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An American flag is in a classroom as students work on laptops in Newlon Elementary School early on Aug. 25, 2020. The school was one of 55 Discovery Link sites set up by Denver Public Schools where students participated in remote learning during the pandemic. (David Zalubowski, AP Photo)

A battle is brewing over a proposed marijuana tax increase to provide tutoring to mostly low-income students even before it makes the November ballot, dividing educators, lawmakers and community organizations on the best approach to help Colorado’s most vulnerable pupils make academic gains.

Advocates are touting Initiative 25 as a solution to closing learning gaps between low-income students and their more affluent peers — gaps that some educators, parents and advocates fear may have widened during the pandemic. But the state’s largest teachers union, originally a collaborator on the effort, recently withdrew its support, though its board will not oppose the measure.

The Colorado Learning Enrichment and Academic Progress Program, also known as Initiative 25, would increase the sales tax on recreational marijuana by 5%, generating about $138 million a year. The current state sales tax is 15%.  It also would divert $22 million in state land board revenue to the program.

At least $109 million, and up to $150 million, would be used to offer tutoring and after-school programs outside of regular school hours, as well as academic summer camps. Low-income students would be prioritized to receive assistance from the program.

But opponents are already lining up, arguing it will pave the way for school voucher programs to get a foothold in Colorado. Voucher programs, which have grown in other states, give families public funding to pay for private school tuition.

The nonprofit Gary Community Investments has already contributed nearly $950,000 to Learning Opportunities for Colorado’s Kids, the issue committee supporting Initiative 25. The group must submit the signatures of 124,632 registered Colorado voters by Aug. 2 to get the measure on the November ballot.

A hefty roster of Republican and Democratic lawmakers and former officeholders are backing the initiative, including former Govs. Bill Ritter, a Democrat, and Bill Owens, a Republican.

An effort to offer low-income kids academic extras

Former state Sen. Mike Johnston, now president and CEO of Gary Community Investments, said the coronavirus pandemic highlighted the educational inequities between low-income students and their peers from wealthier families. 

“Low-income kids by fifth grade will be up to two to three grade levels behind just because of the lack of exposure they’re getting to after-school programming and summer school programming,” Johnston said. “We think you can’t really make a long-term commitment to providing an equitable experience without addressing some of those out-of-school experiences.”

The idea behind Initiative 25 is that parents would be able to apply for $1,500 grants to pay for tutoring, after-school programs, science or math camp, summer school, or other learning options approved by an oversight board. Johnston said that school districts and teachers would automatically be approved providers. But other groups, including Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCAs and private businesses that offer supplemental education programs, could apply to be providers.

While the program would be open to all students, Johnston said low-income families would get priority. He estimated the program will serve 100,000 of the 150,000 Colorado students who are at poverty level.

“It could be enough to cover four to six weeks of summer camp,” he said. “It could be enough to get you two to three hours of tutoring every week for the entire academic year.”

Janet Enriquez, a teacher in the STEM lab, helps kids learn about rocks and minerals. After she adds water to sandstone and manipulates it with a plastic knife, students marvel as it turns from a solid into wet sand. About 35 kids ages 6-11 years old spent time after school at the Johnson Boys and Girls Club in Denver on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Initiative 25 is the second education-oriented ballot initiative Gary Community Investments has backed in recent years. 

In 2020, Colorado voters approved Proposition EE, a tax hike on tobacco and nicotine  products to fund universal preschool in the state. Gary Community Investments spent about $3 million in support of that measure.

The teachers union split

Johnston said the Colorado Education Association collaborated with his group on the details of Initiative 25.

“They were the first partner we reached out to,” said Johnston, a former lawmaker who also was a school teacher and principal in districts with high numbers of low-income students. “We rewrote and redesigned the measure entirely with their feedback and advice. And so we think they’ve been great thought partners throughout the process and it helped make the proposal a lot stronger.”

But the union withdrew their support earlier this week.

CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert sees a need for all students, especially kids from low-income families, to be able to access learning opportunities beyond normal schooling, like after-school tutoring, career and technical education experiences, and enrichment activities in subjects like science, math and reading. She also highlighted the value of “play-based experiences” for students. Those options aren’t available to every household in Colorado.

“There is a gap between haves and have nots, and that is something that needs to be addressed,” Baca-Oehlert said. 

However, she said the union’s board of directors isn’t certain that Initiative 25 is the right answer to shrinking that gap. They have a lot of questions around the implementation of the out-of-school learning program, she said.

Among CEA’s other questions: Will all Colorado students truly be able to access programs in their communities? Baca-Oehlert said rural students don’t necessarily have the same menu of after-school program options available to them as their counterparts in more populated parts of the state. She also wonders about resources like transportation, which often poses barriers for people living in poverty, and whether Initiative 25 would help students overcome that hurdle.

“Would those students who really need it have an ability to get there?” Baca-Oehlert asked.

“We needed to have some more information and some more answers regarding the initiative.”

The union’s board decided on Sunday to take a neutral position on the ballot measure and leave it up to Colorado voters.

While CEA maintains a neutral stance, Baca-Oehlert said a bigger education-funding issue is at play. 

Teacher Lauren Doshier stands in the art room of the the Johnson Boys and Girls Club in Denver on Wednesday, April 21, 2021, and gives each child some clay along with some tools to create anything they want. About 35 kids ages 6-11 arrive at the Johnson Boys and Girls Club after school. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“The real problem is that we’re not funding our schools adequately,” Baca-Oehlert said. “We’re not funding our public school services adequately.”

That forces Colorado to consider alternative ways to fund critical services for students. Enacting additional taxes on recreational marijuana sales is one example.

Baca-Oehlert doesn’t view the Colorado Learning Enrichment and Academic Progress Program as a voucher program or a stepping stone to a voucher program since public dollars would go to providers and not directly to families. 

But others sharply disagree. Taxpayers for Public Education called the initiative a “public school voucher” program that might fund private groups that discriminate against certain students.

That nonprofit is behind Coloradans Against School Vouchers, an issue committee formed in April to oppose the ballot initiative. It hasn’t reported raising or spending any money through late May.

Cindy Barnard, who sued the Douglas County School Board over its Choice Scholarship voucher program, which was put on hold by the courts in 2011, before any families could use it, and then repealed in 2018, is one of the committee organizers and also president of Taxpayers for Public Education. Barnard also has worked as a volunteer lobbyist to prevent other voucher programs from becoming law.

Barnard said public dollars set aside for education should stay in public schools and said voucher programs essentially lead to “a two-tier education system, one for the haves and one for the have nots.”

Barnard’s list of concerns around Initiative 25 runs long.

The initiative “will take public dollars and hand them to private institutions that have little accountability and can discriminate against students and families,” she said, citing the money diverted from the state land trust.

She would prefer that the money collected under Initiative 25 be directed to public schools, especially as the state owes Colorado schools a debt of $572 million — known as the budget stabilization factor.

“If there is funding available, that funding would be better used in our public schools where our public school teachers that are professionally educated, could offer those programs to students,” Barnard said.

Barnard is also concerned about the possibility of programs that benefit from Initiative 25 discriminating against students and families.

Johnston said the authors of the ballot measure adopted Colorado’s full anti-discrimination policy and “strengthened the language” so that the anti-discrimination protections in the measure are more rigorous than they are in the rest of state government.

The measure says: “Such financial aid must further 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.”

Several groups — including the conservative education nonprofit Ready Colorado and two cannabis organizations, Colorado Leads and the Marijuana Industry Group — are waiting to see if the measure makes the ballot before taking a position on it. 

Despite the withdrawal of CEA’s support, Johnston said he’s heartened by the broad coalition of current and former elected officials, education leaders and groups backing the ballot initiative.

“For us, what’s exciting is the breadth of the supporters,” Johnston said. “So many civil rights groups, so many parents and organizations representing low-income kids who know this is urgently needed.”

Email: Twitter: @EricaBreunlin

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @fishnette