Will Coloradans back higher taxes for schools?

A still from a Colorado "Yes on 66" ad.

Colorado voters are deciding a closely-watched ballot initiative on Election Day 2013. Amendment 66 (A66) would raise income taxes in two tiers, depending on a resident’s incom, in order to pump $950 million more into pre-K-through-12 public education in the state. The vote’s considered by many to be a nationwide bellwether as to whether voters will pay more in taxes, to get a bigger, better school system, after years of budget cuts.

Lately, Colorado’s airwaves have been full of ads like this, in favor of A66.

And this, opposed to the measure.

Advocates of A66 say nearly a billion dollars in new taxes will boost teaching staffs and preschools, and lower class sizes. They say it’ll also help low-income students, by providing more money to educate at-risk kids and English-language-learners, in neighborhoods that don’t have a high enough property-tax base to adequately support their schools under the current state education-funding formula.

Opponents say A66 will boost bureaucracy, benefiting unionized teachers and administrators, not kids. They also charge that promised educational reforms aren’t real, and that performance measures are inadequate to guarantee improvement in educational outcomes.

The amendment, if it passes, would depart from Colorado’s flat tax, adopted in the mid-1980s, in favor of a progressive income tax in which those with higher income pay more. According to the Colorado Fiscal Institute, A66 would amend the Colorado personal income tax code as follows: Currently, Coloradans pay a state income tax of 4.63 percent. Under Amendment 66 the rates would be 5 percent on taxable income up to $75,000, and 5.9 percent on income over $75,000. The Colorado Fiscal Institute says approximately 70 percent of Colorado households earn less than $75,000 in taxable income and would only be affected by the 5.0 percent rate.

In the well-funded pro-A66 campaign, interest groups that often oppose each other find themselves on the same side: advocates of higher taxes on the rich, and many business groups; teachers unions, and supporters of charter schools.

Isabel Sawhill co-directs the Brookings Institution's Center on Children and Families and the Budgeting for National Priorities Project. “Taxes are highly unpopular,” says Sawhill. “So Colorado has found a popular purpose for spending new money, which is improving education.”

Sawhill says this may be a sign that fiscal conservatives will back higher taxes, in some cases, if the payoff is tangible education reform that doesn’t significantly strengthen the hand of teachers' unions.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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