Pushing The Brake On Education Funding In Colorado

May 3, 2016
Originally published on May 5, 2016 4:09 pm

In Colorado the economy is booming. The unemployment rate is 3 percent. And shiny new skyscrapers are rising all over Denver as revelers pour fistfuls of cash into downtown bars and restaurants.

But no one invited Colorado's public schools to the party.

In 1992, voters in the state amended the constitution with something called the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

It required that voters, not lawmakers, have the final say on tax increases, and it capped tax revenue. Anything the state raised over that cap — typically in boom years — would be refunded to taxpayers.

TABOR's effect on Colorado's schools has been severe. To find out why, click here.

The story of education funding in Colorado is part of the NPR reporting project School Money, a nationwide collaboration between NPR's Ed Team and 20 member station reporters exploring how states pay for their public schools and why many are failing to meet the needs of their most vulnerable students.

Copyright 2018 CPR News. To see more, visit CPR News.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Colorado is enjoying good times. Unemployment is low. Housing prices are rising, along with tax revenue. But the economic boom has not trickled down to the state's public schools. From Colorado Public Radio, Jenny Brundin has the latest story in our series School Money.

CHARLIE BROWN: Is it this one?

JENNY BRUNDIN, BYLINE: Economist Charlie Brown pulls down a black binder from the top shelf in a back room in Colorado's of the small legislative library.

BROWN: It's an old dusty tome.

BRUNDIN: The dusty tome is a binder from a 1992 voter-approved change to the state constitution. It's known as TABOR, or the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights. To a lot of Coloradans, TABOR sounded like a good idea. Here's why - one, it required that voters decide on tax increases instead of the legislature, and, two, it capped tax revenue. Anything over that cap, typically in boom years, would go back to taxpayers as a refund. Republican lawmaker Jerry Sonnenberg says TABOR was about trust.

JERRY SONNENBERG: The people of the state of Colorado, I'm convinced, especially in my district, until the government figures out how to manage its own pocketbook, don't want to give them any more of their money out of their pocketbook.

BRUNDIN: Back in 1992, economist Charlie Brown worried about the potential consequences of TABOR, especially for schools. It was his job to explain those consequences to lawmakers.

BROWN: So I sat with a copy of the amendment right there.

BRUNDIN: Today, he's standing in the exact same spot at the exact same chalkboard he stood at in what was his office almost a quarter of a century ago.

BROWN: I began to write on the blackboard and found myself writing in very tiny letters.

BRUNDIN: TABOR capped how much money could be raised with taxes on things like property and income. That then limited how much school districts could raise locally. To make matters worse, the law also limited the state's ability to make up the difference for schools.

TRACIE RAINEY: I don't think that people on average knew what it meant, especially long term.

BRUNDIN: Tracie Rainey is with the Colorado School Finance Project, a nonprofit research group on school funding. She says TABOR forced schools to make deep budget cuts. In 2013, according to Education Week, Colorado spent about $2,500 less per student than the national average. In fact, that ranks Colorado below two of the poorest states in the nation - Mississippi and Alabama. What this means for Colorado schools...

RAINEY: They can't retain teachers. They can't attract teachers. They have outdated technology, larger class sizes. They've lost the opportunity to offer certain programs. We've had fewer school days, furlough days, all sorts of maintenance issues.

BRUNDIN: Voters tried but failed to fix this. Then came the Great Recession and state lawmakers cut school funding even more. Now Colorado schools face a nearly $5 billion shortfall and because of TABOR no hope of getting that money back.

RAINEY: The state now is balancing their budget on the backs of students.

BRUNDIN: But Jon Caldara sees it differently. He's with the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank, and says TABOR's a big reason the state's economy is doing so well. As for its effect on schools, he says more money isn't the answer.

JON CALDARA: And I think parents and family members and taxpayers are saying no, fix the problems, use the money you have more wisely and educate our children.

BRUNDIN: This year, thanks to TABOR, taxpayers are on track to get $156 million back. That comes out to an average of $19 per person. For NPR News, I'm Jenny Brundin in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.