Dueling education stats as possible tax hike looms

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Brad Jones Contributor
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Colorado’s schools are either funded near the bottom of the national rankings, or K-12 schools get an average bite at the apple. So, which is it? The answer depends on who you ask — and where they stand on a tax increase referendum.

The state ranks no better than 40th in eight different categories highlighted by Great Education Colorado, a group concerned with “chronic under-funding of public education.” Or is it 26th, as measured by the libertarian Independence Institute? And how do those numbers square with the fact Colorado spends 40 percent of its state budget on education?

For those who see the education spending glass half-empty, statistics that factor spending versus per-capita income or simply per capita yield dismal results. Great Education Colorado has the state at 49th on both counts, though to complicate the picture, some measures include higher-ed subsidies, too. By tallying spending against population and income — both of which are on the rise — the assumption is that education spending must increase at a similar pace.

The group is pushing for an income tax increase and minimum spending mandate for K-12 education on this November’s state ballot as Amendment 66.

Not so fast, says the Independence Institute, a think tank which has opposed tax hikes for education. They cite numbers that place Colorado in the middle of the pack for per-pupil spending, which is not calculated relative to the adult population or their income.

For the 2011-12 school year, that has Colorado just below the national average, spending just over $10,000 per student.

Demonstrating the power of selectivity, those numbers are straight from a study by the National Education Association, a prominent proponent of greater school spending. The NEA’s state affiliate is a major backer of Amendment 66.

A summary of arguments for Amendment 66 in the state voter guide, or “blue book,” includes the assertion that “The additional money provided in this measure allows local boards of education to target areas where research suggests that investments are likely to produce improved student outcomes.”

History suggests more spending may be loosely — if at all — related to student performance. While spending on primary and secondary education has nearly doubled since 1983, standard measures of student achievement have remained flat.

Another challenge with computing education spending rankings lies in the myriad sources from which K-12 money flows; many rankings include only state dollars. An analysis by the conservative group Americans for Prosperity shows Colorado per-pupil spending increasing 6 percent in 2012 when all sources are included.

But the most important number in the short term is the vote count on election day. Colorado voters historically have rejected more education-related tax increases than they’ve supported, though that doesn’t count dozens of local district elections to keep excess revenues or increase property taxes.

The last successful state tax increase passed in the name of education was Referendum C, floated in 2006. However according to a recent analysis by The Denver Post, Amendment 66 lacks the “star power” of Ref. C, where a Republican governor led the charge. Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper supports Amendment 66, but hasn’t gone out of his way to campaign heavily for it.

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