Are low taxes shortchanging kids' education?

Filed under: Opinion |

Editor’s note: In December, the University of Denver announced the formation of the Colorado Economic Futures Panel to analyze the state’s fiscal situation and provide a platform for informed discussion and possible solutions. Sixteen business and civic leaders from across the state comprise the panel, including Dick Celeste, president of Colorado College. This is part of a series of columns that the panel plans to submit before completing the first phase of its work.

In an effort to just get the whole state government thing to go away, Colorado voters finally found a way to take all responsibility away from their elected Legislature.

Saying, “you can’t trust the b….s,” and after hamstringing state government with a bunch of conflicting tax limiting laws, Colorado voters decided to keep all the taxes dedicated for K-12 education and initiate home schooling.

That way, all the dollars can be kept at the local level-and controlled directly by those who benefit.

After all, study after study has indicated that the Colorado populace is just plain smarter than anyone else anywhere. So who better to teach the kids?

Colorado parents will just buy their own books. It’s all on the honor system. Aspen kids will get lot of books, computers and team sports. Antonito kids, well, if everybody in the state donates their newspaper when they’re on vacation, it’s a start.

If you don’t have kids, well, great, renovate your house! What’s great is that our governor and the Legislature won’t have to worry about achieving benchmarks for a quality education: You get to set your own benchmarks.

Seems absurd? Of course it is.

However, the Colorado Constitution requires the state to equalize K-12 education so that kids in poorer communities get dollars for education that can’t be raised locally. As important, we want to continue to be the best and brightest state in the country-that’s our reputation.

The payoff for our children and us is clear. If we’re smarter and better educated, and we don’t overwhelm our environment with too many of us, we get to have a future. A pretty nice one. Smarter workers, better jobs, beautiful Colorado.

Our Colorado Economic Futures Panel is taking a look at the web of tax policies that we have in place. One important area of consideration is K-12 education. The question on the table: if we keep doing what we are doing, what outcome can we expect?

Here’s what we’re doing. You be the judge.

It’s simple. A few guidelines will help.

As a share of your income, your total local and state taxes mean you’re paying less than citizens in 45 other states. That feels good.

About two-thirds of the taxes Coloradoans pay goes to the federal government. The remaining third is split about evenly between the state and local governments. Local taxes go for things that are more visible, like streets, parks, and schools. That feels good too, because you get to see where your property and local sales taxes go. The state gets the income tax from you and also state sales taxes. No property tax goes to the state.

About 40 percent of the sales and income taxes you pay to the state come back to local schools for K-12 education. That feels great.

We’re a wealthy state. We’re No. 7 in the nation in per capita personal income. Which makes us pretty high up there in the entire world.

So why are our schools and kids crying for something better? Why are you crying? Are we not getting what we are paying for? Or are we not paying enough? And if we are not paying enough, good grief, didn’t we pass Amendment 23 to get back on track?

Here’s some help.

Amendment 23, passed in 2000, assured us that we could beef up what goes to schools and kids. But in 2003 we ranked 34th in per pupil school spending in the United States, even after Amendment 23 passed.

Why?

Yes, we had a recession but so did everyone else.

The real reason is because Amendment 23, which finally, totally, exasperatingly made all of us think, well, yes, we can get this K-12 education thing funded, runs into problems with other tax policy-that we initiated, voted for and endorsed. In exasperation, we voted for those policies to get what we wanted. But we’re not getting what we wanted.

We’re hung up. Our good-hearted piling on of citizens’ initiatives and legislation has created a mess.

Cathey Finlon is CEO of McClain Finlon Advertising and a partner in Linhart McClain Finlon Public Relations.