In Colorado, where a booming economy belies a chronically underfunded public education system, education advocates filed four ballot initiatives earlier this month to divert millions of dollars in yearly funding to schools without raising taxes.

The initiatives – proposed on March 3 by the Great Schools, Thriving Communities Coalition – could help schools address statewide teacher shortages that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Proponents say the provisions to increase school funding without raising taxes are essential thanks to the 1992 TABOR Amendment to the Colorado Constitution, which restricts annual state spending to the rate of population growth plus inflation. It also requires voters to approve all tax increases – and many advocates say the law has crippled public education spending in the state over the past three decades.

“Right now, because of the combination of a hot economy and formulas in the Colorado constitution, the state is collecting almost $2 billion more than the legislature is allowed to spend on underfunded services like public education this year,” said D.J. Anderson, a Poudre School District board member and parent who supports the initiatives, in a press release. “Only we the voters can unlock those funds so that teachers can afford to live where they teach.”

If the new measures pass, they could divert an additional $820 million to $1.1 billion to the State Education Fund each year. Proponents of the bills stress that this increased funding is urgently needed and can be accessed without voters needing to approve any tax hikes.

These funds would come from excess state revenue that TABOR normally requires to be refunded to taxpayers. In districts with rising property values, school districts have actually lowered property taxes to reduce revenue so it doesn’t exceed the cap specified under TABOR. Colorado legislators passed a bill last year to gradually eliminate some of these mill levy tax credits, but it will take nearly two decades for these credits to be fully phased out.

Critics of TABOR blame the bill for placing unnecessary restrictions on state spending and causing a decline in the state’s ability to provide public services.

Colorado, whose economy was named the second strongest in the country in 2021, has one of the poorest rates of public education spending nationwide. Currently, the state spends $3,000 less per student than the national average and ranks dead last in offering competitive wages to teachers.

According to reporting by the Colorado Sun, the head of the Colorado Education Association said the state’s schools are at a “crisis point” because of a dire teacher shortage. Low pay and pandemic-related stresses are making it challenging for schools to attract and retain educators.

Other advocates have called attention to the need to invest in our teachers and stressed that action is needed now before the situation worsens.

“This can’t wait,” said Lea Steed, Director of Equity Matters for Great Education Colorado, in a press release. Steed added. “If we want experienced professionals in our schools, we have got to let our teachers know, ‘We see you, we appreciate you, and help is on the way.’”

Tracie Rainey, executive director of the Colorado School Finance Project, said the proposed ballot measures have been granted title by the Title Board, but all four have been challenged by Ready Colorado, a conservative advocacy organization.

The group has contested both the names and the merits of the measures, according to Rainey. The Title Board is set to hear the challenges on April 6 and may overturn its initial ruling. Once the titles of the bills have been finalized, the initiatives’ supporters will decide which of the four measures to promote.  

Other spokespersons for the measures did not immediately respond to requests for comment. This story will be updated with any new information as it becomes available.