Colorado voters will be asked in November whether to increase state income tax sufficient to raise nearly $1 billion for K-12 school funding. That is a big question about a big number that has big implications for education in the state. Those working to bring Amendment 66 to a successful conclusion have a big task that will require significant voter education efforts that go far beyond the billboards and yard signs of an easier campaign – like that of their opponents, for example. In deploying an extensive ground game, the Yes on 66 Campaign recognizes its challenges and how to meet them effectively.
The campaign had raised $5 million through September and is primarily allocating it to a quiet voter outreach strategy that involves door-knocking and conversations about the nuances of and need for so dramatic a funding increase. First, voters need to know that Amendment 66 would raise the state income tax in two tiers: from the current rate of 4.63 percent to 5 percent for those earning up to $75,000 annually and to 5.9 percent for income above $75,000. From there, proponents must explain what that money – estimated to be $950 million in the first year – will fund. Here are the talking points, from the Yes on 66: Colorado Commits to Kids website:
1. Schools can hire thousands of new teachers to reduce class sizes.
2. Teachers can provide students with the one-on-one time they need.
3. Taxpayers will have confidence that new money is used only for education reforms or enhancements to existing programs.
4. Districts will have more flexibility to restore funding for art and music classes, sports programs and transportation.
This all sounds great, but these are just the beginning of what must be a more in-depth conversation about what exactly Amendment 66 will do for Colorado’s schools to make them more effective. That conversation does not fit on a billboard, and educating voters will require the extensive one-on-one contact that the campaign has adopted. Even then, it will not be easy, particularly in a state where voters too often are allergic to tax increases, even when they are of critical importance.
While $5 million to run the “yes” campaign is notable – Amendment 64, the initiative legalizing recreational marijuana use and sales, had collected $1.4 million by Sept. 12, 2012 – the complicated nature of the school finance initiative requires it. By contrast, the opposition has an easy message: “It’s a $1 billion tax increase,” or some variation. It does not take much to counter a complex and costly proposal with simple points, and the “no” campaign does not have much: $10,000, donated by the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank. That will pay for plenty of bumper stickers.
Voters should take the time to look beyond them, though. There is much good in Amendment 66, and the details are worth understanding. Colorado’s K-12 education system has been chronically underfunded, and the mechanism by which that money is distributed is outdated and in dire need of an upgrade. The initiative, spearheaded by state Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, does all of these things in a well-considered way. The campaign to embody these reforms in the state Constitution must ensure that Colorado voters understand that thoroughly.