The mission of Great Education Colorado is to act as a catalyst for improved investment in Colorado’s public schools. This means both increased investment and wise investment. Too often, discussions about investing in public education become polarized between those who seek more funds and those who believe that “throwing money at the problem” will not improve schools. The truth is better school funding is a necessary condition for making meaningful improvements in our education system—but alone, it is not sufficient.
There is broad agreement that increased individual attention, by skilled, well-prepared, and experienced teachers is key to academic success. Additionally, we want our schools to provide children with a well-rounded education, which means relevant vocational education, arts, civics, and physical education—in addition to the basic three Rs. Finally, parents rightly expect that their children will attend—at a minimum—facilities that are free of health and safety hazards, that are not overcrowded or detrimentally outdated and that provide access to the science and computer technology that is at the core of the economy our children will enter. Progress toward these goals is impossible without a significant increase in school funding, particularly in Colorado where school districts have endured years of chronic budget cuts and underfunding.
We must also recognize, that funding alone will not allow us to achieve all our goals: eliminating the achievement gap, reducing the dropout rate, and preparing all children for the 21st century. How money is used matters. In a time of budget scarcity, we are obligated to use new funds as wisely as possible—as determined by a public, democratic and representative process, informed by the best available data. That is why Great Education Colorado supports efforts such as Governor Ritter’s P20 Council and legislative efforts to think creatively and expansively about the goals of our state’s education system and how we achieve them. As Colorado comes into consensus about education reform principles, Great Education Colorado will be in the forefront of the fight to match that roadmap with the resources necessary for success.
The quick answer: “Both.” And, as a state, we shouldn’t have to choose. Colorado’s public schools have been chronically under-funded for years—with detrimental consequences like high teacher-student and counselor-student ratios, outdated technology and textbooks, limited vocational education options and high dropout rates.
Nonetheless, K-12 funding has (at least until recently) been protected from wholesale cuts by Amendment 23’s mandatory minimum annual per pupil increases. Higher education, on the other hand, was not protected during the early years of this decade, when the post 9/11 recession forced deep cuts in funding for community colleges and state universities. These cuts left Colorado an estimated $832 million behind peer states in higher education funding. Some have blamed Amendment 23 for those cuts. Falling mill levy rates are a more direct cause. It is, to say the least, a short-sighted and ill-conceived policy to force a state to choose between funding K-12 or institutions of higher learning.
In fact, Colorado’s zero-sum budget game has placed us at a competitive disadvantage with surrounding states that have chosen to fund both more adequately than Colorado. Without a strong P-12 system, colleges and universities face tremendous remediation costs. Likewise, the state suffers if graduating high school students do not have quality higher education institutions to attend. Moreover, Colorado’s economy simply cannot thrive or compete without the kind of highly educated workforce and robust R&D institutions that attract and retain 21st century businesses. Great Education Colorado believes that “great education” requires adequate funding for educational opportunities from preschool through post-graduate degrees and everything in between. Colorado’s students and economy will continue to suffer if we fund one level of education only at the expense of another.
Yes. After almost two decades of tax cuts and TABOR, Colorado’s state budget simply is not large enough to fund public schools, colleges, and universities adequately, while making appropriate investments in other parts of the budget: higher education, health care, transportation, and other critical state services. Because TABOR requires voter approval before any tax increase can be implemented, there can be no solution to our budget crisis without a vote of the people. There are multiple discussions going on among state leaders, advocacy groups, foundations, community leaders, and other interested parties about how to raise revenues, how those funds should be used, and when (i.e., in what year) the resulting ballot initiative(s) should be put before Colorado voters. Great Education Colorado has been convening and participating in these conversations and will continue to work to ensure that voters have the opportunity—as soon as is pragmatically and strategically possible—to vote on long-term funding solutions that will allow Colorado to invest wisely and adequately in the education of our children.
The legislature has a number of tools at their disposal. Of course, as it has for the last 20 years, the legislature has the authority to refer a revenue measure to the voters. Additionally, the Supreme Court has made clear that it is also within the General Assembly’s authority to make “tax policy changes” such as closing tax loopholes and ending tax credits, as long as those changes don’t result in revenue exceeding Colorado’s TABOR limit. As much as $1 billion is available to the legislature under this authority.
New funds for education may also be available for the 2013-14 school year as a result of HB12-1338, which requires that certain general fund surplus dollars be deposited to the State Education Fund at the end of the fiscal year. Depending on general fund revenue growth, the legislature could use these dollars to supplement education funding (rather than to supplant other education dollars that can be then used for other purposes — a common practice in recent years).
In addition, the legislature has not yet explored (or asked their lawyers to explore) various provisions in TABOR that could provide the General Assembly with greater flexibility and authority than they currently believe they have. You can read more about these and other possibilities in an amicus brief filed in the Lobato school funding case by the Colorado Center for Law and Policy.
With all that said, the General Assembly’s options come back to: be creative and curious; ask questions and listen; and don’t give up just because the task is difficult, especially if it’s the right thing to do.
Amendment 23 was a constitutional change passed in 2000 to reverse a decade of budget cuts experienced by Colorado school districts throughout the 1990s. During that decade, Colorado’s education spending did not keep pace with the inflation rate. Per-pupil funding for education was well below the national average. Amendment 23 requires K-12 funding to increase by inflation plus 1% from 2001-2011 and by inflation after that. Notably, even with Amendment 23, by 2007-08, per-pupil funding was still $1,400 below the national average (consider how this affects a school of 300 or 700 students). If Amendment 23 had been honored through 2011, we would finally be spending as much per child in real dollars as we did in 1989.
Unfortunately, because of the economic downturn and Colorado’s resulting budget crisis, Amendment 23 was not fully implemented through 2011. Seeking ways to cope with falling revenues, the legislature reinterpreted Amendment 23 in a way that “allowed” them to cut education funding for three years through a mechanism called the negative factor. The funding level approved by the legislature for the 2015-16 school year is fully $855 million ($1,000 per pupil) below what is required under the traditional and, we believe, correct reading of Amendment 23. In the years since the negative factor was implemented, schools have been denied over $5.1 billion in funding.
Amendment 23 requires the state legislature to annually increase K-12 per pupil funding by “inflation +1 percent” through 2011 and inflation thereafter. It requires funding for specific “categorical programs” such as special education and transportation to increase by the same percent. This is designed to restore the cuts experienced by public schools in the 1990s. It allows additional K-12 spending at the discretion of the legislature for such K-12 priorities as textbooks, class size reduction, early childhood education, and teacher performance incentives.
Amendment 23 earmarks .33% of Colorado’s income tax for deposit into the “State Education Fund.” These funds are exempt from all TABOR limits. In order to ensure that the legislature would not simply use the State Education Fund to substitute for funds it had historically spent on education, Amendment 23 required the legislature to increase general fund spending on K-12 by at least 5% each year before it could dip into the State Education Fund to meet the inflation requirement. That protection “sunsetted” in 2010, but even before that, the Legislature took advantage of a trigger allowing the legislature to use the State Education Fund to balance the budget when state revenues drop, as they did between 2001 and 2003 .
Since 2009, the legislature has balanced the budget in a different way, reinterpreting the constitutional provision in a way that allows cuts to per pupil funding while claiming compliance.
Amendment 23, the citizen’s ballot initiative passed in 2000, mandates that “base” per pupil funding increase each year by the rate of inflation. To determine how much each district will receive under the School Finance Act, that “base” is run through a complex formula that includes variables such as school district size, local cost-of-living, and the number of “at-risk” kids (eligible for free lunch) in a district.
These variables are called “factors” and they substantially increase average per pupil funding received by school districts to reflect the very different costs they experience. The factors exist to address the increased per pupil costs that result when, for instance, a high percentage of pupils are from at-risk populations or when the necessary costs of running a school and hiring staff are divided among a small student population in a rural district.
In 2009, the legislature reinterpreted Amendment 23 to mean that only the base amount was covered by the mandatory increases — not the factors. Under this interpretation, the legislature could (and did) cut total spending from one year to the next and claim compliance with Amendment 23 — despite voter intent to increase funding.
Starting in 2009, in order to make across-the-board cuts from all districts, the legislature added a new “budget stabilization” or “negative factor” to the School Finance Act formula. In effect, the legislature now decides how much it wants to spend on school finance, and then adjusts the negative factor to meet that funding target. Notably, the legislature did not make the cuts by simply scaling back the factors (e.g., reducing the percentage added for each at-risk student). Instead, the cuts are made by calculating what is required under Amendment 23 and then cutting each district’s per pupil amount by the percent necessary to get to the desired funding target. (Because of the complexity of the school finance formula, some districts’ funding calculation diverges from this general rule). This spreadsheet shows the negative factor cuts for each school district.
As seen in the graph below, for the 2015-16 school year, the negative factor was responsible for a $1,000 reduction in per pupil funding, which results in funding for schools that is about $855 million below what Amendment 23 requires. That has resulted in larger class sizes, narrower curriculum, reduced instruction time, and less support and individual attention for students. Now that the state’s revenue is recovering, it is time for the legislature to create a plan to “buy down” the negative factor and allow students to recover. Notably, the Governor’s proposed budget for 2016-17 includes an increase in the negative factor to $1046 per pupil.
In 2015, in the Dwyer v. State of Colorado lawsuit, the Supreme Court ruled that the negative factor was constitutional. Nonetheless, it continues to be the mechanism that the legislature uses calculate each district’s per pupil spending levels (and to reduce funding) and public education supporters continue to recognize it as the debt that the state owes students, in light of the intent of voters in passing Amendment 23 – i.e., to invest in Colorado’s children in good times and bad.
No — not even if it were being honored. A 2006 study by the School Finance Project found that, in order to meet the requirements of Colorado’s school reforms, including CSAPs, and the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act, Colorado schools would need an infusion of funding far beyond that required by Amendment 23. Amendment 23 was not designed to fund schools “adequately.” Rather, it was designed to reverse cuts imposed over a decade because of Colorado’s constitutional budget constraints, which are generally recognized as the most restrictive in the nation. Amendment 23 requires “inflation + 1” increases, but the base funding levels upon which those increases are based are simply not sufficient to meet the needs of children.
- At-Risk Students:While school finance experts estimate that it generally costs 20-58% more to bring an at-risk child to academic proficiency (as compared to a child who is not at-risk), Colorado gives districts only an additional 12% per at-risk child.
- Special Needs Students:Although experts estimate that it costs as much as twice as much to educate a child with moderate special education needs, the State generally provides districts with less than 20% of the funds necessary to meet those needs.
- English Language Learners:Even with Amendment 23, the State provides districts with less than $300 per year to bring non-English-speaking children to English proficiency.
School Districts have to make up the difference by diverting funding from the rest of their budgets. And with schools facing significantly greater expectations for progress and proficiency, it is simply not enough to meet Amendment 23’s goal of catching up with 1989 inflation-adjusted spending levels.
The falling red line on this graph documents how Colorado’s per pupil funding compared to the national average from 1972-2007. In the 70s and early 80s, Colorado invested more per student than the national average.
In 1982, we passed the Gallagher Amendment, which started eroding the local property tax base by continually reducing the assessment rate (the percent of the value of a home that is taxed). From 1982-1992, school districts were able to stabilize local revenues by floating mill rates up.
In 1992, voters passed TABOR, which took away the ability of districts to float their mill rates without a vote of the people and limited the state’s ability to backfill the hole left by declining property tax rates. As a result, per pupil funding didn’t even keep up with inflation during the 90s.
In 2000, Colorado voters passed Amendment 23 to reverse K-12 cuts of the 1990s. As the graph indicates, per pupil spending in 2000 was already nearly $700 per pupil below the national average.
Unfortunately, Amendment 23 became a ceiling and not the protective floor it was originally intended to be. In addition, its measure of inflation is the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which does not reflect the kinds of things that school districts buy like health care and energy. As a result, Colorado schools continued to experience cuts and per pupil funding continued to fall behind the national average.
The short answer: SB07-199, proposed by the Governor and passed by the Legislature fixed a 1994 state school finance law that had the effect of automatically cutting local school property taxes (“mill levies”), even though local communities in most school districts had rejected such mill levy reductions by voting to allow the district to retain all revenues above the TABOR limit collected by those districts. The plan stopped the decade-long erosion of local financial support for public schools, and freed up state funds for education and other priorities.
The longer answer: In 2007, the legislature enacted a plan (S.B. 199) proposed by Governor Ritter to correct a flaw in the 1994 School Finance Act that has had the effect of slashing local support for public schools for well over a decade—despite votes in 175 out of 178 school districts to prevent exactly those cuts. The story starts with TABOR, which places strict limits on the amount of revenue a school district can keep. If a school district’s revenue exceeds its TABOR limit (perhaps as a result of rapid population growth or property values), the school district has to reduce its “mill rate” (i.e., the rate at which property is taxed), unless district residents vote to allow the district to retain all revenues above the TABOR limit (Such votes are known as “de-brucing”). In 175 of Colorado’s 178 school districts, the voters did vote to allow the district to keep all the revenue they raised under the mill rates at that time in order to maintain local support for their schools. Unfortunately, the 1994 School Finance Act had a provision that ignored and reversed all 175 local elections to “de-Bruce.” In effect, the Act “re-Bruced” those districts, requiring them to cut their mill rates in direct contradiction of the people’s will. That is, even though the people in 175 school districts asked to maintain local support, the state’s School Finance Act took away their right to do so. This School Finance Act flaw has had drastic and lasting effects:
- The state had to spend literally hundreds of millions of dollars just to replace the loss of the local share of school funding. As a result, although an ever-increasing portion of the state budget was being spent on school finance before passage of SB 199 (leaving fewer dollars available for other critical state programs), schools had little to show for it. The additional state funds were only replacing lost local dollars, and the schools didn’t even tread water.
- According to analysis done by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, Colorado has lost $3.1 billion annually in local property tax relief since 1994 (if our property tax rate were the same rate as 1994 levels).
Governor Ritter’s plan simply gave effect—finally—to the will of voters who sought to freeze their mill rates several years ago. Notably, the stabilization of local mill levies only froze rates at their current levels—which, in many cases, were as much as 50% lower than they were when citizens voted to freeze them. As noted above, the mill rates in a number of districts actually dropped, under SB199.
For example, in Park County School District, mill levy rates are half of what they were in 1996.
After being challenged in a 2008 lawsuit, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in March of 2009 that the mill levy stabilization legislation was constitutional, rejecting arguments that SB07-199 violated TABOR. The Court ruled that the 170+ local “de-brucing” elections satisfied TABOR’s requirement that tax increases be approved by the voters, and no statewide vote was required to freeze the mills as was accomplished by SB07-199.
K-12 public schools in Colorado are primarily funded through a combination of local property taxes and state revenues. Historically, local property taxes have made up the majority of funding. However, since property taxes have decreased and will continue to do so based on the impact of the constitutional Gallagher Amendment, the state has been required to fill in the amount that property taxes used to cover. During the post 9/11 economic downturn, state revenues fell dramatically and the state contributed the bare minimum legally required by Amendment 23 (Colorado spends $1,397 less per pupil than the national average.). Until 2011, the amount of funding Colorado’s public schools receive is based on the formula: inflation + 1%. The intention of this formula is to allow K-12 schools to keep up with price increases (inflation) while adding the 1% to slowly bring the funding level up toward the amount we spent in 1989 (inflation-adjusted) and toward the national average. This modest formula was an integral piece of Amendment 23, approved by Colorado voters in 2000.
Annual State Funding Increases: 2005-06: 1.1% | 2006-07: 3.1% | 2007-08: 4.6% | 2008-09: 3.2%
The Consumer Price Index upon which Amendment 23 is based does not adequately take into account some of the items that are most important to school districts such as: energy costs for gasoline or electricity, pensions and health care insurance—which have experienced double-digit inflation for the last few years. Just like it is more expensive to heat our homes or pay for family health insurance, schools have to deal with these skyrocketing costs, while receiving low, single-digit increases in funding (Even these modest increases are now in jeopardy).
How do schools cope? Since they must provide transportation for kids, heat the buildings, and provide benefits to their employees, most school districts are forced to make cuts that affect the classroom: cutting programs and course offerings, increasing class sizes, deferring text book purchases, letting teachers and/or paraprofessionals go, and freezing their pay.
School districts can raise additional revenues through local bond (capital) and mill levy (operations) elections up until a specified level, but the economic vitality of many communities cannot support money raised through local bonds and mills. On the other end of the spectrum, wealthier school districts bump up against maximum spending caps that limit the local ability to support schools—caps that were designed to prevent massive inequities between low-income and affluent districts.
Additional funding for public schools comes from private fundraising, primarily at schools in higher income communities – functioning as an additional “tax” on these families and further heightening equity concerns. Such fundraising efforts are increasingly being outstripped by funding cuts at the state and district levels.
The State Education Fund was created by Amendment 23 in 2001 to help schools buy textbooks, reduce class sizes and retain critical staff, and to ensure that the State would be able to keep up with the mandatory Amendment 23 per pupil increases in later years. A small percentage of Colorado’s income tax (.33%) is deposited into the State Education Fund. However, the State Education Fund was raided in the post 9/11 budget crunch in order to support general operating expenses (see Amendment 23 FAQs).
Why do districts face budget cuts even though K-12 funding has been taking an increasing portion of the state budget?
As noted above, total state funding of K-12 funding will actually decrease in 2010-11. However, in past years, schools were facing budget cuts even though state K-12 funding was increasing and was taking an ever-increasing portion of the overall state budget. Here’s why:
- More students in the State. Some of the increase in state funding comes from increases in the student population. In 2008-09, an additional 15,804 children are attending Colorado schools than in 2007-08. While an increase in students results in more state dollars to a district, it also brings more costs.
- Fewer students in some districts. Much of the growth in the student population in Colorado is centered in a few districts. Many other districts—rural, urban and suburban alike—are experiencing declines in student enrollment. With each less student, the district loses in excess of $6,000, but the district’s costs don’t decline by that much. For example, a loss of five students will cost a district well over $30,000—the cost of a district teacher. That district may have to cut a teacher slot, even though the remaining kids still need that teacher just as much as they did the previous year.
- Backfilling falling local property tax revenues. Colorado schools are funded primarily by a combination of state funds and local property taxes. Because of the interplay of the TABOR and Gallagher constitutional amendments and the School Finance Act until 2007 (see related FAQs), the local share of funding has been falling steadily for about 25 years. In fact, for most of the last two decades, the local share of school finance declined automatically in two ways: mill levies were cut (until mill levy stabilization was passed in 2007) and the assessment rate (the percent of property value that is subject to property taxes) has decreased most years. As a result, each year, tens of millions of state dollars went toward replacing the support once provided by local property taxes, rather than increasing total school funding. Put another way, the state spent tens of millions more each year—not for improved schools, but for property tax relief. As a result, the relative share of local and state contributions to per pupil funding has been shifting dramatically over the past 25 years.
- As noted above, per pupil increases do not keep up with the costs incurred by districts. So, even though state expenditures are increasing, district costs (especially health care, transportation and energy) are increasing faster.
Both. The systemic defunding of schools over the past two decades has eroded both local and state support. Ultimately, our students won’t get the quality education and opportunities they need to succeed until we fix Colorado’s broken funding system at the state level. But until then, every community (and school) has to do what it can to protect students from the impact of deeper cuts.
Colorado currently funds kindergarten students at 57% of per pupil funding. Until 2008, Colorado’s School Finance Act was based on an assumption that children would attend kindergarten only for half days; kindergarten students were funded at 50% of per pupil funding to reflect the shortened day. With more and more research indicating that full-day kindergarten is critical to students’ early education and long-term academic success, the state legislature in 2008 decided to increase the percentage of per pupil funding for kindergarten gradually over time until it reached 100%. Unfortunately, shortly after beginning these funding increases, the Great Recession hit and the resulting state budget crisis have left the kindergarten funding increases stalled at 57% of full student funding. Most districts provide full-day kindergarten nonetheless, mostly through a combination of tuition on a sliding-scale basis and money moved from within the existing budget.
First and foremost, the passage of Referendum C prevented deep and irreparable cuts not just to public schools, but to colleges, public health programs, and other critical state services as well. What Referendum C did not do is address the underlying causes of Colorado’s inability to fund schools adequately. Referendum C did make possible some modest investments in public schools above and beyond the funding required by Amendment 23 (the citizen initiative passed in 2000 that requires minimum annual increases in per pupil spending). In 2007, for instance, the Legislature added some funding above the Amendment 23 minimum to expand early childhood education and increase reimbursement for special education costs.
Unfortunately, Referendum C did not address Colorado’s underlying constitutional budget knot formed by TABOR and Gallagher, nor did it expand Colorado’s revenue base. As a result, it served only as a fiscal band-aid, and Colorado now faces an even worse budget outlook than when Referendum C was passed in 2005.
TABOR is the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, passed in 1992. TABOR prohibits any tax increase without a vote of the people. In addition, TABOR places strict limits on how much revenue the state can keep and how much it can spend. TABOR limits are the strictest revenue and spending limits in the nation. Any revenue collected in excess of TABOR’s revenue limits must be refunded to the taxpayers. [This provision of TABOR has been suspended at the state level for five years as a result of the passage of Referendum C.]
TABOR was popular because it forced legislators to come to the people when they wanted to raise taxes, but most voters were not aware of the strangling effect TABOR would have on basic government services. Those detrimental effects were felt in K-12 funding, when the strict limits prevented the State from providing per pupil increases that even kept up with inflation during the 1990s. As a response, Amendment 23 was passed by the voters in 2000, in order to make up some of the ground lost during those years.
The post-9/11 recession of 2001-2003 intensified the need to address the restrictions of TABOR. This economic downturn required deep cuts in already bare bones state services. Even worse, TABOR’s so-called “ratchet effect,”—which locked in TABOR’s revenue limits at their lowest point—prevented the state from restoring cut services when the economy improved. In response to this crisis, a bipartisan coalition referred to the ballot Referendum C—basically a five-year time out from the most harmful provisions of TABOR—and the voters of Colorado approved it in 2005. Had Referendum C not passed, the State would have been forced to make deep cuts at the same time it refunded hundreds of millions of dollars to taxpayers. During this five-year Referendum C “time out from TABOR,” the State is allowed to keep all the revenue it brings in from Colorado’s tax rates (among the lowest in the nation). After the five years, however, TABOR’s strictest-in-the-nation revenue limits will be put in place again. In addition, TABOR’s requirement that any tax increase be approved by the voters remains in place.
The Gallagher Amendment, passed in 1982, was designed to maintain a constant ratio between the property tax revenue that comes from residential property and from business property. To simplify a set of complex formulas, the effect of Gallagher was to reduce the assessment rate (the percent of property value that is subject to taxation) whenever statewide total residential property values increased faster than business property values. As a result of the Gallagher Amendment, the assessment rate for residential property has declined by more than two-thirds over the years because of Colorado’s population growth and because of increases in residential real estate values. The net effect has been a marked decline in revenues collected from property tax, which prior to Gallagher, provided the majority of school funding.
Schools are funded by a combination of local (property) and state revenues. The Gallagher Amendment formula has limited local revenues by cutting the residential assessment rate by two-thirds since its passage in 1982. From 1982 until 1992 districts could make up for the lower assessment rate by increasing their mill rate. In addition, the state had the flexibility to increase state spending to make up for losses in the local property tax contribution. But with the passage of TABOR in 1992, a combination of budget formulas made it increasingly difficult to fund schools: TABOR’s revenue limits automatically cut mill rates in districts across Colorado at the same time TABOR limited the state’s ability to prop up school funding with state dollars. As a result, total per pupil funding didn’t even keep up with the Consumer Price Index during the 1990s – even though Colorado’s economy was booming. Note that the combination of Gallagher and TABOR has shifted the burden of school funding from local property taxes to the State General Fund. Thus, the State’s General Fund provides more than 60% of school funding whereas it used to be less than 40%. This explains the dramatic increase in the portion of the General Fund now spent on schools.