At the start of this year’s legislative session, Colorado House Speaker Crisanta Duran told her colleagues that “we love Colorado and what it stands for: opportunity for all who show responsibility through hard work.”
Colorado’s public pension system, the Public Employees’ Retirement Association (PERA) is in serious trouble, and if it continues on this same track, just about everyone in the state will feel the pain.
It’s becoming harder for opponents of education freedom to come up with legitimate reasons families should not have more options when deciding the best possible education options for their children. The U.S. Supreme Court made it more difficult with a pair of recent rulings, including one that said denying approximately 500 families in Douglas County the ability to exercise that freedom was wrong.
Imagine for a moment that Colorado families could decide how and where their children are educated. Families are free to spend their tax dollars as they choose. This could include tutoring, online courses, or even school tuition. And whatever is not spent now could be saved and accumulated from quarter to quarter, or school year to school year.
In this scenario, the money follows the student, regardless of his or her family’s income.
Impossible? Not quite. As it turns out, a handful of states are already experimenting with this cutting-edge approach to how we think about education.
Known as education savings accounts (ESAs), the concept is remarkably straightforward. States open education savings accounts for parents using dollars that have been set aside from the state’s education budgets. From there, parents are free to spend those dollars on education-related purposes as they see fit — including school supplies and one-on-one lessons – that they believe best serve the needs of their children.
In practice, very few Americans can exercise this amount of freedom to help their children because only five states offer ESAs, and most of those have limited eligibility. But in states that do offer ESAs, parents express overwhelming support for the freedom and choice they provide.
Regrettably, Colorado is not among the states providing families ESAs. But according to a public opinion poll conducted by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, six out of 10 Coloradans say they are supportive of ESAs, including strong support among young voters (77 percent) and low-income earners (67 percent).
What’s stopping Colorado from offering ESAs? It’s a combination of things, but much of it has to do with powerful special interest groups convinced that students should have only one choice when it comes to receiving an education: a traditional public school. That may work for many, but children have unique learning needs and even the best public school isn’t the right school for every family.
But to make sure families have limited options, teacher unions spend millions of dollars supporting candidates who adhere to this strict orthodoxy. They fight against the expansion of charter schools, tax credits, and ESAs – anything that would imperil their monopoly.
They mislead the American public into believing that expanding these options would come at the expense of the public school educational system. In fact, research has shown that the opposite is true.
While Colorado has made some strides in recent years inimproving student test scores, far too many of our students are continuing to fall through the cracks. This is a particularly acute problem for minority and low-income students in our state.
This reality should drive our urgency.
ESAs and educational freedom empower families to take greater ownership of their children’s education. If a school is not working for their child, parents are able to send their child to a different school – one that better serves the child. And when a student needs additional help, families are able to dip into their ESA account to pay for tutoring and additional instruction.
This is exactly the bold thinking we need to ensure that every Colorado student is able to receive a high-quality education. Innovation is driving much of the progress we see in our daily lives. The time has come to inject some of this innovation into our education system. ESAs can help lead the way.
Driving in Colorado isn’t easy, and it’s getting harder every day — from potholes to all the time wasted sitting in traffic. But the fix to these problems requires politicians to make the same kind of tough decisions that small businesses and families make every day.
The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) says it needs $900 million per year over the next 10 years for new transportation projects alone. The department currently budgets only $80 million a year for these projects. At this rate, it will take nearly 31 years just to complete everything on the department’s high-priority list.
Lawmakers across the political spectrum acknowledge the need to address this shortfall, yet too often they present voters with false choices in their attempt to secure more funding. Rather than prioritizing transportation, lawmakers fund their own priorities and then hold transportation hostage, demanding an increase in taxes to fund it.
Not surprisingly, polls have found Coloradans oppose schemes to raise taxes for transportation. During the 2017 legislative session, 57 percent of Coloradans opposed a transportation tax hike proposal before opponents even began campaigning against it, an indication that no amount of money spent in support of the measure would have convinced voters to pass it.
We didn’t get in this transportation mess overnight, and we won’t get out of it in one legislative session. But lawmakers can start by reallocating funds, eliminating waste and ending cronyism in the state budget.
For one, they need to analyze where our user fees for highways are being spent. How much is frittered away on non-highway spending, like transit projects and decorative landscaping in medians?
They should tackle the cronyism in the state tax code that benefits special interests while shortchanging taxpayers. That includes fuel tax exemptions for favored companies and industries that are cutting into our desperately needed transportation funds.
The legislature can also put an end to special tax giveaways for people who buy hybrid and electric vehicles – a program that costs taxpayers $7.6 million per year. Next time you’re stuck in traffic and see a $100,000 Tesla sitting next to you, remember that your tax dollars helped pay for it.
Hollywood also benefits from taxpayer handouts, as we pay more than $9 million in subsidies for movies produced in Colorado. While that number will be cut down to $1.5 million next year, it deserves to be scrapped altogether.
Lawmakers who would rather raise taxes are saying there’s simply not enough money in the budget. They should look harder. A forthcoming issue paper by the Independence Institute has found nearly $700 million in the state budget of questionable programs and expenditures. Reallocating even a portion of these funds in a responsible manner could provide hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for high-priority transportation projects.
In addition to eliminating waste and cronyism, legislators should consider setting aside sales taxes generated by vehicles, tires, parts and other auto accessories for the transportation budget, as lawmakers have done in the past. These and other general fund transfers provided more than $2 billion for roads before the transfers were targeted by lawmakers seeking to use those dollars for other purposes. Restoring these user-generated revenues to the purpose of improving roads is one way to ensure a reliable stream of funding for highway improvements without hitting taxpayers with yet another tax or “fee.”
Legislators should pursue these and other alternatives before ever asking for new taxes. And rather than hoping they find the political will to give transportation funding the priority it deserves, citizens should contact their state senators and representatives and demand they prioritize transportation funding in 2018 without raising taxes.
Coloradans shouldn’t have to sit in traffic while lawmakers wait for yet another statewide tax increase proposal to fail. It’s time to get Colorado moving again.