Voices: Corrine Fowler, economic justice director for the Colorado Progressive Coalition

“…When are we going to start sharing the responsibility for our communities, and say ‘OK I’m willing to pay more in taxes so our kids can have a future?’”

It’s something I try to point out when I’m in any conversation about disparity. I think it’s something pretty much lost on all of us that the funding mechanism and formula that we use to fund public schools in Colorado is very much dependent on property tax revenues, which is in inherently unequal across every area. And so to use that as the base for funding creates inequities in itself. Then we’ve got the Gallagher Amendment which is ever shrinking the property tax revenues in these cities and counties. So unless you have a county that is willing to vote to raise their property taxes then you have a situation where schools are being funded disproportionately. So all those things interacting together are creating grave inequities. And then you have neighborhoods that are able to just go ahead and fundraise. You have individual schools in Denver that are located in much more affluent areas.

My son’s school is an example of that. They are able to fundraise individually for their school. And you go to another Denver Public School just on the other side of town where the parents aren’t able to contribute out of their own pockets and you have a very different situation.

And so, I would be very supportive of a statewide mill levy (for property taxes). We’ve had conversations with legislators about referring a statewide mill to the people and creating a balance of property tax revenue statewide that would begin to equalize funding. The Gallagher Amendment has just created such a regressive situation in our property tax revenue. In Colorado, the Gallagher Amendment, coupled with Tabor, has reality created funding disparity for school districts.

Education should be the great equalizer. It should be the one place in our society where everyone has the same opportunity. If we give every single child the same tools to succeed through education, and then they go on to make personal decisions, and then they have their own personal responsibility about what they chose to do later in life, that’s one thing. But if we aren’t starting our kids off on equal ground to begin with, then we are holding them down all the way through. It should not be that just because your parents have more money or you come from a more affluent background that you should then get better educational opportunities. That is completely unjust.

Early childhood education is definitely where we need to begin, that all 4-year-olds should be attending pre-school. School readiness is definitely an issue and many of these kids are showing up to kindergarten and they’re unable to hold a pencil, and they haven’t been read to, don’t know their alphabet, those kinds of things. I’m definitely an advocate for pre-school and ensuring programs like Head Start and the Denver Pre-K program which provides pre-school to all 4-year-old Denver residents, those kinds of things must be funded. We must continue to ensure every child has pre-school and is school ready.

Yes, there is some parental responsibility and I’m not going to take that out of the equation. As parents, we need to be doing those things for our children. But at end of day, all parents are not, and that’s not the child’s fault. We need to remove the consequence and not make this child the victim and ensure our children are having all the tools they need to succeed. The parents should have responsibility in this, but we know all of them don’t. All of them are not providing, and all are not all able. A lot of these parents are working two and three jobs. Not to make excuses, but if they didn’t have to work three jobs for a living wage, maybe they would have time to read to their children after school.

In the 1960s, we had all the programs. When many of the programs became available such as Head Start and Pell grants, funding that was provided through the war on poverty. The first time we had access to health care for low-income people, so we had Medicaid, and we had Medicare, and we had Head Start, and we had all these things that started to provide opportunities for the lowest income people. So that all ramped up and our federal taxes and our state taxes were much more progressive and there was a much more equal distribution of the tax responsibility and we saw a very prosperous time and we saw a lot of gains all across in every income level and all races were having economic gains. And then we saw, right at the ‘80s, when the war on government began, and the conservative attack on our government and all the programs have been cut and the tax code has been turned upside down and everything that has happened since about 1982, and you can just see the direct connection. Even the financial deregulation and the loss of wealth that has occurred in our communities because of foreclosure and because of the predatory lending that was allowed, you can take a map of policy and put it right on top of all those graphs and see exactly the attack on our communities that has occurred since 1980.

It’s cut, cut, cut and there goes the graduation rate. It’s not all about how much money we spend on education. But when kids don’t have textbooks to take home. They’re sharing. These kids at West High School across the street here, they don’t have books to take home. They have to leave them at school. If you can’t study and do your homework at home, what kind of outcomes are you going to have? They don’t have enough books to give one to every child. The books stay in the classroom. They have to leave it there for the next class to use, so they can’t go home and study. That’s pathetic.

We have some schools out in the mountain counties, we heard from Crested Butte that they don’t have enough money for heat in the winter. So these kids are sitting there in their coats and gloves. That’s pathetic. When are we going to start sharing the responsibility for our communities, and say ‘OK I’m willing to pay more in taxes so our kids can have a future’?

I am optimistic about the recent awareness that I see in the public discourse. The fact that a lot of people seem to be more aware than they were even five years about the policies that have created our current economic crisis on a broader scale. And, so I hope that we’re waking up and we’re ready to be more civically engaged and take more responsibility for the common good again, practice some of those values that we all had I believe that have been lost a little bit. I feel like our values are starting to unify a little bit more, so I’m optimistic. We advocate for a graduated income tax, state income tax, and if you look at the recent findings from the Denver University study they did on our state budget, and all of our financial issues we’re facing _ they identified the graduated income tax as the solution. They looked at all of our budgetary shortfalls, our projected outlooks, all through 2024, and their finding was a graduated income tax would fill all of our revenue shortfalls and it would also leave us with money. In our mind then it is a more equal distribution of responsibility. We do hope to see more people willing to say that publicly, that the wealthiest people in our state are not paying their fair share.

An Institute on Taxation report shows our lowest income people in Colorado are paying twice as much in taxes as a percentage of their incomes than the highest income earners. The lowest income are paying nine percent, the wealthiest are paying about 4.2 percent. The report is called “Who Pays?” It’s a 50-state report, there’s a whole section on Colorado. It shows you right there how unequal our tax distribution is and it also illustrates property tax inequity…it shows how all across the board our taxes are just out of whack.

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