By Sunana Batra | Special to Colorado Watchdog
Are supporters of last year’s failed ballot drive to raise statewide taxes for public education back for another bite at the apple? It’s hard to tell for sure; organizers of a new campaign to address school funding aren’t talking.
The campaign, billed as Colorado Commits, began running prime-time television commercials on Denver-area stations in early July. Sponsored by the civic group Colorado Forum, the effort also has set up a website and a Facebook page arguing that the state’s school system is underfunded. And an ad posted on Craigslist seeks to recruit field workers for the campaign, paying up to $12 an hour.
Colorado Forum Director Gail Klapper did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment on Colorado Commits, its aims or its funding. Representatives of OnSight Public Affairs, the political consulting firm that runs the campaign and touts it on its own website, also did not respond to requests for comment.
And some prominent people listed as present or past members of the Colorado Forum — a round table that convenes business leaders, politicians and others on public-policy issues — declined to discuss Colorado Commits as well. That includes former Colorado Forum member Rollie Heath, the Democratic state senator from Boulder who led the unsuccessful drive for Proposition 103 on the November 2011 statewide ballot.
Proposition 103 would have raised the state’s sales and income taxes to fund public education. The measure was voted down by a 2-to-1 margin. Colorado Commits’ message — that Colorado public school students are falling behind peers in other states for lack of funding — includes no specific call to action beyond asking website visitors to “make the pledge” to support “increased funding for K-12″ as well as smaller classes and cash incentives to teachers.
A Colorado Forum spinoff, the Colorado Forum Fund, registered Colorado Commits on June 19 with the Secretary of State’s Office. The fund received a $100,000 contribution in January from former Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter’s leftover campaign cash, after he decided not to seek re-election. Klapper told the Denver Post at the time that the fund is a “fiscal-planning project” focused on state education issues.
In 2011, the fund received $50,000 from the Rose Community Foundation, according to Rose’s 2011 Annual Report, “to support efforts to reform Colorado’s fiscal policies.”
Skeptics, meanwhile, questioned the campaign’s motives and pointed to state, federal and other data contradicting some of the campaign’s claims.
State Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, dismissed Colorado Commits as a front group for teachers unions.
“Never mind that spending on K-12 has outpaced inflation at three times the rate of inflation over the last 30 years with zero improvement. They just want more money,” Brophy said. “They will never have enough.”
The campaign contends, among other things, that Colorado will spend “$2,000 less per student than any state in our region.” The claim is not supported by data released in June by the U.S. Census Bureau, statistics from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, or data from the National Education Association’s Rankings & Estimates report. Utah, Arizona, Oklahoma and Idaho spend less per student than Colorado, according to the data.
The campaign’s ads also state, “(Colorado) ranks last in teacher pay.” However, the NEA, the nation’s largest teachers union, reports in its latest published report that in both the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years, Colorado teachers ranked 27thin average teacher salary at $49, 228, or just below the median.