Colorado voters this fall will determine the fate of a popular proposal designed to add funds to the state’s school classrooms. Organized education interest groups favoring the status quo face an uphill battle to persuade voters to reject the measure.
The initiative sponsored by First Class Education (FCE)–a grassroots group headquartered in Washington, DC–seeks to amend the Colorado State Constitution to require school districts to spend 65 percent of their operational budgets on classroom instruction. Supporters say more than $425 million could be redirected to Colorado classrooms to help students, without additional funding or a tax increase.
Between September 2005 and late March, FCE petitioners turned in more than 100,000 signatures supporting the measure. The Colorado Secretary of State has certified the question for the November 2006 ballot.
FCE also has introduced ballot initiatives in Arizona, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Washington. Similar proposals have been approved by legislative action in Georgia and Louisiana, and by executive order in Texas.
Questioning the Premise
FCE Executive Director Tim Mooney said the proposal gives school boards latitude within the 65 percent requirement. It also would allow a district that is legitimately unable to increase its classroom spending to apply for a waiver from the governor.
“We’re just setting the strike zone,” Mooney said. “A majority of money comes from the state, so this is a form of statewide accountability that preserves local control.”
The state teachers union, however, rejected the plan’s premise.
“It is a rigid, one-size-fits-all proposal,” said Deborah Fallin, spokeswoman for the 37,000-member Colorado Education Association (CEA). “It is being sold as putting more money into the classroom, but it really doesn’t. It is little more than an accounting procedure which takes away financial control from locally elected school boards.”
Debating the Effects
Other groups agreed.
“I don’t think anyone can make a serious policy argument that this is a good idea,” said Ken DeLay, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards (CASB). “Sixty-five percent is just something they pulled out of a hat because a few places meet it and most don’t.”
FCE borrowed the “instructional expenditures” definition from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which includes salaries and benefits for teachers and teacher aides, textbooks, classroom supplies, field trips, athletic activities, and special education reimbursements. The Colorado proposal also counts toward the 65 percent goal money spent on school libraries and librarians.
Colorado Gov. Bill Owens (R) publicly supports the 65 percent ballot proposal. At a February 20 State Capitol ceremony, he became the 100,000th Coloradoan to sign his name in support of First Class Education.
“It would ensure that students and teachers would be the first priority when it comes to funding, … not administration,” Owens said. “I’m proud that Colorado is part of a national effort to improve classroom funding.”
Dinging Small Districts?
DeLay said the plan’s appeal of reducing bureaucratic overhead is directed at the wrong source.
“We don’t have administrators so they can sit in hot tubs and feather their nests,” DeLay said. “We put people on staff to write reports because that’s what we have to do for federal and state compliance.”
The FCE Web site chronicles school district waste and opportunities for savings to meet the 65 percent requirement. Mooney said some districts would try to cheat, though they would be “cheating against the will of the voters.”
DeLay said only large school districts would have the resources to adapt and use “creative accounting” to meet the constitutional spending formula.
“The smaller districts will get dinged,” DeLay said, adding that districts with older facilities that require more maintenance and districts pursuing creative reforms may be hampered by the constitutional mandate.
Sizing Up Differences
Mooney said FCE research found no correlation between a district’s size or setting (rural vs. urban) and the percentage of resources spent on classroom instruction.
DeLay dismissed the significance of the finding.
“How you come out [in the category] is dependent on a whole host of factors that have nothing to do with whether you’re doing a good job or not,” DeLay said.
Challenging Plan’s Popularity
A March 2005 poll by the Virginia-based survey and database company ccAdvertising found nearly 86 percent of Colorado voters support FCE, and 75 percent are more likely to select a candidate who supports the proposal. A nationwide Harris survey conducted in November 2005 showed 79 percent favor the FCE initiative, with greatest support among racial minorities, women, and those living in the western United States.
In Colorado, foes of the proposed 65 percent spending mandate believe they can overcome its early popularity.
“It’s about educating people about the measure,” said Fallin. “We are confident that when school employees and the public understand what this proposal will and will not do for schools and students, they will reject it for what it is–a funding gimmick which will do nothing to improve student achievement.”
“Ask any teacher if $8,000 more in her classroom is a gimmick,” Mooney said. “They say, ‘I’ll take two, please.'”
Mooney conceded little evidence exists to demonstrate that a greater share of funds in the classroom would boost academic performance. However, he challenged the critics, who he said have little evidence to bolster their agenda.
“We’re hearing this from people who just want to spend more money on education,” Mooney said. “Our response is, ‘Can you say that a little louder?'”
State Rep. Michael Merrifield (D – Manitou Springs) has introduced H.B. 1283, an alternative to FCE that would require school districts to spend 75 percent of their operating budgets on “services that directly affect student achievement.” The bill uses a broader definition than NCES’s, adding counselors, health services, food services, transportation, staff training and professional development, curriculum and assessment services, and building administrators’ salaries into the 75 percent requirement. The CEA publicly testified in support of H.B. 1283 before the House Education Committee on March 10.
Legislative staff reports showed 162 of 178 Colorado school districts already comply with the expansive 75 percent requirement. By comparison, FCE figures showed only four districts met the proposed 65 percent standard in 2002-03. NCES data indicate Colorado spent 57.3 percent in the classroom that year, ranking the state 48th in the nation.
Mooney said passage of Merrifield’s bill would not rule out the need for FCE. He said the separate 65 percent and 75 percent requirements could be compatible. At press time, the Colorado General Assembly was still considering H.B. 1283.
Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Golden, Colorado, and author of the recent publication, “Counting the Cash for K-12: The Facts about Per-Pupil Spending in Colorado,” available online at http://www.i2i.org/articles/IB_2006_A_web.pdf.
For more information …
For more on First Class Education, visit its Web site at http://www.firstclasseducation.org.
Information on House Bill 1283 is available at the Colorado General Assembly Web site, http://www.leg.state.co.us.