Commentary

Colorado: a preview of North Carolina’s education future?

On Tuesday afternoon, the Senate Finance Committee passed SB 817, advancing a bill that proposes to amend the State Constitution by permanently capping the personal income tax rate at 5.5 percent.  While SB 817 is not exactly the same as Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), it shares the goal of seeking to severely limit North Carolina’s ability to expand or improve needed state services in future years.  Given the similarities between SB 817 and TABOR, I thought it would be revealing to look at the impact TABOR has had on Colorado’s public school system.

Colorado passed TABOR in 1992.  Since that time, the state has experienced a slow degradation of its public school system.  By almost every available measure, Colorado’s schools have regressed compared to other states since the passage of TABOR:

  • Average teacher pay: Between 1992 and 2015, Colorado’s average teacher pay rank has fallen from 23rd to 34th. In 1992, Colorado’s teachers earned, on average, 3% less than other teachers in the nation.  They now earn more than 13% less.
  • Per pupil expenditures: Not surprisingly, Colorado’s per pupil expenditures have experienced a similar decline, falling from 26th to 37th between 1992 and 2013.  The gap between Colorado’s per pupil expenditures and the national average has increased from $249 per student to $1,931 per student.
  • Funding effort: Funding effort can be measured by comparing a state’s public school expenditures (from state and local sources) to the size of the state’s economy (GSP). Colorado had been making the 37th best effort to fund its public schools in 1992.  By 2013, Colorado’s effort ranking had plummeted to 46th.  Colorado’s economy could easily support additional funding for its public schools if TABOR were lifted.
  • Math achievement: Colorado’s rankings on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 4th and 8th grade math assessments have fallen slightly. Between 1992 and 2015, Colorado fell from 17th to 22nd in 4th grade math and from 13th to 16th in 8th grade math.
  • White-Black Achievement Gap: Most troubling, Colorado is the only state in the country that has seen its white-black achievement gap increase in both math and reading at both the 4th and 8th grade levels. Nationally, the white-black achievement gap has been shrinking between 1992 and the present.  In Colorado, the achievement gap is actually increasing!

Artificial revenue caps like SB 817 and TABOR don’t just hurt overall performance, they also exacerbate inequality.  Existing research indicates that district-level funding disparities have increased in Colorado as a result of TABOR.  Artificial revenue caps like SB 817 and TABOR shift the responsibility for funding public schools from the state to local school districts.  Because wealth varies so greatly between school districts, shifting funding to the local level almost always exacerbates funding inequality.  If funding has shifted from poor districts to rich districts, that might be one explanation for Colorado’s shocking inability to improve its white-black achievement gap.

The experience in Colorado bodes poorly for North Carolina.  North Carolina already ranks below Colorado when it comes to average teacher pay and per pupil expenditures.  North Carolina’s funding effort rank of 43rd is similar to Colorado’s and indicates that SB 817 is a conservative “solution” in search of a problem.  Most notably, North Carolina’s schools won’t benefit from a proposal that will likely expand the spending gap between poor and wealthy school districts.  Per-student county spending in North Carolina’s ten highest-spending counties is already $2,211 higher than in the ten lowest-spending counties.

The data reviewed here should give policymakers pause.  If Colorado is any indication, delivering a high-quality education to every child and every community only becomes more difficult when arbitrary revenue caps are put in place.

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