Paul Teske is Dean and University of Colorado Distinguished Professor at the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver.
(These views represent the personal opinions of the author and may not reflect the position of the University of Colorado Denver or the University of Colorado system).
As we start summer – the real, post-Memorial Day, school is out, summer – it is worth reflecting on the near-term future of education funding in Colorado.
The legislature recently finished its session, which focused mainly upon budget cuts. Both higher ed and K-12 took cuts, but in the end, these cuts were somewhat less than some feared (higher ed), or less than the original level of cuts (for K-12). Remarkably, as the session ended, the fact that that cuts could have been worse seems to have been spun as mainly good news.
EdNews recently linked to new U.S. Census data that ranks Colorado’s per pupil K-12 spending (all revenues divided by number of students) as 40th among the 51 states (including DC). That 2008-9 data is now two academic years behind – two years, by the way, full of deeper cuts in Colorado (and some cuts in some other states, too, to be sure). Consistent with other data on this subject, the Census Bureau shows Colorado spending about $2,000 per pupil below the national average.
I will leave it to others to figure out more precisely what $2,000 per pupil could buy. It would seem, in a single class of 25 students, even if only two-thirds of funds were spent in the classroom, it would buy $33,000 worth of extra instruction for the students in that single classroom – a para-professional, lots of useful technological aides, or whatever students need most.
As we look ahead to fall 2011, districts and schools will face the legislature’s budget cuts, and it will be interesting to see the reactions. In the meantime, a few noteworthy events will occur.
First, the Lobato lawsuit, about whether Colorado’s K-12 funding is “adequate” under the “thorough and uniform” clause, should be heard in August. While court decisions are somewhat unpredictable, it is possible that the Colorado Supreme Court will rule K-12 revenues to be inadequate. Should they make that decision, the next step would be somewhat unclear – as courts have limited enforcement powers (not zero powers – the New Jersey Supreme Court, after several rulings on school finance, and legislative inertia and stalemate, eventually forced budgetary actions).
Second, State Sen. Rollie Heath’s (D-Boulder) proposal will likely be put on the ballot. Heath proposes to to roll back tax rates to the rates of the late 1990s, a period of a major economic boom in Colorado (yes, that rolling back involves a tax increase from current levels).
While passage may not be likely, no tax increase proposal in Colorado is ever likely. There is a self-fulfilling prophecy element here as well – many potential supporters are not yet on board, because they fear defeat or believe that voters have “no appetite for new taxes,” but all that could look different in November, if the Lobato plaintiffs win, the economy continues to improve, and parents see the results of the latest budget cuts as their children return to school with larger class sizes, fewer programs, fees for buses, fees for extracurriculars, etc.
Third, the lawsuit against TABOR (the Taxpayer Bill of Rights), started by Herb Fenster, will move forward, now with lots of signatories from both parties. This argues that TABOR has gutted the representative form of government for the state of Colorado. While also perhaps a long-shot, there is logic to the argument.
I have previously proposed consideration of the hypothetical CIBOR –the Citizens Bill of Rights. Under CIBOR, the legislature could not cut any programs that affect Colorado citizens (where cuts are defined in real dollar terms, per affected citizen), without a vote of the citizens.
Most people would say that CIBOR is ridiculous – how could the legislature be bound by such constraints, as it needs to balance the budget? And yet TABOR pretty much does the same on the spending side. So, as silly as CIBOR might seem, it is just the symmetrical, mirror-image of TABOR. In either case, the power of the legislature is substantially restrained.
Fourth, a committee made up of key foundations, non-profits, and other stakeholder groups is examining the school finance act, with a potential “reform and resources” agenda. While past legislative commissions on school finance, in 2005 and 2009, were unable to come to actionable consensus, perhaps this outside group can move such an agenda forward.
So, the legislature is done for 2011, but funding issues will continue to evolve.
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