New Finance Paper Sheds Light on Complicated Issues

Just last week, we were talking about the record number of local school-related tax increases on the ballot and how those increases fit in the context of school finance overall. I even had a reader named Larry write in to correct me on a misspelling of Michael Phelps’ name. I incorrectly thought his name was Michael Phelp (with no “s”). I suppose that’s what I get for not watching swimming. I am dreadfully ashamed of the error, and hope Mr. Phelps (and Larry) can find it in his heart to forgive me.

Fortunately, I won’t need to make any swimming references today. Instead, I’d like to continue the conversation on Colorado school finance by briefly highlighting a new issue paper published by my Independence Institute policy friend Ross Izard.

Ross recently published an enormous paper entitled “Counting the Cash Again: An Update on Colorado School Finance.” As the name implies, this is not the Independence Institute’s first paper on the subject. Former Senior Education Policy Analyst Ben DeGrow, who now lives somewhere in a frozen land called “Michigan,” wrote a similarly titled paper back in 2006 and a shorter update in 2008. Though most of the underlying arguments remain the same, much has changed in the world of Colorado school finance since those papers were published. This new paper is designed to help bring folks who may be struggling to grasp complicated finance conversations up to speed with current information, figures, and research.

The paper starts by laying out a detailed overview of the Colorado school finance system, an understanding of which is required to have any meaningful conversations on the subject of school funding. If you’ve ever wondered how the heck school finance even works in Colorado or felt confused by the entire concept of the “negative factor,” you’ll want to start here.

The paper then covers some unique funding situations, including those faced by many charter schools in our state. It also provides updated numbers on Colorado school finance, including the fact that, after accounting for all revenue rather than just the portion of revenue allocated to districts under the School Finance Act, Colorado schools bring in more than $10.5 billion, or nearly $12,500 per student, each year. Wowzer. And I thought I was rich with $20 in my pocket!

Ross goes on to examine Colorado’s recent school finance history, rankings on various measures of school funding, and the latest research and evidence on whether or not funding increases will lead to greatly improved student outcomes. Through a combination of Colorado-specific evidence, empirical research, and a number of case studies—including one here in Denver that we’ve discussed before—he concludes that we probably ought to look elsewhere for solutions if we’re serious about improving education in our state. Big surprise, I know.

But I think the most interesting thing about the new paper is the fact that it dives into a facet of school finance that I think is too often ignored: Why we’re in this situation—assuming we’re willing to admit we’re in a “situation” at all—in the first place. Ross makes the case that the wording of Amendment 23, which was pushed by school funding advocates way back before I was born, and the massive expansion of government spending obligations in health care have led us to this point. In fact, K-12 education and health care spending (i.e., spending related to Medicaid, which now covers roughly one in four Coloradans thanks to the state’s insistence on participating in the expansion of that program) are now locked in near-direct competition with one another.

If I were a more cynical edu-tot, I might point out the supreme irony of the fact that we are now watching the same group of people who tend to favor greatly expanded government spending watch their K-12 funding hopes break against the rocks of other expensive government programs they likely supported. It’s nearly poetic in some ways. But it’s Friday, so we won’t go there. Instead, I’ll leave you to curl up with Ross’s paper, ponder how tall a stack of 10.5 billion one dollar bills would be, and enjoy your weekend.

I’ll see you back here next week.