change TABOR.
Trish Greenwood has been a teacher and principal in southwest Colorado for twenty-eight years. She is currently a Colorado Educator Voice Fellow and the principal of Ridgway Elementary School. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.