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TABOR Looks Less Spooky Next to Colorado School Finance Data

With spooky Halloween almost upon us, it’s probably not terribly surprising to witness the one-sided horrible picture of TABOR painted in yesterday’s Colorado Springs Gazette (H/T Complete Colorado). Under the headline, “TABOR has decimated education, critics say,” we are given such insights as the following:

“It’s been devastating,” said Gustafson, Colorado Springs School District 11’s chief financial officer.

When asked about TABOR, Gustafson nearly exploded. He said that over the past six years, his district has lost 
$35 million because of 
TABOR. In response to the spending restrictions, he said, the district has slashed teacher salaries, closed nine schools, increased class sizes twice, eliminated new programs, haven’t updated technology or books, dropped maintenance hugely, and even lowered school temperatures in the winter.

“Our grounds look like crap because we can’t even afford to water them,” Gustafson said.

I’m glad he didn’t explode! When you make comparisons afforded by the most recent available numbers from the Colorado Department of Education, the devastation becomes, well, less apparent for District 11. From 2000-01 to 2010-11:

  • Student enrollment decreased nearly 10 percent, from 32,699 to 29,459
  • Employment increased across the board by 15 percent, from 3,593 to 4,158, and in every category — from as little as 4.3 percent among central administrators to 78 percent among “instructional support”
  • In real dollars (adjusted for inflation), total expenditures grew by 1.8 percent to $318.1 million, while current expenditures (excluding dollars for debt and construction) grew by 6 percent to $264.1 million
  • Total tax revenues grew by 15 percent to $276.7 million — including 3.5 percent growth in state revenues, 7.4 percent growth in local revenues

One-tenth fewer students, one-seventh more employees, and real increases in dollars coming in and going out. This K-12 agency isn’t being starved for money or personnel. There must be more to the picture.

But what about TABOR, which was enacted in 1992? Data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that in the first 15 years after TABOR (1992-93 to 2007-08), Colorado increased per-pupil spending by 24 percent above inflation — compared to 34 percent above inflation for the nation as a whole. So we don’t look good next to the national average, but what does it say about the productivity of education spending in general?

Given all that, how much of our outrage should be directed at tax-and-spending limits in the state constitution? Yes, you guessed it. And yes, now that I’ve thrown a few numbers out there at you, TABOR certainly doesn’t sound as spooky, does it? Maybe I’m just not getting into the spirit of Halloween. Hopefully, it means I can still get some candy.