Fully funding Colorado’s schools is like the worst game of tag ever…and it has to end

Watching Colorado voters and legislators try to fully fund our schools is like watching a bunch of middle-aged adults play the game tag in the movie so brilliantly titled…Tag.

It’s utterly ridiculous and exhausting.

In any case, here’s how it’s gone down over the last year.

In his final State of the State address back in January, Gov. Hickenlooper acknowledged the constraints on the state budget to fund our schools by pointing to Amendment 23, which requires that education spending increase by population and inflation. He said this despite the fact that the  budget stabilization factor has left many questioning whether our legislature has satisfactorily funded education at that level level since the Great Recession.



TAG to legislators, who, in April, introduced the School Finance Act, which would increase the statewide base per-pupil funding for the 2018-19 budget year by $222.57 to account for inflation.

TAG back to Hickenlooper who signed the bill on May 24th, and two days later tagged voters by suggesting that taxpayers lift the cap on TABOR to funnel more money into schools.

More than 179,000 registered voters accepted the challenge (sort of) in July when they instead offered their signatures of support for a $1.6 billion tax increase that all voters would have a chance to approve during the midterm election. Funding advocates felt this would be an easier ballot measure for voters to connect with than the complicated TABOR cap-lift.

But with the failure of Amendment 73 (the $1.6 billion tax referendum) on Tuesday, voters retagged legislators and school districts and once again put the onus back on them to find more money for schools.


Whiplash yet? Or just plain exasperated? Tag is after all one of the only games I know that can bore you to death while sucking the life out of you at the same time.

The point is, we can’t keep playing the game that never ends. While voters and legislators continue to strike back at each other over and over again, the real losers end up being kids. With no increase in statewide funding, we’re once again forced to navigate the inequities exacerbated by local control. The fact is, along with Amendment 73, voters in dozens of districts also decided whether or not to fund schools through a taxpayer bond and or mill. And as usual, kids either won or lost depending on their zip code and the disposable incomes therein.

So how do we generate and steward the funds needed to give every child — regardless of their zip code, academic ability or family’s finances — a fair shot at a great education?  

It’s time to update the school funding formula. The formula was written in 1994, the same year students were first introduced to Netscape Navigator. And just like Netscape, that same demographic of students doesn’t exist anymore. The archaic formula considers a variety of factors including district size and cost-of-living factors, but largely at the expense of growing groups of students such as English language learners, students with special needs and those from low-income backgrounds.

The closest we may have come to a more equitable formula may have been last February when Colorado’s school district superintendents proposed a new formula and worked with lawmakers to write a bill. But sadly, it hinged on voters dumping more money into the pot this past Tuesday.

As we rest at a standstill, we should look around the country to see how others have played the funding game.

  • Last year in Illinois, they embraced the art of compromise, realizing that the best solution was one in which no one was going to be 100 percent satisfied. By moving to an evidence-based model, lawmakers on neither the left nor the right gained everything they wanted, but the new formula does allow state money to be more fairly allocated to districts lacking a strong tax base. While some might say it’s hardly perfect, more than 50 percent of funds this year were distributed to low-income school districts.
  • In 2003, Vermont recognized that sharing is caring when they updated the Equal Educational Opportunity Act 60 to Act 68. While it placed a significant burden on the state to fund its schools, it also compelled local districts to support each other by limiting wealthy districts’ ability to raise additional local funds for themselves without also providing extra support for less-affluent school communities. Equitable funding champions at EdBuild praise Vermont as “near-unique in the United States for its decoupling of education funding levels from local property wealth.”
  • Closer to home in Wyoming, not only did the state assume greater responsibility for funding through a statewide property tax, it also made it possible to take extra local revenue from wealthy districts and share it with less advantaged school districts.

Now I get it, here in Colorado, we’re tied up in some of the toughest red tape there is, with constitutional amendments that both restrict how much tax revenue the state can spend, how it generates those taxes to begin with, and how the state spends the money it actually receives.

But again, the back and forth has got to stop. Perhaps the one thing other states have figured out that we haven’t is that no one entity can be tagged with the full responsibility of funding schools alone.

Maybe they finally huddled together and decided that a win for all kids would require collaboration, compromise and sacrifice on the part of themselves. And maybe, just maybe, they replaced the question of “Who’s it?” with “Who’s in?”

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