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What Colorado's Amendment 66 Says About American Public School Spending

October 07, 2013 J

By Casey Given

Last month, I critiqued the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’(CBPP) exaggeration of public school budget cuts that is becoming all too common among tax-and-spend special interests these days. Today, I’d like to give a current example of these deceptive arguments in action – the ongoing fight over Colorado’s Amendment 66.

In September, a group called Colorado Commits to Kids successfully petitioned for a ballot initiative to be voted on in November that would restructure the Centennial State’s currently tax code to raise more revenues for public schools. Amendment 66 would make Colorado’s currently flat 4.63% individual income tax progressive. Coloradans earning $75,000 or less would be taxed 5.0%, while those earning more would be taxed 5.9% — a 27% increase for the top marginal rate. Every dime of Amendment 66’s $950 million of new revenue according to supporters would be spent on K-12 education to restore funds from the state’s “more than $1 billion in budget cuts” according to Colorado Commits’ website—even though there is no way to guarantee a revenue funding stream within the Colorado budget.

Coloradans should be warned that the state’s special interests are using CBPP’s infamous recipe to cook the books. While it is true that the state has made several cuts since 2008’s economic downturn, Colorado Commits ignores revenues from other sources such as the federal and state governments. When comprehensively considering all sources, public school revenues and expenditures have only increased over the past several years, as seen in the state’s own data. In fact, Colorado’s per pupil public school expenditures have grown at a rate faster than both the state’s gross domestic product and personal income, as seen by the chart below.

But even if Colorado had made such drastic slashes as the teachers’ union would have you believe, is it really unreasonable for a state to cut its budget during an economic downturn?  Indeed, so much of Colorado Commits’ campaign is grounded in the notion that more spending is a cure-all to the state’s education woes. This has not been seen historically, and it is still not apparent today.

Historically, public school spending across the country has nearly doubled since 1983 after adjusting for inflation while test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have remained roughly the same. Today, one quick look at the latest NAEP scores is enough to see that academic performance is largely uncorrelated to school spending. While Colorado ranks seventh among the states for eighth grade performance on reading, for example, 40 states who that academically fare worse spend more per pupil. Similar figures can be drawn for both fourth and eighth grade math.

Sadly, Amendment 66’s tax-and-spend education solution is not an isolated instance in one state. For years, teachers unions have pushed aside educational innovations like school choice and online learning in favor of simply more spending on the status quo. Of course, small school spending hikes are natural to keep up with enrollment increases and inflation. However, what this money is spent for (i.e. school choice and accountability versus tenure and union dues) is more important as how much is being spent. Until the American education community fully understands this truism, taxpayer dollars will continue to be squandered on a mediocre education system.

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