Colorado at a Crossroads: Two Visions of Education Reform

November 06, 2013

By Casey Given

For years, Colorado has been a Petri dish for political reform. From the Taxpayer Bill of Rights spending limit of the early 1990s to the innovative electioneering that turned the red state blue in 2008, conservatives and liberals alike have used the Centennial State as a laboratory for new ideas to be tested and later replicated across the country. This Colorado tradition will continue tonight when the state’s voters will choose between two radically diverging visions of education reform.

The first vision is one that Americans are all too familiar with, bloated school spending, repackaged in a completely new way. Coloradoans will be voting on Amendment 66, a ballot initiative to raise the state’s flat 4.63% individual income tax to a two-tiered progressive code with a marginal rate of 5.0% for income below $75,000 and 5.9% for everything above it. While tax hikes may seem like the third rail of politics, Amendment 66 just might cajole voters to acting against their fiscal self-interest because of what the dollars are tied to. Amendment 66’s $950 million new annual revenue will be exclusively spent on the state’s K-12 public schools according to the initiative’s text.

While showering schools with revenue may sound like a nice idea, this tactic of throwing money at a mediocre public education system has been tried endlessly throughout American history to no avail. Overall, the average total cost of putting a child through America’s public school system has doubled since 1970 after adjusting for inflation. Meanwhile, student performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress – widely accepted as America’s yardstick to measure academic achievement – has fallen flat.

This tenuous link between school spending and academic performance has been observed by academia as well. Eric Hanusek of Stanford University famously found no correlation between states’ per pupil funding and level of academic performance in a 1989 study and subsequent updates. Unfortunately, Colorado may just repeat history’s mistakes in the polling booth tonight by approving more spending without underlying institutional reforms needed to truly improve its schools.

Fortunately, one county in the state has cracked the right formula for education reform – which brings us to the second vision. Nestled just south of Denver, Douglas County is a large suburban district with a public school system of 65,000 students and a hundreds of parents hell-bent on reform. In 2009, a slate of four education reformers was elected onto the school board and began implementing a strategic plan for parents to exercise school choice and local control over their children’s education.

In 2011, the Board approved an opportunity scholarship program that allowed 500 students in the county to receive a voucher equivalent to three-quarters of the state’s per pupil funding to attend a private school of their choice. They were quickly sued for their effort at expanding school choice (the appeal is still ongoing), but that small speed bump did not stop the school board for implementing further reforms.

As the case made its way through the litigation process, the school system’s newly hired human resources officer implemented a merit pay system tying teacher pay to students’ academic progress. The Board also approved a new county-wide curriculum to complement the national Common Core State Standards that they describe as “more rigorous, more thorough, and more directly tailored to the needs of Douglas County students.” Finally last summer, the board did not renew its contract with the local teachers union, empowering educators with the freedom to seek representation from whatever labor group they see fit.

While these changes were quickly labeled as radical, many of them are tried and true education reforms. School vouchers, for example, have been found to boost high school graduation rates in major cities such as Milwaukee, New York, and Washington, D.C. Early data on quantitative teacher evaluations from Florida suggests that merit pay programs could be implemented successfully according Marcus A. Winters of the Manhattan Institute.

Granted, it’s still early to tell just how effective Douglas County’s reforms have been. However, the district’s voters will make a preliminary judgment tonight when they too enter the voting booth to elect a new school board. It is then that we will see whether the nation’s Petri dish will embrace the status quo of bloated school spending or continue to experiment with innovative school choice policies that shift institutional incentives towards providing children with the quality education they deserve. America waits with anticipation.

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