Coloradans To Vote On Schools Initiative Mixing Funding, Reforms
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Tomorrow in Colorado, voters will decide on an ambitious ballot measure that would overhaul the state's public education system. It could become the first state to combine an income tax hike with education reforms all in one proposal. From Colorado Public Radio, here's Jenny Brundin.
JENNY BRUNDIN, BYLINE: In the final stretch of the campaign for Colorado's Amendment 66, Michael Bloomberg and Bill and Melinda Gates each donated $1 million. When that happens, you know that, one, the vote is going be close, and two, this isn't your typical tax increase.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Amendment 66 puts the money in the classroom.
BRUNDIN: The Gates and Bloomberg money is helping buy ads like this one that focus on pumping funds back into schools that lost a billion state dollars in the recession. But the measure is complex. It's been tricky explaining how Amendment 66 isn't just another tax hike.
GOVERNOR JOHN HICKENLOOPER: This one is different.
BRUNDIN: Here's how Colorado's Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper puts it.
HICKENLOOPER: This is delivering what Secretary Arne Duncan, the secretary of Education, said is the most comprehensive set of reforms in the history of the United States, right? This is going to set Colorado as the national model in public education.
BRUNDIN: Amendment 66 is predicated on the belief that a child's zip code shouldn't determine the quality of his or her education. It targets money at the kids who need it. Hickenlooper explains that high-poverty districts like Denver would get up to 40 percent more money per at-risk student because they're costlier to educate.
HICKENLOOPER: And that money follows the kid. For the first time in the United States, if a kid drops out, the school stops receiving money from the district at that moment.
BRUNDIN: A big incentive, the governor says, for schools to keep students from dropping out. The driving force behind the measure is a young Democratic senator from Denver, Mike Johnston. He says districts with low property tax bases would get more state funding.
SENATOR MIKE JOHNSTON: We have kids in the San Luis Valley who are going to school in bus barns, where they have plastic sheets that separate their classroom from the diesel fumes on the other side of the bus barn.
BRUNDIN: Backers say the extra money would also be targeted at programs that are proven to help students. Johnston focuses on four things - full-day kindergarten, thousands of new pre-school slots for at-risk kids...
HICKENLOOPER: Third is extended school days and school years. We have one of the shortest school years in the industrialized world. And the fourth is attracting and keeping highly effective teachers and principals.
BRUNDIN: Johnston calls Amendment 66 Colorado's grand bargain because the reforms like these come with money. Crucial, he says, in a state that spends well below the national average on students. But not a single Republican voted for the legislation that led to Amendment 66. Many don't like taxes at all, nor the two-tier progressive income tax the measure would set up. And Republican State Treasurer Walker Stapleton says there's not enough accountability.
WALKER STAPLETON: If you just give somebody a blank check without any deliverables associated with that, you're not going to get the improvements that you want to get.
BRUNDIN: But backers of Amendment 66 say it's anything but a blank check. They say Colorado would be the first state in the country to require complete transparency and an online system that tracks every dollar. But other critics like Republican Representative Polly Lawrence say Colorado's economy is too fragile now.
REPRESENTATIVE POLLY LAWRENCE: Burdening families right now is the wrong way to go with an initiative that does not guarantee a better outcome for our students in a global economy.
BRUNDIN: History shows that Coloradans don't like statewide tax measures. They've only approved one since 1992. For NPR News, I'm Jenny Brundin in Denver.
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