While Democrats took control of the House of Representative for the first time
in eight years on Tuesday, President Donald Trump told the country
that the midterms were actually a victory for Republicans.
“I thought it was very close to a complete victory,” Trump said.[i]
Do Colorado districts and schools need more money? Sure. It is why I voted for Amendment 73, the statewide tax to benefit K-12 education.
But before we leave the Nov. 6 vote behind, I ask that we review what we learned from the failure of Amendment 73. Because it’s not the lesson its proponents (or some foes) are willing to acknowledge.
In fact, from a few supporters of Amendment 73, the lesson is not that it failed but that it almost won, or that each time Colorado voters have been asked to raise taxes for schools, the vote gets closer. As in—it’s really a win! (Remind you of someone?) Momentum is on our side! Just try again – in 2020!
I quote several news articles written immediately after the election. Some numbers used in these articles were not the final tallies. With 100% of votes in:
YES - 1,137,527 – 46.4%
NO - 1,312,331 - 53.6%[ii]
Let’s not put on rose-colored glasses and misread the “lessons” of the November vote. I am sure to offend those who, in my mind, have worked hard to address a vital problem for public education in our state, but I hope they will consider what strikes me as the most obvious takeaway. It comes from Floyd Ciruli, the director of the Crossley Center for Public Opinion Research. In his commentary for The Denver Post (Nov. 9, 2018) of the 2018 midterm election, Ciruli, one of Colorado’s most well-respected (and nonpartisan) political observers, wrote: "... voters' historical patterns held in the area of ballot issues. They continue to distrust and dislike statewide tax increases, even for problems they identify and know will require more money. They said ‘no’ to the school income tax proposal and the sales tax for roads."[iii] (The Denver Post, Nov. 9, 2018)
With the key word being statewide.
Instead, here is the wishful thinking from three advocates for the ballot proposal.
Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, sounded hopeful about “a future effort.” After the results came in on the evening of Nov. 6, she spoke to supporters.
[She] said that the conversation around school funding was forever changed, with even opponents admitting the need for more resources in the classroom and better pay for teachers.
The press release from Great Education Colorado on the vote (Nov. 6), titled, “WE WON’T STOP FIGHTING THIS FIGHT UNTIL COLORADO DOES RIGHT BY ALL ITS STUDENTS,” begins:
The story tonight is that a record number of Colorado voters recognize the need to invest in our students, our teachers, our schools and our communities. That is historic and we thank the voters for this powerful statement.
Together, we have changed the conversation and made clear the urgency that exists in solving the school funding crisis in Colorado. We’ve mobilized at the grassroots level, we will continue to make our voices heard, and we expect our public officials to listen and to come together on solutions.[iv]
“We are within striking distance, and we are not going back….”
Weil said she believes voters heard that message, but supporters did not have the resources to reach enough people.
“The more people learned about Amendment 73, the more they liked it.
In the coming days, Weil said supporters would do a “deep dive” into the vote results to see where support lay and build for a future effort.[v]
Tracie Rainey, executive director of the Colorado School Finance Project, was equally positive. Like Weil, she too was willing to suggest a (dubious) explanation for the no vote. The Colorado Sun spoke with her later that week:
… she was heartened, at least, that 900,00 people voted for Amendment 73 and that it captured 45 percent of the vote. That was a boost from the 34 percent approval of Amendment 66 in 2013 which would have raised $950,000 million for schools….
Rainey said she didn’t want to second-guess voters, but believes that many don’t realize that the people—not the legislature—must make the decision to increase taxes for schools.[vi]
Scott Wasserman is president of the Bell Policy Center. Note the headline of his guest commentary in The Denver Post, written later in November: “Colorado voters said no to taxes, again, but there’s hope even in this defeat.” (Are you beginning to see a pattern?) Wasserman wrote:
… I think something historic—beyond the blue tsunami—occurred on election night. For the first time since the passage of TABOR, a statewide proposal to raise taxes for education came close to a majority of votes. This was the third attempt to raise taxes for education over the past decade; Proposition 103 lost in 2011 with 36.3 percent of the vote. In 2013, Amendment 66, netted 35.54 percent. This year, Amendment 73 got 46.3 percent. It received more votes than Walker Stapleton got in his failed bid for governor.*
What’s more, in contrast with the $7 million campaign for Proposition 110 and the $11 million raised for Amendment 66, Amendment 73’s backers accomplished their milestone with just $1 million….
How did Amendment 73 get this far? First, a genuine grassroots movement comprised of teachers and parents came together without the aid of consultants and polling to get on the ballot. …
[*True, but Stapleton did win in 38 out of 64 counties. Amendment 73 won in only 12 counties.]
And again we hear a proponent unconvinced the voters understood what was on the ballot:
Because of its fundraising disadvantage and the complications of a very technical proposal, it’s debatable as to whether or not all voters truly saw the proposal for what it was. The polling [from prior to the election, referred to at the top of his commentary] … indicates if they had, Amendment 73 would now be in our constitution.
A leap of faith there. But his next leap is pure fantasy.
… In fact, looking at the results, how can we not now wonder what would have happened if the proponents of Proposition 110 and Amendment 73 had joined forces, seeking funding for both education and transportation through a progressive tax proposal?[vii]
Logical? If two efforts, both asking for a statewide tax, both soundly rejected, had only combined forces, they might have won?
I return to Ciruli’s thesis—Colorado voters "distrust and dislike statewide tax increases.” Which is exactly what Amendment 73 and Proposition 110 had in common. In Addendum A – “Schools and roads: Different issues, but huge overlap in how counties voted,” I offer evidence to support Ciruli’s analysis: the votes, county-by-county, on these two entirely different issues. You will find a remarkable similarity: in both cases, 51 out of 64 counties said NO.
Four more points – for both sides of the debate
1. Two days after the vote, Monte Whaley of The Denver Post summarized next steps, in:
“Educators looking to governor, legislature after rejection of $1.6 billion school finding measure.” Whaley wrote:
Critics, however, blasted Amendment 73 as just another attempt to throw tax dollars into an education system burdened by administrative costs and little accountability.
“We know that a massive tax increase that is not tied to results is not going to make a difference for Colorado kids,” said Katie Kruger, the No on 73 campaign chair.[viii]
If overstated, Kruger raises a point that few advocates for Amendment 73 seemed willing to address (and one featured by gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton in his campaign ads): a suspicion among many voters that the system is not as efficient or transparent as it should be in spending the taxpayers' dollar. This is not a ridiculous sentiment. Listen to Denver’s next superintendent speak of the need to “slim down the central office” at DPS (CPR, Colorado Matters, Dec. 6, 2018[ix]). Watch teachers roll their eyes when asked about the number of administrators in the building—and their value. Hear what my friend, who drives a school bus, has to say about the inefficiency and waste around student transportation. Pro-tax advocates seldom speak to these real concerns.
2. By my count, only half a dozen rural counties supported Amendment 73 (see Addendum A). It is possible to pass “statewide” measures with little support from our rural communities (the I-25 corridor has the votes to do it), but would we want to? I am not sure advocates for a statewide tax appreciate why so many rural voters might have had their doubts. A rural teacher I know wrote to me of “an enormous gap in trust between rural and metro CO voters. Rural folks lack faith that metro Colorado fully understands the issues that rural Coloradans face in regards to policy, taxes, etc.” I attended a school board meeting in another rural school district this fall, where several board members voiced this very skepticism; not one of them was willing to make a motion in support of Amendment 73.
3. And yet, opponents of the proposal surely exaggerate when they say the defeat of this tax proves Coloradans don’t want to throw good money after bad into public education. It is true, on Nov. 6 most voters said no to 73’s broad claim to use the tax increase “to support early childhood through high school public educational programs on an equitable basis throughout the state without decreasing general fund appropriations.”[x] However, on that same day most voters, when asked by their school districts to vote on local mill levy and bond issues, most voters said yes. The six winning bond requests, alone, will raise close to $1.5 billion. We should not confuse taxpayers’ mistrust of sending money into “the system” with a refusal to support the schools and principals and teachers they know best, in their community. Local districts were able to make more specific requests–some stating increased funds would boost teacher salaries—in a way Amendment 73 either could not, or did not, do.
4. As I hope to be impartial here, I would quickly add that the support for mill levy overrides (16 of 21) and bond requests (6 of 8) in no way solves our funding problem. This Douglas County resident cannot rejoice that our community said yes to both a bond and mill request, while districts with fewer resources failed to win support for far more modest requests. Consider these disparities:
BOND: Voters in Jefferson County (86,112 students) and Douglas County (67,597) passed bonds for $567 million and $250 million respectively. In much smaller districts, Lewis Palmer (6,703 students) and Garfield RE-2 (4,813), voters said no to requests for far less, $36.5 million and $5.7 million respectively.
MILL LEVY OVERRIDE: Four of the state’s largest districts—Jeffco, DougCo, Aurora Public Schools (40,920 students) and Adams 12 (38,870)—all gained their override, which together will reap a total of $135 million. But in Bennet 29J (1,126 students), Trinidad (982), and Bethune (112 students), voters said no.
Not fair, agreed? Here, Rainey’s conclusion rings true: “the state’s unfair school finance formula [has] created a system where a child’s education ‘depends on their ZIP code,’ she said. ‘Now you just created more haves and have-nots.’”[xi]
Common ground: It’s the funding formula, stupid
The good news is that leaders across the political spectrum agree that they have a responsibility to address this formula. The following comments tell me that many agree: we cannot ask citizens to walk into the voting booth and unravel the Gordian knot of Gallagher-Tabor-Amendment 23.
· Gov-elect Jared Polis did not endorse Amendment 73 during the campaign, but he expressed a goal, as his spokesman Mara Sheldon put it, “... to find a path forward to ensure our schools receive the funding they need, whether or not this initiative passes.”[xii]
· “People are keenly aware now more than ever that our school finance model is in crisis,” Alec Garnett, vice chairman of the school finance committee at the Colorado legislature.
· “Luke Ragland, Ready Colorado.
· “We hope that both sides of this debate will set aside difference, roll up their sleeves and work together to come up with real solutions,” Katie Kruger, co-chair of the No on 73 campaign.
No matter how we voted on Amendment 73, let us cheer such work in 2019. May it lead to a real win!
The obvious question: What was similar enough about these two extremely different items on the ballot that might account for such a pattern?
Out of 64 counties, only 13 voted in favor of Amendment 73 (highlighted in yellow).
5 of those 13 also voted in favor of Proposition 110.
· Denver – 58.0% yes on Proposition 110
· Boulder – 57.3% yes
· San Miguel – 53.4% yes
· Pitkin – 51.7% yes
· Summit – 50.9% yes
Another 6 of those 13 showed fairly strong support for Proposition 110:
· Eagle – 47.7% yes on Proposition 110
· Rout – 47.6% yes
· Broomfield – 46.1% yes
· Ouray – 46.1% yes
· Larimer – 45.4% yesGunnison 42.2% yes
Two of the 13 counties voting in favor of Amendment 73 showed less than 40% support for Proposition 110:
· Lake – 39.6% yes
· San Juan – 38.5% yes
Out of 64 counties, only 5 voted in favor of Proposition 110 (highlighted in yellow).
For the 51 counties that voted no on both, the gap between the yes and no votes was usually larger on Proposition 110. For the most part, though, you will see more similarities than differences between the vote for a statewide tax for schools and for roads.
In at least 10 counties the similarities in the % of yes/no votes are striking:
2. Clear Creek
5. Kit Carson
6. Las Animas
Highlighted in yellow – county voted yes
From The Denver Post – (94.2% votes in) -
Amendment 73 -
Tax Increase for Schools
Proposition 110 -
Sales Tax for Transportation
YES (top line)
NO (bottom line)