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What Went Wrong With Colorado's Amendment 66?

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It was a national sensation. A 'grand bargain' in education passed by the just-barely-Democratic legislature in a purple state and sent to the voters for approval, Amendment 66 would have increased income taxes to provide $1 billion for pre-K to 12th grade education in exchange for more local control of school budgets, accountability, and transparency in how dollars are spent.

It went down 66 percent to 34 percent.

The explanation given by both the governor and its legislative leader, State Sen. Mike Johnston (full disclosure: I'm a big fan of both), is that it was more of a tax question than a policy question. Low turnout rates do seem to reinforce this idea that a highly mobilized anti-tax electorate came out against Amendment 66. The line from the opposition, which was massively outspent by Pro-66 groups, is that voters want to see reforms first and then they'll think about opening their wallets.

I think there's some truth in both viewpoints. Certainly there is a significant chunk of the electorate that is reflexively anti-tax in all circumstances, but even in the reddest of red states that's not two out of three people. Even if the anti-tax contingent turned out at double the rate of the rest of the state, it wouldn't explain such a lopsided defeat.

I also agree that voters are very skeptical of promises that spending more in education will lead to better outcomes for kids. Arizona's experience in 2012 with Prop 204 (which would have renewed an existing sales tax for education) is telling here, although interestingly it lost in a much more conservative state by a narrower margin, 64-36.

My view is that this was largely a data problem. Amendment 66 was at once too vague and too specific about where that billion dollars would go. It touched on issues that sound promising -- expanded Pre-K, improved evaluation, an innovation fund -- but all the language was about programs and services, not outcomes for kids. There was a sort of informational asymmetry in that voters could calculate exactly the numerical impact on their checking account, but not what the numerical impact for students would be.

I think if voters could have linked their tax dollars to an increase in high school graduation rates or improvement in third grade reading scores, they would have felt very differently about Amendment 66. Take my home state of California where, yes, we're deep blue -- but we also require a supermajority of 55 to 67 percent for school bonds. In this environment, where voters approved 113 out of 140 school bonds in 2012, for a total 80 percent success rate. Why? Because they knew exactly what they were getting.

Voters are clearly willing to make investments in education; we just have to frame those investments in the right way and make it clear how their community is going to be measurably different if the dollars are spent. I'm optimistic about the long term trajectory for education in Colorado. As a former Teach for America teacher, I'm sure Mike Johnson is a data nerd so he'll be back at this soon, hopefully with a tighter value proposition for voters.