Coloradans looking to bolster education funding throughout the state may be one step closer to their goal, as the Great Schools, Thriving Communities campaign turned in more than 170,000 signatures to the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office on July 11.
The signatures provide support for placing Initiative 93 on the November ballot. The initiative would raise $1.6 billion for public education, mostly by an increase to the income tax of those making more than $150,000 a year and for “C” corporations — any corporations that are taxed separately from their owners — getting Colorado closer to the national average in terms of education funding. Currently the state gives about $5 billion to school districts.
For the past six months, volunteers throughout the state set out to collect 98,492 valid signatures in support of the ballot initiative. The number turned in exceeds that goal and the Secretary of State’s Office has 30 days to verify the signatures’ validity. The office must also verify that enough valid signatures came from each state Senate district — about 3,000 minimum from each of the 35 districts.
“I am overly excited and so proud of all those people that have stepped up and done outstanding work,” said Donald Anderson, of Fort Collins.
Anderson and Boulder resident Martha Olson are the proponents on the citizen document.
“I think the other thing in addition to the excitement of getting this far is to emphasis how crucial this is to Colorado schools,” Olson added. “The funding was cut in the recession and never recovered. This is the time.”
The Great Schools, Thriving Communities campaign is made up of a coalition of education-connected organizations working to advance better and more equitable funding of public schools through a ballot initiative in 2018.
Great Schools, Thriving Communities is based on three principles: Every student needs the opportunity to reach their full potential and to participate meaningfully in the civic and economic life of the community; the Colorado way of life should be about every student having the chance to succeed regardless of their zip code or their learning needs; and a strong economy requires quality public education as it develops a quality workforce that will drive a vibrant Colorado economy for decades to come.
The new funding is aimed at making up for millions of dollars in lost funding over the past decade.
Olson and Anderson found their path as education activists in different ways.
Anderson, a stay-at-home dad, was volunteering at schools and got involved in the State Advisory Council for Parent Involvement in Education — which gave him a broader view of education in Colorado.
“I’m very passionate about kids having the opportunities out there to be the best that they can be,” Anderson said. “I got started looking at the student view and the opportunities missed in Colorado.”
For Olson, a former teacher and administrator, concerns about schools going to four days a week and the lack of ability to provide free full-day kindergarten made her take action.
“Looking at youngest children, all the research says the sooner they can get into a rich learning environment the better,” Olson said. “If we want to close learning gaps we need to start young. And we don’t even provide a free kindergarten. We are handicapping a whole generation of young people. Sometimes I get worried that we don’t even know what we are doing by not funding our schools.”
The initiative would address these shortfalls by providing an additional $1,000 per child to each school district; providing for full-day kindergarten and increasing the amount of revenue going to early childhood education funding; expanding the definition of “at-risk” students to count free and reduced lunch kids; and increasing the amount of funds passing from the state to local districts for English-language learners, special education, and gifted and talented students.
“Our initiative is about trying to solve a statewide funding issues to make sure all students are able to benefit,” said Susan Meek, a Douglas County resident and communications director for Great Education Colorado, a grassroots activism group aimed at stimulating wise investment in Colorado’s public schools, colleges, and universities.
One way this initiative does that is by allowing each school district to determine how to spend the extra dollars in a way that benefits their community.
For Bret Miles, who works with 12 school districts in the northeast corner of the state, this means looking at courses that have been cut, increased class sizes and decreased personnel due to decreased funding over the years. With districts ranging from 120 students in K-12 to 750 students throughout a district, the northeast corner is home to some of the smallest districts in the state.
“Right away with this passing, each district will get to have a conversation about what we get to restore,” Miles said. “I think that’s really the beauty of this initiative. Each district gets to come up wth their own solution. Each community can sit down and say what is our need, our priority as a school district.”
Miles said one area extra funds will go toward is increased salary for educators.
“It’s no question,” he said. “In our neck of the woods we have such a tough time competing with the metro area with salaries. So that’s good for our teachers, prospective teachers, and the community, because instead of our teachers renting the tiniest house in town, they can buy.”
But those in opposition to the initiative have doubts that the money collected from taxpayers will benefit students.
“There’s also absolutely no evidence that this will improve Colorado schools,” said Linda Gorman, an economist with the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Denver. “All this money goes into an education slush fund and can be used for any purpose … There’s no guarantee that any of this money will be used to help the average students out.”
In Jefferson County Public Schools, the second largest school district in the state and home to 86,000 students, the initiative would mean an additional $134.4 million a year for the district. This year Jeffco recived $353 million in state revenue. Superintendent Jason Glass said a portion of that would be designated toward salaries to attract and retain quality teachers. Glass said the district would also likely look at increased counseling services and programming that focuses on career and college readiness.
Getting to the ballot
But the road to the ballot has been more difficult than past initiatives.
Amendment 71, which passed in 2016, calls for ballot initiatives in Colorado to turn in valid signatures representing 2 percent of voters from each of the 35 Colorado Senate districts. Initiative 93 is the first to attempt this higher standard.
“It was called Raise the Bar, and it did,” said Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado. “It increases the cost in time and funding significantly when you have to make sure you have valid signatures in very specific areas.”
But Weil said there was an energy around the state that kept the momentum going.
“It’s breathtaking how people stepped up,” Weil said. “Without the energy and commitment of people all around the state, it would have been impossible.”
One initiative 93 volunteer is Cathy Kipp, who serves on the school board in Fort Collins. Kipp personally collected more than 4,000 signatures in her area and in the Western Slope.
“Funding is such a challenge,” Kipp said. “This actually gets something done. This makes change. To me, it’s incredibly important because everyone wants good schools, but nobody wants to pay for it.”
The initiative also gained momentum in April when educators throughout the state and the nation were rallying at the Capitol for more funding.
“That was very energizing — teachers willing to speak up and talk about the issues,” Anderson said. “All that gives me joy, but I’m also looking ahead and November is a ways away.”
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