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Proposition 119 supporters eye marijuana tax hike for new tutoring program. Opponents call it a scam

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Scott Franz
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A school bus in Steamboat Springs. Prop 119 supporters say a new tutoring program is needed to reverse learning loss during the coronavirus pandemic.

Many state lawmakers say the coronavirus pandemic has created an alarming divide at schools in Colorado.

Back in March, Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, says students who had the technology, the resources and the right learning environment at home were able to thrive when classes went online. But students that did not got left behind.

“We have many, many students who are missing, thousands of students who are missing because they are not plugged in, not engaged,” she said at the Capitol.

So she sponsored a bill that set up a website to help parents and school districts prevent learning loss due to the pandemic. It’s basically a how-to guide filled with hundreds of pages of research and suggestions for how to keep kids engaged while the pandemic rages on.

But Fields and other lawmakers now want to go much further. They’re throwing their support behind Proposition 119, a measure aimed at getting millions of dollars to give low-income students access to tutoring help outside of school.

“You might need a little bit of reinforcement as it relates to algebra, social studies,” Fields said of students who have returned to classrooms this year.

Proposition 119 would do that mostly by raising taxes on marijuana sales by 5% over the next three years. Nonpartisan analysts at the Capitol say the Learning Enrichment and Academic Progress Program – or LEAP for short – would net more than $100 million for the program during the next fiscal year.

And it has bipartisan support, including from Republican Rep. Hugh McKean of Loveland, who disagrees with Fields on many other policy issues.

“We’re in desperate need of figuring out answers for kids,” McKean said. “Kids in a geometry class here (in Loveland), most of them failed geometry during the hybrid year, and they desperately need help so that we are not finding that are further and further and further behind.”

McKean says the ballot measure could help support groups like the Boys and Girls Club, and even private businesses that provide tutoring and after school activities.

Colorado voters have shown a willingness to embrace so-called “sin taxes” in the past. Last year, they supported raising the price of cigarettes and vaping products to fund a variety of government programs, including education.

A board would oversee the grant funding. McKean says he favors that arrangement because he says the state has a bad track record of actually spending the money it gets from marijuana taxes on students.

And so this this initiative, I think, is the beautiful answer to say ‘let's make sure that that we put the money where our mouth has been’ and send it to programs that directly help kids,” he said.

Marijuana taxes are not the only source of funding the ballot initiative would use to pay for the tutoring program.

It would also pull $21 million each year from the State Land Trust Fund, which currently funds public schools.

This diversion concerns Judy Solano, a retired schoolteacher and former Democratic state legislator from Brighton.

“We see this as a scam, basically,” she said last month. It's actually taking $21 million every year and more out of the school, out of the state land trust funds, which were specifically set aside… only for public schools. So what this LEAP, this learning enrichment and academic progress program, would do is divert $21 million from those funds into this new bureaucracy.”

Solano says the new tutoring program should not come at the expense of millions of dollars schools have used in recent years to keep class sizes small and increase broadband.

I mean, Colorado has one of the lowest-funded public education systems in the nation,” she said. “There is no sunset clause in this, so it can go on forever.”

McKean says Solano’s concerns are valid. But he says strong revenue forecasts will allow the state to backfill the education budget and take on this new LEAP program without cutting any money going directly to schools.

Still, some teachers in the state aren’t buying it.

“There (are) some unknowns about this ballot measure and some questions around implementation and how will that work in our rural communities,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, the president of the Colorado Education Association. “Our board decided that neutral would be the best position and that this is something that, again, the voters should dig into and make a decision on.”

Meanwhile, the fight over Proposition 119 is shaping up to be one of the most heated — and personal — clashes on the November ballot. The Denver Gazette’s editorial board blasted Solano and other opponents for launching what they called a “dubious campaign to crush Colorado kids.”

Solano says she’s not deterred by the attacks.  

What concerns me is that it sounds really good to the average voter. ‘Oh, we're going to take this sin tax and we're going to use it for helping kids with their learning loss,’” she said. “Why aren't you just taking that money and giving it to the local school boards to make those decisions, the local districts?”

The authors of Amendment 119 did not return phone calls and emails to talk about their campaign. Instead, they’ve invested heavily in social media ads spotlighting their supporters, which include former governors from both parties.