A+ Denver CEO Van Schoales reflects on lessons that supporters of school finance reform should learn from the failure of the school tax measure Amendment 66. And join EdNews for a panel discussion on the future of school finance in the wake of Amendment 66 Tuesday evening at 6 p.m. RSVP here.
Reform-minded school board candidates swept the largest districts in the state for the first time ever. At the same time, voters rejected Amendment 66 by a 2 to 1 margin. One might think that the same voters who wanted to reform school districts would also want to reform the school finance behemoth — assuming they understood that 66 might make school finance more equitable, targeted and transparent.
Why didn’t the $10 million spent on the campaign lead to better results? What lessons should be learned? Here is a little Monday morning quarterbacking, a reflection on what might have gone wrong, what we might learn and what we can do differently next time.
- Partnerships of convenience make for weak alliances: The school finance partnership was well-meaning and led to some great conversations among education leaders. However, its makeup was lopsided in favor of the status quo: leadership from school boards, administrators and teacher unions. The partnership was convened because it was necessary to have everyone at the table so that a bill might get passed. Yet, while the partnership developed broad principles, it was never able to agree philosophically on what needed to change or provide the specifics about what would change. It is like the Israelis and Palestinians agreeing on a general peace agreement but with nothing about the settlements. A “grand bargain” was struck wherein everyone would get more money but would be required to swallow some reforms, but it was a compromise, not a partnership. Therefore, a true coalition between reformers and status quo representatives never gelled. As a result, the establishment camps continued to undermine the parts of the bill they never agreed to throughout the legislative process. This raises some important questions about who should be at the table and what agreements should be made before a bill idea arrives at the capital.
- Coloradans are not fans of statewide taxes: Coloradans generally don’t like taxes unless someone else is paying. We are only willing to pay if we know exactly what our money is going to do and how it benefits us directly. Even Denver voters, who recently voted 69% to support last year’s mill levy increase for the Denver Public Schools, only voted 53% in favor of 66. Some have argued that if only the campaign had enough funding, a tax increase could be passed; clearly this was not the case. Proposition 103, which cost about $600,000, lost by 65%, compared to the 66 campaign loss of 64% with almost 20 times the funding for the effort. Was greater clarity needed about how new taxes directly benefit the taxpayer? Or, as many have said, was this too big a bite for too many voters?
- Colorado is purple and maybe cynical gray a la George Packer: Senator Mike Johnston and his partners did a remarkable job ushering SB 213 through the state house and senate. Ultimately, however, the bill had to be carried by Democrats. In retrospect, not having a single Republican made the bill too tough to sell to purple state voters. Amendment 66 might have had a better chance of passing (think Owens cheering while Hickenlooper jumped out of planes for Referendum C) if the first draft had been crafted by Senator Johnston and a Republican. This might have sent the education establishment and some of their Democrat friends spinning, but in the end, aligning too closely with the (Dem-backed) establishment alienated a lot of reformers and Republican voters. Significant reforms in Colorado (from standards and teacher effectiveness to school accountability) have almost always stemmed from bipartisan efforts.
- Organize Colorado business: The business community provided a great deal of support when SB 213 was moving through the legislature by pushing against the education establishment when it came to getting and keeping school reform in SB 213. Many of these business folks were happy to stand with Governor Hickenlooper when he signed 213 into law, yet many of these same groups went silent or changed direction when it came to paying for the reforms and supporting 66. These same groups seem more than happy to line up for more taxes (probably a regressive sales tax) to build roads, but quickly scatter when asked for education reform funding. Kudos to Colorado Succeeds for seeing the whole process through to the ballot. We all need to do a better job working with the business community so that they might support a more effective public education system that directly benefits them and the rest of us. Or maybe we need to understand more has to be done with less.
- Messaging matters: The 66 campaign was built on the supposition that if the far left mailed their ballots, 66 would pass. They bet that the message of smaller classrooms, more art classes, gym and funding to meet student needs would motivate voters (particularly given some of the recent cuts). At the same time, messages about reform were mentioned as an afterthought, if hardly at all. While A+ Denver did not have access to the polling or focus group data, the “more money equals better outcomes” message was worrisome because so few we talked to were motivated by this message. Most people agree that we need to improve our schools but questioned the price tag and exactly how the money would be spent. Clearly there is enormous skepticism about the effectiveness of government, particularly when at the state or federal level. What remains confusing is how campaign insiders believed that they were within several points of winning up until a week before the election. This is puzzling, given the well-funded, sophisticated campaign. They engaged in regular polling and focus groups throughout the summer and fall and ended up with a message that could have been written by the teachers’ union. Was this what voters wanted to hear? More needs to be understood: what worked for the campaign and what did not?
I supported 66. It would have been a great step forward and I knocked on doors trying to convince voters of the same. Finance reform is necessary, along with full-day kindergarten and high quality early childhood education, if we are serious about having a world-class public education system. No higher performing system, whether Massachusetts, Shanghai, the Netherlands, Denmark or Sweden, lacks these components. Maybe we need to regroup and take much smaller bites of the apple to build a public education system that lives up to our desires and the needs of our state.
However, we all (winners and losers in the 66 fight) must ultimately take stock of what happened and what is possible in Colorado on the reform and funding fronts before we return to the education battlefield to do what each of us believes is necessary to improve public education.