Colorado Amendment 66 Attempts to Increase School Quality, Voters Not On Board with Changing Tax System

The following post was written by Monica Bandy, education policy analyst for the Alliance for Children and Families Public Policy Office. She is a graduate student and a former Head Start teacher who has been closely monitoring proposed early childhood education reform.

Colorado Amendment 66, a ballot initiative defeated in the recent election, sought to increase funding for education from pre-K through 12th grade. In a time when no state wants to increase taxes, Amendment 66 was an effort to address the tradeoff between keeping spending increases low and strengthening the Colorado school system. The amendment proposed a two-tiered tax, a departure from the state’s current flat tax of 4.63 percent to increase school competitiveness. Amendment 66 would have taxed income of $75,000 or less at 5 percent and income above $75,000 at 5.9 percent. The tax increase would have raised an estimated $950 million for schools. The ballot initiative failed with 66 percent of voters voting no, and 34 percent voting yes.

Proponents of the amendment included Governor John Hickenlooper who implored Colorado voters to support Amendment 66’s significant reforms to Colorado schools so that Colorado could become “a national model for public education.” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan also praised the amendment. Money from the additional revenue generated by the tax increase would have helped strengthen the Colorado school system by: reducing class sizes, restoring music and art programs that had been previously cut, increasing funding for pre-school and full-day Kindergarten programs, as well as providing additional support to charter schools. The ballot initiative also promised a website to track spending.

Ultimately, the prospect of a tax increase and the switch to a two-tiered tax system proved unpalatable for Colorado voters. As the U.S.s struggles to recover from the Great Recession, many voters weren’t ready to commit to increased taxes. Opponents of the amendment feared that the money generated by the tax would go to fund administrators instead of teachers, and worried that funds could possibly get redistributed unfairly. Critics were also concerned that the amendment focused solely on increasing funding for programs, and not on outcomes for students. Finally, there was just too much uncertainty about the gains from the bill for Colorado voters to agree to change their tax system.

The tax increase along with the change in the structure of the tax system (from flat to two-tiered) proved to be too much of an upfront investment for voters in exchange for the hope of an improved school system. Investments in public education are critical, but voters want to make sure that any new investments are smart, and that they can afford it. Voters want to be assured that they will get the best return on investment possible. As states continue to seek affordable ways to strengthen their education systems, voters will be looking for reforms that get results at an affordable cost.

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