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November 7, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Is Colorado the new litmus test for education funding?

Jennifer Kohnke, Op-Art

Jennifer Kohnke, Op-Art

The political thumping Colorado voters gave an income tax hike to pay for education left many, including me, stunned. I’ll cop upfront to not having read a single advance or exit poll. I based my predictions of victory on the proposal’s strong merit. The education initiative, Amendment 66, would have revised the Colorado constitution to allow a nearly billion-dollar increase in state income taxes, money that would have bolstered considerably the state’s per-student spending on public schools. It was not meant to be a blank check with zero accountability. The measure would have changed how state education dollars are spent, including putting a budgetary emphasis on low-income, special education, and English-language-learners. Those are the right priorities and they are similar to weighted funding formulas used by many school districts here in Washington.

But on Tuesday, Coloradans were having none of that. Funny, they minded paying more taxes but had no problem imposing hefty taxes on recreational marijuana. Those seemingly contradictory choices are explored in this Associated Press story.

So what happened? Did Coloradans want good schools but decide they were not interested in paying for them? Or were they so opposed to any reforms that they were willing to pass up the money?  Or maybe voters have bigger fish to fry; this New York Times story chronicles efforts in one part of the state to secede and form a less-liberal state.

Making sense of the tax initiative’s political defeat has  huge implications for Washington state. The state Supreme Court’s order to the Legislature to fund a greater share of public education comes with the challenge of finding the money. Lawmakers appropriated nearly a billion extra to education spending’s bottom line but the mix of new and redirected dollars  was a feat that may prove impossible to repeat.  Plus, with needed investments in early learning, K-12 and higher education, a robust, dedicated revenue stream offers an  attractive long-term solution. But Washington has tried that before. Remember Initiative I-884? The 2004 initiative would have increased this state’s sales tax by 1% to build an education trust fund. Read the Times’ endorsement of that effort here. Nearly 60 percent of voters said no.

It would be great to shift the conversation away from the tired question: more money for schools or less? to what a sustainable and adequate funding system would look like. Part of the answer may lie a few states over.

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