Littwin: Teaching kids in TABOR-land
The funniest moments in our state’s current debate on education and taxes — brought to you by the good folks promoting Amendment 66 — come when the opponents pretend to be serious.
This is when they say, inevitably, that you can’t improve our schools just by throwing money at them. Everyone, on both sides, nods in agreement. These are meant to be wise, unchallengeable words. The pro-66 people will respond by saying something like, Yes, but this time, the money will be spent with unprecedented efficiency — as if our schools were some giant leviathan that simply swallows up any and all unsuspecting tax dollars.
It’s funny because spending money in so many other circumstances does seem to get you an improved product. By spending money, you can get yourself a better car, a better house, a better TV, a better phone, a better quarterback for your hometown football team.
Our entire economy is based on the principle of getting rid of what you have and spending money to get something the people in the commercials insist is better. (I say this as someone who drives a 1997 Toyota, so I’m not suggesting it works for everyone.)
But the one place where money never helps, apparently, is in education. You don’t spend money on education. You throw money at it. You don’t attract better teachers by paying them more money. You only get better teachers by assuring these phenoms you’ll make it easy to fire them, that you don’t really want to fund their pensions and that the teachers’ unions are led by knee-breaking thugs.
OK, a little truth. Everyone actually agrees that our schools should be better and that kids in poor neighborhoods deserve special attention. Most of us agree that broken-down school buildings should be fixed or replaced. Many actually agree that smaller classrooms can help some students learn. It’s hard to see who doesn’t think that all-day kindergarten might improve outcomes for some children. And that disadvantaged children might be advantaged with preschool education. And that school districts that have cut back to four days might be better off with five. And that gym and art are good things.
Still, it’s possible I’ve overstated the amount of agreement. I’m not sure what, if anything, we agree on these days. But I would guess that those who do agree with even one or two of these propositions might also agree that more money couldn’t hurt.
You see, the real argument isn’t whether our schools should be better funded. Come on, admit it. If the money were readily available and cost-free, Amendment 66 would win pretty easily. And it’s not whether the program as outlined — written by state Sen. Mike Johnston, a respected education reformer — could be better framed. Of course, it could be better framed. Senate Bill 13-213, which goes into effect if Amendment 66 passes, is a legislative compromise. Do I have to say more? If you want a closer look at what we’d actually get for money, read this explainer from EdNews Colorado.
The real argument here is about the money. It’s always about the money. And in Colorado, when it’s about the money, it’s about where to find it — because you can’t get more tax money in TABOR-land without going to the people and asking for it.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. There are many things wrong with TABOR, but getting people to participate in figuring out how to spend their money wisely may not be one of them.
But whenever we get these debates, we get the usual suspects — you know who you are, Jon Caldara — arguing that this is the wrong thing to spend our money on, that this is the wrong way to spend it, that it’s the wrong time (in this case because of the flood disaster), that it will hurt small businesses, because although throwing money at schools never helps, a tax hike invariably crushes small businesses. Somehow we’re always doing things to crush small businesses, and yet nearly every survey I see rates Colorado as one of the nation’s most business-friendly states. Go figure.
And in this case, the argument is particularly heated because a Yes vote wouldn’t only bring in an extra $950 million a year, it would also raise state income tax rates and, even scarier, raise them progressively — meaning people who make more money would have to pay at a higher marginal rate. You may hear that called redistribution or robbery or socialism. Or it could just be basic fairness. In any case, we would still be a low-tax state.
It’s fair to argue the merits of living in a low-tax state. It’s fair to argue the merits of living in a low-service state.
And it’s also fair to ask whether when we tell ourselves that more money won’t improve education, what we really mean is that we just don’t want to pay for it.
[ Image by Dennis Behm ]
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