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September 17, 2013
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Education reform bill authors pitch ballot measure

GLENWOOD SPRINGS — The return on investment in early childhood education that would come with voter approval of Amendment 66 could be seen in about three years, as fewer children will need costly intervention programs to bring them up to speed when they reach third grade, according to the lead proponent of the measure.

That’s one of the key selling points of the $1 billion-per-year income tax proposal that is before Colorado voters in the Nov. 5 election, said state Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, who was in Glenwood Springs Tuesday, along with state Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Summit County, to explain the ballot initiative.

By creating more slots for children to take advantage of the Colorado Preschool Program, and making full-day kindergarten tuition-free across the state, students will get an important head start in their education, Johnston said.

That can translate to a savings of $6,000 per student that won’t need to be spent on academic intervention and special education referrals when a child falls behind or has learning disabilities that can be addressed sooner, he said.

“Under this system, we will incur far more costs later if we don’t make this investment now,” Johnston said before a group of local school board members and district officials. Fewer than 20 members of the public also attended the information session at Glenwood Springs High School.

The Roaring Fork Re-1 school board is slated to discuss whether to take a position on Amendment 66, during an afternoon board meeting today in Carbondale.

Garfield Re-2 school board member Anne Guettler, who also attended the Tuesday session with Re-2 Superintendent Susan Birdsey, said her board will likely have that same discussion, either at its Sept. 24 or Oct. 8 meeting.

Hamner was the Colorado House sponsor of Johnston’s Senate Bill 213, which laid out a major overhaul of the state’s education finance system. Amendment 66 would provide the funding mechanism for the new system, via an increase in the state’s income tax rate.

“Colorado is not doing a very good job of funding our schools,” said Hamner, noting that the state spends $2,500 less per student than the national average after consecutive years of education cuts totaling about $1 billion.

“This is a package that I’m fully confident will solve the problem of education funding in our state,” she said of the measure.

Johnston said it can be accomplished by increasing state income taxes about $133 per year for the average wage earner in Colorado.

Several lessons were learned after the state’s voters roundly defeated another education funding proposal, Proposition 103 two years ago, he said.

People want to know that the money is going to K-12, and that it will stay with K-12, he said. They also want to know where in the system the money is going and what it will do to improve education outcomes, he said.

“This is unique because it’s not just, ‘Give us the dollars and trust us,’” Johnston said of Amendment 66. “This is an investment with a real focus on outcomes and transparency.”

The measure also sets up an accountability system that will track student outcomes.

Still, some in the audience Tuesday, including some local school board members, remained skeptical that Amendment 66 will do all that it proposes to do.

Dave Merritt of Glenwood Springs, who chairs the Garfield County Republican Party, questioned whether Colorado should compare itself to the national average in per-pupil funding. He said that number is skewed because of state’s that spend far more on K-12 education with no better outcomes than Colorado.

“It’s not our goal to try to spend the most on education of any state in the country,” Johnston said. “What we want is the best outcomes in the country, and to invest wisely to try to achieve that.”

Roaring Fork Re-1 board member Daniel Biggs said he’s still not convinced Amendment 66 is the solution.

“Maybe it’s a step in that direction,” Biggs said. “But I still struggle with how all the promises that are being made will be paid for.”

That burden will likely fall to local school districts, he said.

“It seems like this is just the initial tax, and we’re probably going to see a lot more [local] taxes coming,” Biggs said.

Hamner said Amendment 66 is only meant to take care of the state’s funding for K-12 education across the board. It’s still up to local school districts to decide what programs to support and to supplement it if necessary.

“We do have to be careful with the message on some of the aspects of this campaign, because some of these decisions will be local decisions,” she said.

jstroud@postindependent.com


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The Post Independent Updated Sep 18, 2013 10:27AM Published Sep 19, 2013 01:55PM Copyright 2013 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.