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David Hill: Lessons from Colorado

Colorado’s school funding bus veered off the highway in a blinding hailstorm of “no” votes last week, when the proposed Amendment 66 was buried alive in the ensuing avalanche.

A lot of eyes were on the road, too.

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In a pre-Election Day analysis, Stephen Moore at The Wall Street Journal ranked Amendment 66, which would have raised taxes for education funding, the No. 1 ballot measure in the nation for consequence and the interest it generated. Colorado’s voters evidently agreed, and mailed back their ballots in bundles for the state’s first-ever election administered largely by the U.S. Postal Service.

Turnout was up 30 percent over balloting for another statewide educational measure two years ago.

This wasn’t just your odd-year, cranky old man electorate.

The young actually voted for a change, perhaps in response to a huge campaign effort. Campaign spending on this measure was without precedent. Proponents broke into double-digit millions, including celebrity money from Microsoft’s Bill Gates and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Meanwhile, a patchwork quilt of opposition committees probably didn’t crack the million-dollar threshold. That means advocates got the turnout they wanted and they trounced the naysayers in campaign spending, yet they still got boat-raced.

Does this mean that education generally is a tougher sell these days?

After all, Colorado is becoming a diverse microcosm of America, increasingly functioning as a bellwether for the nation. So should schools and educationists think twice before going to the ballot in 2014 or 2015?

Perhaps not twice. One thinking session might be enough. And it needn’t be all negative — there were some quirks to Amendment 66 that suggest lessons of its defeat will not apply in circumstances that schools face elsewhere.

First, Amendment 66 became more of a tax issue for many voters than an education funding initiative. The proposal would have abandoned Colorado’s flat income tax and gone to a graduated tax rate for higher income earners.

In short, 66 came to be seen mostly as tax reform, if you’re a progressive, or, if you are a fiscal conservative, a utopian socialistic “soak the rich” scheme. 

This quirky nature of 66’s underlying tax issue will seldom be in play for normal local school funding measures, which seek a small mill levy increase in traditional property taxes. The lesson to be learned by schools is never to mix tax reform with education reform. The taxes will rule the roost.

The second problem with 66 was that it gave the state more control over local schools and their funding.

Republicans and libertarians — the latter a big slice of the Colorado electorate — are never for more, or bigger, central government. Even Democrats can feel warmer toward local control than state hegemony when it comes to community schools.

Not only did the Colorado amendment strengthen state influence over school matters, it even had known consequences that funneled more dollars to some schools and reduced shares for others. School tax measures that have clear winners and losers determined by state bureaucrats are a tough, if not impossible, sell.

Third, the campaign for adoption of Amendment 66 was a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party establishment. No Republican or unaffiliated types were welcome in the 66 campaign’s clubhouse.

The lesson learned for schools is that failure to build a coalition that bridges the partisan divide means rejection of the ballot measure, unless you’re in a state like California or New York.

Some proponents are arguing that the amendment was hurt by the uncertainty engendered by the ObamaCare mess and the government shutdown. Count me a skeptic of this excuse to justify an epic failure to execute a winning campaign.

But, being generous, I can acknowledge that political context is important, so schools looking to raise taxes must be aware of their political environment.

Hill is a pollster who has worked for Republican campaigns and causes since 1984.