Education Funding 101: What the Vote in Colorado Means for Los Alamos

Education Funding 101: 
What the Vote in Colorado Means for Los Alamos
by Save Our Schools Los Alamos

This past Tuesday, two-thirds of voters in Colorado cast ballots against Amendment 66, the most comprehensive education reform package the state has considered in almost two decades. The measure would have added almost $1 billion to Colorado’s K-12 education system.

The legislation failed to pass for several reasons. The anti-tax people voted against it, believing that the economy remains fragile and that now is a bad time to raise taxes. (A household with an income of $58,000 would have seen an increase of $133 in state taxes under the measure.)

Another segment of voters didn’t like the expansive nature of the amendment — arguing that the legislation focused too much on services and too little on results. These people were generally supportive of education reform, but didn’t want to write a large check without guaranteed beneficial outcomes. It’s noteworthy that some of the services touted in the amendment are things we take for granted in Los Alamos: full day kindergarten, art and music classes, technology in the classrooms; services that Colorado had eliminated in prior budget cuts.

Some wealthier communities voted against the amendment because it would direct more education funding to poorer communities — in other words, they’d be donor districts, paying in more than they’d receive in benefits.  Wealthy communities that were both liberal-leaning and conservative-leaning failed to support the measure. 

Details about Amendment 66 are provided below, but first let’s explore why Tuesday’s vote in Colorado matters to New Mexico, and more specifically to Los Alamos K-12 education funding. 

New Mexico already has the State Education Equalization Guarantee that spreads education funds according to need rather than contribution, as the Colorado proposal would have; and Los Alamos is a donor district.  Unlike Colorado, which currently funds K-12 education with a combination of  local (i.e. property taxes) and state revenues, the state of New Mexico controls the vast majority of education funding and restricts local jurisdictions from supplementing those state payments with local operating funds to enhance educational quality.

There are those in New Mexico who believe the state needs to increase funding for K-12 public education. This sentiment is supported by a 2008 study commissioned by the New Mexico Legislature, which hired the American Institute for Research to evaluate the state’s school funding formula. That study suggested that New Mexico needed to increase its education funding by 14.5 percent to meet the “sufficient” standard articulated in the State Constitution. To date, this funding increase has not occurred.

The public school systems in Santa Fe, Espanola and Taos are considering a lawsuit against the state claiming that the current funding level does not provide a “sufficient” education as mandated by the State Constitution.  Santa Fe Public Schools have budgeted $100,000 this year to fund the lawsuit and they are inviting other districts to join in the suit.

Some argue that New Mexico actually has the money to better fund schools, and complain that the Legislature is short-sightedly choosing not to apply the available funding for this use. The state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund, which includes money intended for K-12 public education, has a net worth of $12 billion according to a recent report. Education proponents argue that increasing the fund’s annual contribution to K-12 education from the current 5 percent to 5.5 percent would provide needed funding without harming the integrity and stability of the fund.

Save Our Schools Los Alamos strongly supports the idea that the state of New Mexico needs to increase funding overall — if only to maintain current services. Rising costs, enrollment declines, and aspects of the funding formula that disproportionately lower state funding when retiring teachers are replaced with less experienced hires are among the factors that are squeezing student opportunities in Los Alamos. While we are in the top tier nationally for income and adult educational achievement; we are in the low tier when it comes to per pupil spending.

Sadly, we see little hope for a significant tax-based increase in K-12 funding from the state; and Colorado’s experience with Amendment 66 reinforces that view. The Legislature does not even seem disposed to tap more deeply into the Land Grant Permanent Fund, which could be done without taxing anyone. We also think the law suit approach being taken by Santa Fe and others is an uphill battle simply because the Constitutional interpretation of what is a “sufficient” education is so subjective. 

For those reasons, Save Our Schools Los Alamos continues to see local supplements to school operating funding as the most viable option for addressing the K-12 funding challenge in Los Alamos. Communities are allowed to use local funding to build and repair schools. We have done so and we are on a path to have beautiful facilities. We need similar local control and authority to make sure that quality education can occur in those beautiful facilities.

Learn more about the funding issues and the potential of local supplements at

Background on Amendment 66

Amendment 66 to increase K-12 education spending by nearly $1 billion passed the Colorado legislature but required an endorsement by the electorate since it involved a change to the state tax structure. The contest gained national prominence as a possible solution to systemic funding shortfalls not only in Colorado, but in other states. The National Education Association supported the measure and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan labeled it a benchmark approach for other states to follow. Anti-tax activists opposed it while both the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg donated $1 million each to support passage of the measure. 

Amendment 66 had many components to it; here are a few of the big ones:

  • It would have raised the state income tax from a flat 4.63 percent to a two-tier structure: 5 percent on income up to $75,000, and 5.9 percent on income above $75,000; generating about $950 million a year, which would have been added to the current $5.5 billion in spending.
  • It would have required that 43 percent of the state’s budget be spent on education, a change from the current inflation-indexed approach.
  • It would have changed the formula for dispersing money to school districts, adding an emphasis on median income — meaning poor districts would receive more of the new money than wealthier districts.
  • It would have mandated increased services like preschool, full-day kindergarten, teacher training, additional support for English-language learners, and more funding for charter schools.
  • It would have provided more local autonomy by giving principals more influence on how funds are to be spent.
  • It would have provided landmark transparency on education spending, with web based reporting on the specifics of how every dollar was spent.

Colorado is currently among the lowest states in per pupil funding on K-12 education, spending 5.3 percent less than New Mexico. In 2011, Colorado spent $8,786 per student compared to New Mexico’s $9,250, New Hampshire’s $13,548, and New Jersey’s $16,855. Colorado cut K-12 funding by 6.7 percent in 2011, while New Mexico cut funding by -1.4 percent in the same period. Unlike New Mexico, Colorado funds K-12 education through a combination of local (49 percent), state (40 percent), and federal (11 percent) revenue sources per 2011 data.   

Sources for this column include: