Tag: Colorado

School Choice Week Grinches in Colorado

Just before National School Choice Week, Democratic state legislators in Colorado killed a school choice tax credit bill. The legislation would have granted tax credits to families with children in private schools worth up to half of the average per pupil spending at government schools or up to $1,000 for homeschoolers.

Democratic Senate President Morgan Carroll did not even give the legislation a fair hearing in the committee that normally takes up education or tax related bills. Instead he assigned it to the State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee, locally known as the “kill committee,” where it faced certain doom from legislators apparently impervious to the evidence:

Under SB 33, a family’s tax credit for full-time private tuition costs could not be more than half the state’s average per-pupil amount. While revenues to the treasury would decline,the official fiscal note showed that over time the limited credit amount would reduce state spending even more for each student who exercised an educational option outside the public system.

Still, Democrats on the committee were unconvinced. “I think it will actually detract from the funding of our public schools,” said Sen. Matt Jones (D-Louisville).

Colorado currently has a school voucher program operating in Douglas County.

School Choice Lawsuit Roundup

School choice advocates have been winning in the halls of state legislatures and in the court of public opinion, so opponents have taken to the courts of law. Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) that school vouchers are consistent with the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, opponents of choice have been scrambling to find novel reasons to challenge school choice programs. Here’s a brief summary of school choice lawsuits around the nation:

1) In Louisiana, the U.S. Department of Justice has sued to halt the state’s school voucher program, arguing that it hurts the desegregation effort. The DOJ’s already weak case was further undermined by a new study released today showing that school choice actually improves integration. Since 90 percent of the voucher recipients are black, the DOJ’s lawsuit would have the effect of keeping low-income blacks from attending the schools of their choice.

Earlier this year, Louisiana’s state supreme court ruled that the voucher program was unconstitutionally funded, but otherwise left the program intact. The governor and state legislators adjusted the funding mechanism in response.

2) Two days ago, a group of activists in Oklahoma sued the state over its special needs voucher program, arguing that it violates the state constitution’s ban on using public funds at religious schools. Last year, the state supreme court tossed out a challenge to the program by public school districts, ruling that they did not have standing since they are not taxpayers.

3) On the same day, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the state’s education savings account program, the first in the nation, is constitutional. Anti-school choice activists had argued that it violates the state constitution’s ban on publicly funding religious schools. The court held that students are the primary beneficiaries and that any “aid to religious schools would be a result of the genuine and independent private choices of the parents.” The decision will likely be appealed to the state supreme court.

Colorado High Court Rejects School-Finance Litigation

By a 4-2 margin, the Colorado Supreme Court has rejected a lawsuit claiming that the state’s method of funding public schools is unconstitutional. It overturned a lower court ruling that had held that the current arrangement of funding fails to meet a requirement in the Colorado constitution that the state operate a “thorough and uniform” system of education. [decision in State v. Lobato via KDVR coverage

For years, pushing their Lobato case in the court of public opinion, school-spending advocates have been decrying Colorado schools as underfunded. The state has been given a series of bad ratings on education scorecards, many of which turn out on inspection to measure quality by how much money is spent—thus ensuring that Colorado, which spends less than many other states, will come off badly. This one, for example, ranks Colorado at “C-minus” for reasons that include low overall spending, low teacher salaries, and the state’s failure to fund “induction, mentoring or reduced workloads for new teachers.” 

When you measure outputs as opposed to inputs, on the other hand, the state comes off looking far better. In this ranking of SAT scores, Colorado scores 15th among the 50 states, the best performance of any Western state. In this ranking based on 4th and 8th grade testing, Colorado comes in 11th among the 50 states, trailing only Washington among Western states. 

But modern school-finance litigation only poses as being about educational quality. Its deeper mission is control—specifically, transferring control over spending from voters and their representatives to litigators whose loyalty is to a mix of ideologues and interest groups sharing a wish for higher spending. As I wrote in a draft chapter on school finance litigation cut for space from my book Schools for Misrule:

In the forty years since the pioneering Serrano v. California (California Supreme Court, 1971) school finance lawsuits have been filed in nearly every state, courts in around half the states have thrown out existing finance systems as unconstitutional, and many of them have ordered states to raise school budgets, not merely change the way in which they are financed. Vast sums have been redistributed as a result. Lawmakers in Kentucky enacted more than a billion dollars in tax hikes. New Jersey adopted its first income tax. Kansas lawmakers levied an additional $755 million in taxes after the state’s high court in peremptory fashion ordered them to double their spending on schools.

While filed on a state-by-state basis, the suits have been very much a coordinated national project. For many years their impetus came from the Ford Foundation and its various grantees, notably the American Civil Liberties Union. Furnishing, presumably, the brains of the operation, law-school-based groups have been instrumental, particularly the Education Law Center at Rutgers Law School in New Jersey. …

The educational establishment had always resented the periodic need to go hat in hand – such a demeaning phrase! – to local electorates for tax and bond measures, as if the voters were somehow the bosses and they the servants. School finance litigation promised a more indulgent master, a jurist or panel of them who (it was hoped) would glance over the rows of costing-out numbers, nod appreciatively and feel good afterward about having done something for the children. … School finance litigation is the ultimate monument to the triumph of governance by litigation at the cost of democracy itself. 

Despite the victory in Colorado, there’s no reason to think this war of forty years’ duration (so far) is drawing to a close. 

Tax Revenues from Legal Marijuana Overstated

There are plenty of reasons to legalize marijuana. But one that has received perhaps too much attention is tax revenue. In this Cato Daily Podcast (Subscribe! via iTunes), senior fellow Jeff Miron argues that tax revenue estimates are simply too rosy.

Miron’s 2010 report, The Budgetary Impact of Ending Drug Prohibition, estimates that the overall fiscal impact (including tax revenue) of legalizing marijuana nationwide could be tens of billions of dollars, the revenue boost that legalization supporters trumpet is overstated.

Public Schools Cost More Than Americans Think

Imagine your business trying to decide whether to increase or decrease spending on marketing without knowing how much your company currently spends on marketing. Worse, imagine making that decision under the false impression that your company spends nearly half as much as it actually does. Sadly, that’s the state of the education funding debate nationwide, and the media often exacerbate the problem.

For example, in a news segment on Colorado’s NBC affiliate earlier this month, the reporter acts as though the amount of money spent per child in the public schools is a matter of political opinion to be legitimately debated rather than an empirical fact:

Like any good political debate, there are two sides to every single answer. When it comes to school funding, people have been wondering how much schools get to spend per student. That answer depends on who you ask.

The first person the reporter asked was Kathleen Gebhardt, the lead attorney in Colorado’s education adequacy lawsuit, who claimed that the public schools “receive an average of $6,474 per pupil in tax dollars.” How does that compare with other states? According to Gebhardt, “We’re in the top 10 for wealth and in the bottom 10 for funding our students.”

The reporter then gets a second opinion from Ben DeGrow, senior education policy analyst at the Independence Institute, who claimed that education funding is actually “closer to $10,000 per student.”

The media segment doesn’t give DeGrow an opportunity to explain how he reached that figure, instead turning to a laughing Gebhardt who chortles, “Oh, $10,000-a-year would be unimaginable for almost anybody in Colorado! It would be a nice problem to have, but it’s not one we currently have.”

So who was telling the truth? According to the reporter, no one can really know. He concludes the segment: “Like any good political debate, much of the issue will be addressed at the polls.”

After the segment aired, DeGrow explained how he and his counterpart arrived at their figures. Gebhardt’s figure didn’t account for all sources of tax revenue. In DeGrow’s words, “It is equivalent to counting only the primary breadwinner’s earnings as household income, even though about half as much more money comes in through a side job, home business and investment earnings.”

Moreover, the reporter was asking the wrong question. He wanted to know the amount of state tax dollars that public school districts receive per pupil. The more relevant question is what is actually spent per pupil, including local and federal sources of funding. Not surprisingly, that figure is even higher. According to a report from the Colorado Department of Education, Colorado’s average per-pupil expenditures total $12,181, nearly double the misleading figure given by Gebhardt.

But why mislead the public about how much public schools actually cost? The penultimate paragraph provides a clue:

On Election Day, voters in 31 school districts around the state will decide whether to raise property taxes to pump an additional $1 billion into the school system in the form of bond issues for buildings or mill levy overrides for operating budgets.

And what did voters decide?

Tuesday’s election saw voters in 29 Colorado schools districts approve 34 bond issues and operating revenue increases – plus one sales tax hike – worth just over $1 billion.

Would voters have decided as they did had they known how much money was actually spent per pupil? That’s impossible to know. But it’s also impossible to legitimately debate what the right level of public school funding should be when bureaucrats misinform the public about what public school funding currently is. A 2008 survey by Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance found that voters greatly underestimate how much public schools cost and that their funding preferences vary depending on whether they are accurately informed or not:

The average per-pupil spending estimate from respondents to the 2008 Education Next/PEPG survey was $4,231, and the median response was just $2,000; but for these respondents, local average spending per pupil at the time exceeded $10,000. When told how much the local schools were spending, support for increased spending dropped by 10 percentage points, from 61 percent to a bare majority of 51 percent.

Likewise, in PEPG’s 2011 survey, only 46% of informed respondents wanted to increase funding compared with 59% of uninformed (read: misinformed) respondents.

A part of the media’s job is looking at every claim with a gimlet eye. Sadly, this is far from the only case of the media replacing their self-proclaimed “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out” skepticism with “Rekab Street” credulity.

 

Colorado Court Halts School Voucher Program

Last Friday, a Colorado District Court halted the new and unique Douglas County school voucher program with a permanent injunction. School choice legislation is a little like the Field of Dreams: pass it, and they will sue–and we all know who “they” are. So there’s a tendency to dismiss legal setbacks for the choice movement as purely the result of self-serving monopolists exploiting bad laws or partisan, activist judges. There are certainly cases that fall into that category, but this Colorado ruling isn’t one of them.

Oh, the self-serving monopolists and opponents of educational freedom are no doubt cheering it, but the ruling does not read like the work of a rube or an ideologue, and not all of the state constitutional provisions on which it was based can be dismissed as outdated examples of religious bigotry. The state’s “compelled support” clause, in particular, seems to uphold a fundamentally American idea: that it is wrong to coerce people to pay for the propagation of ideas that they disbelieve. Thomas Jefferson, in his Virginia Declaration of Religious Freedom, called this: “tyranny.”

Obviously, conventional public schools have been a source of such coercion for a very long time–everyone has to pay for the public schools, despite profound objections they may have to the way those schools teach history, literature, government, biology, or sex education. That’s why we’ve had “school wars” as long as we’ve had government schools. And obviously vouchers offer the advantage of giving parents a much wider range of educational options for their children than do the one-size-fits few public schools. But despite this advantage, vouchers require all taxpayers to fund every kind of schooling, including types of instruction that might violate some taxpayers’ most deeply held convictions. That’s a recipe for continued social conflict over what is taught.

If there were no alternative to vouchers for providing school choice, perhaps it would make sense to have a debate over which freedoms should take precedence: the freedom of choice of families or the freedom of conscience of taxpayers–and then to sacrifice whichever one was deemed less worthy. But there is an alternative, and it does not require anyone to be compelled to support any particular type of instruction. I discuss this alternative, education tax credits, in a recent Huffington Post op-ed.

Aetna Exits Colorado’s Individual Market

According to the Denver Business Journal:

A spokeswoman for Aetna confirmed Monday that the insurer will no longer sell new individual-market health insurance policies in Colorado and will terminate current policies held by state residents no later than July 31, 2012.

Aetna had already announced that it will no longer sell child-only coverage or small-group coverage in the state.   Colorado is one of 34 states where insurers fled the market for child-only coverage as a result of ObamaCare.  Colorado took steps to try to stabilize its child-only market, and is considering requiring insurers to sell child-only coverage as a condition of selling coverage directly to adults.

Aetna isn’t commenting on whether ObamaCare played a role in its decision.   Aetna customers will have to switch plans by July 31, 2012.