DENVER In one poor school district in Colorados San Luis Valley, students take classes in a bus garage, using plastic sheeting to keep the diesel fumes at bay. In another, there is no more money to tutor young immigrants struggling to read. And just south of Denver, a district where 1 in 4 kindergartners is homeless has cut 10 staff positions.
For decades, schools like these have struggled to keep pace with their bigger and wealthier neighbors. On Tuesday, Colorado will try to address those problems with one of the most ambitious and sweeping education overhauls in the country, asking voters to approve a $1 billion tax increase in exchange for more school funding and an educators wish-list of measures.
The effort has touched off a fevered debate in a state that two decades ago passed one of the nations strictest limits on taxes and spending.
Outside money is pouring into the state. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to support gun control here, has given $1 million to the school campaign, as have Bill and Melinda Gates, whose foundation is one of the largest philanthropic organizations involved in public education. Teachers unions have contributed at least $4 million, and other pro-labor groups have given thousands.
The referendum will ask voters to replace the flat state income tax rate of 4.6 percent with a two-tier system. Residents with taxable incomes below $75,000 would pay 5 percent; taxable incomes above $75,000 would be taxed at 5.9 percent.
The amendment would also require the state to direct 43 percent of its budget to schools, ending the current system of tying increases to the rate of inflation.
Supporters say the measure would provide enough money to revolutionize education for a generation. Opponents, which include anti-tax groups and Republican politicians, say it would raise taxes on struggling families and businesses with no guarantee of a better education.
Its a very hard sell, conceded Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat and the measures highest-profile advocate.
In 2010, Colorado spent about $9,306 per student, among the bottom 10 states in the country, according to data compiled by Education Week. Overall, the publication ranked the states education system slightly behind the U.S. average.
Amendment 66 would set aside more money for students who do not speak English, have learning disabilities or come from poor families. It would send more money toward charter schools, as well as districts in poorer areas that cannot easily raise property taxes to buy computers or raise teacher salaries. The measure would also let people go online to track how schools spend every dollar.
Total transparency, school by school, Hickenlooper said. No states ever done that.