Fact-Checking Democratic Candidate Jeanne Nicholson on K-12 Spending

Update, 10:30 PM: In an email this evening, Republican candidate Tim Leonard responded to the charge from his Democratic opponent as follows:

After one debate together, she clearly knows that her statement of my position is erroneous. I have used clear language to state that my position is to reduce our state government spending to equal our tax revenues — currently estimated to be a $1.1B budget decrease. And I have been equally clear that I support an “across the board” reduction in all the funded areas of our state government.

So to represent to the public that I would support absorbing 100% of our budget shortfall within public education is a purposeful misrepresentation for the benefit of fooling voters. This is the very definition of “negative campaigning”. I would hope she retracts her statement, apologizes for misleading voters, and better adheres to her pledge of running a positive campaign.

Jeanne Nicholson is a Democrat running for one of the Colorado state legislature’s most competitive races this year: Senate District 16. In an email sent out yesterday morning, she regurgitated an alleged statistic that lies somewhere between misleading and utterly meaningless:

…In these uncertain times public schools are under attack. My opponent in this race is calling for a billion dollar cut to the state’s education budget. I don’t need to tell you that a budget cut on this scale would devastate our public schools already ranked 49th in the nation in funding per student.

First of all, it should be noted there is no evidence I can find that Nicholson’s Republican opponent Tim Leonard has made any sort of a call. But that just looks like the usual election season hyperbole. What I am more concerned about is the absurd claim that Colorado ranks 49th in per-pupil K-12 funding. I’ve debunked it time and again before. But here we go again for the record so other candidates, officials and groups this year avoid repeating the spurious claim:

  1. What are we really measuring? The “49th” reference is to the amount of dollars collected or spent as a share of residents’ personal income. Because Colorado is a higher-earning state, the denominator is higher. Using the most recent Census Bureau data, Colorado ranks 49th in per-capita income by spending about 3.5 of every 100 earned income dollars on K-12 education compared to the national average of 4 of every 100 dollars earned.
  2. So what can we really learn? The statistic presumes states where residents earn greater incomes automatically must fund more K-12 education programs regardless of results. And no significant correlation exists between states that spend greater shares of income on public education and positive learning outcomes.
  3. But how is the money being spent? By the same comparison against earned income, Colorado ranks 32nd and 38th, respectively, in spending on school administration and general administration.
  4. And whose data will you trust? According to the National Education Association (PDF – pg 56, Table H-13), measuring the category of current per-pupil expenditures per $1,000 of personal income ranks Colorado 41st rather than 49th.
  5. What about actual dollars spent per student? If you measure only current expenditures — excluding capital construction and debt financing — Colorado either ranks 29th at $9,335 per pupil (NEA – pg 54, Table H-9), 35th at $9,152 per pupil (US Dept of Ed), or 36th at $9,079 per pupil (U.S. Census Bureau) in 2007-08, the most recent year available for comparable data.
  6. What if you include all spending? Measuring total expenditures, Colorado K-12 agencies spent $8.93 billion in 2007-08. According to U.S. Department of Education data, at $11,133 per pupil, Colorado ranked 32nd among the states.
  7. How has it changed over time? According to U.S. Department of Education data, inflation-adjusted current expenditures per student roughly doubled in both Colorado and nationally between 1970 and 2000, and grew by an additional 20 percent or so through 2007. In the two decades since the Department began consistently reporting total expenditure data in 1988-89, Colorado’s total spending grew by 31 percent in real dollars per student, compared to the national increase of more than 45 percent.
  8. How does that compare to other states regionally? Measuring total dollars spent per pupil, Colorado ranks slightly higher than Kansas, Montana, New Mexico and Texas; significantly ahead of Nevada and Arizona; and more than $2,000 in front of Idaho, Oklahoma and Utah. Only Nebraska and Wyoming (which has no income tax but funds its schools largely through oil and gas revenues) spend more on a per-student basis than Colorado.

Apologies for the rigorous detail, but I hope that fact check cleared the air a bit. When you put it this, it just doesn’t seem quite so scary… does it?

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