Colorado voters will decide next month whether to raise taxes on recreational marijuana to help fund a new state program aimed at providing Colorado students with out-of-school learning opportunities.
The program, called Learning Enrichment and Academic Progress, or LEAP, would pay service providers, like private tutoring companies or even public school teachers looking for extra work, to provide a wide variety of educational or development support services to K-12 students in the state.
Supporters of the measure, called Proposition 119, say that by giving kids from lower income families a chance to access tutoring and enrichment programs, the program can help those kids catch up academically to their more privileged peers and start to reverse the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on learning.
Public education advocates who oppose the measure, however, paint it as a slippery slope to vouchers and a threat to the state’s public education system, and argue that any new tax revenue for education should go into the existing system rather than a whole new program. Meanwhile, opponents in Colorado’s cannabis industry say the increased sales tax is regressive and may push consumers back into the black market.
Here’s a deeper look at Proposition 119:
Proposition 119 would create the LEAP program to provide financial support to Colorado students between the ages of 5 and 17 who are eligible to attend public school.
A new state agency, called the Colorado Learning Authority, would run the program independent of oversight by the State Board of Education and the Colorado Department of Education. The governor would appoint a nine-member board to oversee the agency.
The measure would prioritize students from low-income families who otherwise couldn’t afford the supplemental services by giving them the first shot at receiving benefits under the program.
In 2023, financial aid awards of at least $1,500 would first have to go to students from households with income at or below the federal poverty level, then to students from households with income less than twice the poverty level. Any funding left over would be open to students from households with higher incomes. After 2024, the Colorado Learning Authority would get new flexibility to determine the award amounts as well as how it would distribute the money.
The agency would set criteria for selecting and certifying the service providers. The types of educational or developmental support services providers could offer include tutoring, assistance targeted at students with special needs, language instruction, additional academic support materials, career and technical educational training programs, physical therapy, social emotional learning and mental health services. However, the measure would block the program from being used for school tuition or for lessons or materials that are part of a student’s regular school day.
Colorado school districts and charter schools would automatically be certified as providers and teachers would get priority for approval.
The program would be paid for by raising retail marijuana taxes by 5 percentage points, to 20% from 15%, phased in over three years. The tax rate would jump 3 percentage points in 2022, and then an additional percentage point in 2023 and 2024. The new taxes are estimated to raise more than $87 million next fiscal year, which starts July 2022. The new revenue would be exempt from state constitutional spending limits.
The measure would also annually divert roughly $20 million from the State Land Trust, which supports funding for public schools, to the State Public School Fund, with an equivalent amount going from the general fund to support the new program.
According to an analysis by nonpartisan legislative staff, the changes would mean less investment earnings in the state’s permanent fund by about $48 million over 10 years, including nearly $31 million that would otherwise go toward funding K-12 education. However, supporters point out that $20 million a year from the state land trust would result in a net increase in funding for public schools, above the lost potential revenue.
Proponents of Proposition 119 see the measure as a way to close the achievement gap by giving kids from low income families some of the same opportunities as kids who live in higher income households.
“There has been a longstanding opportunity gap in Colorado, and that was made worse in the pandemic,” said Curtis Hubbard, a Democratic consultant serving as spokesman for the campaign to support Proposition 119. “This is a targeted measure to direct help for out of school learning opportunities to the kids who need them the most.”
Hubbard described the measure as a “targeted solution” to what he called “the opportunity gap,” only made worse by restrictions on in-school learning that were in place during the pandemic.
“We can’t wait to address the learning loss that occurred in the pandemic,” he said. “And we can make a difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of kids who didn’t have access to tutors, or test prep, or laptops, or internet service or whose families speak a language other than English in the home who may have already been behind.”
Mike Johnston is a Democratic former state Senator and the head of Gary Community Ventures, a public-benefit corporation that has contributed nearly $1.5 million support of the measure. Though Gary does invest in for-profit companies, Johnston said Gary does not have any investments that would be providers for LEAP.
Johnston said Coloradans have an obligation to address learning disparities in Colorado.
“The only way to really close that gap long term is to focus on all of the out-of-school and summer school learning opportunities that are driving those gaps in addition to what’s happening in K-12,” Johnston said. “When you look at the opportunities that a lot of middle class or upper middle class kids have, whether it is for additional tutoring, whether it is for summer camp, whether it is for after school science programming, those are the things that both help kids catch up and keep up.”
Brenda Dickhoner leads conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado, which has given $325,000 to the campaign supporting Proposition 119.
“We’re really excited about LEAP because this program empowers parents to spend dollars how they see fit for their children,” Dickhoner said. “Giving parents the ability to choose how to spend their dollars, whether it’s for math, tutoring, or piano lessons, or speech therapy is incredibly important to helping those kids thrive.”
The measure enjoys a slate of high-profile supporters on both sides of the aisle, including former governors Bill Ritter (a Democrat) and Bill Owens (a Republican), Democratic former Denver mayor Wellington Webb, Colorado state senators Bob Gardner (a Republican) and Rhonda Fields (a Democrat) and Democratic former U.S. Senator Mark Udall.
Judy Solano is a Democratic former state representative and school teacher who is helping lead the opposition. She also serves as chairwoman of the nonprofit group Advocates for Public Education Policy.
Solano sees the program as unnecessary and has concerns about giving public money to private providers, which could include for-profit companies, describing it as “a slippery slope.” She also wondered why the measure created a new agency to administer the program.
“If the people that were backing this really cared about having adequate funds for students, why would they create a whole new big agency that’s going to have administrative costs that we don’t really know?” she asked.
Perhaps the harshest critics of the program are a group called Taxpayers for Public Education, led by Cindy Barnard.
Barnard framed the measure as “basically a voucher initiative” that “creates another government bureaucracy that basically lacks complete accountability and transparency” and as a threat to public education funding. Like Solano, she thinks the money would be better used inside the public school system.
Barnard also suggested that the measure doesn’t do enough to prohibit discrimination by providers against students and fears religious providers would be able to deny services to LGBTQ youth.
Supporters disagree, pointing to language in the measure that states that the financial aid from the program must “be provided and administered in a manner that does not discriminate against any eligible child or youth, eligible child or youth’s family, provider, or learning opportunity on the basis of race, ethnicity, color, native language, religious affiliation, national origin, gender, military status, sexual orientation, gender variance, marital status, or physical or mental disability.”
The Colorado Parent Teacher Association also opposes the measure. Similarly, the board of directors of the Colorado Association of School Boards voted to oppose Proposition 119.
The measure has also attracted critics from Colorado’s cannabis industry. Colorado Leads, an association of marijuana companies in the state, opposes proposition 119 because of the increased taxes.
“This initiative imposes a regressive tax on people’s pain, especially veterans, teachers and the elderly who need cannabis for medicine but can’t get a medical card, and while local communities generate this tax, local school boards have no say over the education programs it pays for,” said Chuck Smith, CEO of BellRock Brands and board president of Colorado Leads. “If these ballot measures are so beneficial to all Coloradans, why aren’t other industries asked to pay their fair share of these taxes?”
Others in the industry suggest the increased tax rate could push people back into the black market, an objection Johnston dismissed. The practice of people buying marijuana off the street, he said, is “a bygone era” that people won’t go back to at this point.
The board of the state’s largest teachers union, the Colorado Education Association, couldn’t settle on whether to support or oppose the proposition, resulting in the CEA taking a neutral stance.
CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert said that while the union’s board recognized the need for more learning opportunities outside of school, “there were a whole lot of questions about how the program would work, about implementation, especially a lot of conversation about how this would work out in the rural school districts where they don’t necessarily have a lot of community partners to tap into.”
The measure does not address the state’s chronic K-12 education funding problem – known as the negative or budget stabilization factor.
Colorado voters passed Amendment 23 in 2000, which required the legislature to increase base per-pupil school funding by at least the rate of inflation each year. But then the Great Recession hit, and lawmakers created the negative factor as a way to cut education funding without creating a legal conflict with Amendment 23.
Since the creation of the negative factor, the legislature has short-changed schools billions of dollars.
While opponents of Proposition 119 have seized on the billions of dollars owed to districts to suggest any new education revenue should go to schools first, supporters see the new revenue as a drop in the bucket for the state’s K-12 system that could have a bigger impact on student achievement through funding for out-of-school learning and support services.
“We can all get together and discuss the longstanding issues with Colorado’s K-12 system down the road, and we’ve tried initiatives in the eight years I’ve been in this business to try to address them,” Hubbard said. “But this is a roughly $150 million, highly-targeted solution to a specific problem. This is not intended to address Colorado’s $8 billion K-12 system.”
Sun reporter Jesse Paul contributed to this report.