ANTONITO, Colo. -- In a state with more than 850,000 students enrolled in public schools, nearly 70 percent of them concentrated in 15 large urban and suburban districts, just about 200 attend one of the two schools in this desolate, dusty town of about 800 in the San Luis Valley just miles from the New Mexico line.
Most of them attend Antonito High School, a crumbling two-story building of narrow, poorly-lit hallways, its classrooms behind heavy, prison-like doors, full of outdated books and rusty lab equipment -- and students who, South Conejos Superintendent Michael Moore believes, deserve better.
"We have no art program. We have no music program in the high school. And no drama program," Moore said. "We can only provide bare bones."
Isaiah Garcia, a senior, hasn't known any other school than Antonito. But, he knows enough to know that the resources available to him and his classmates are sparse.
"My English class is directly under the gym, so you can hear all the basketballs going when they run. It can be distracting," said Garcia, whose father attended the same school more than 30 years ago.
"We still have some Spanish books with my dad's name in it that we still use today."
Isaish will graduate next spring and hopes to attend college at Adams State University in Alamosa, about 20 miles up the road.
But he and Moore are hopeful that Colorado voters may help future generations of Antonito students by approving Amendment 66, a income tax hike that will generate $950 million in annual revenue to fund education reforms and improvements in schools across the state -- especially the poor ones.
"It can make the changes needed to help these kids, to help them reach their full potential," said Moore, whose annual operating budget for the district is $2.3 million, barely enough to get by.
The influx of an estimated $450,000 in additional funding from the state -- that's about 20 percent of his current budget -- would allow him to do a lot of things, including, first and foremost, hiring some more teachers.
"In the high school, we have one math teacher," he said. "That math teacher teaches every course in that content area. That's six courses.
"In every core area, we have one teacher."
What Amendment 66 does
Approved by the legislature earlier this year, Amendment 66 would help finance full-day kindergarten for students across the state, along with new training for teachers, support for innovation programs and charter schools and the implementation of Senate Bill 191, which ties teacher evaluation and tenure more closely to student performance.
The financing overhaul gives principals and teachers at the local level more authority to decide how the money is spent; and it pays for a new website that will aim to show the public how every dollar is spent.
Additionally, it ends the practice of funding schools based on how many students attend school at the start of the year. Under Amendment 66, per pupil funding will follow the individual students -- if a student switches schools, their funding goes with them.
And, schools with students on free or reduced lunch programs or those classified as English language learners will get additional resources to help educate them.
"Not all kids are the same, but all kids have potential," said Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia at a canvassing kickoff event for the Yes on 66 campaign earlier this month.
But while most Democrats and many business groups and newspapers support Amendment 66, most Republicans and several other organizations believe the measure won't be worth the high cost to taxpayers.
And, under Colorado's Taxpayers' Bill of Rights, they have the final say on whether any of the changes, which hinge on the new taxes, actually go into effect.
"It is simply too massive of a tax increase and the wrong kind of tax increase," said John Brackney, the CEO of the South Metro Chamber of Commerce, at a recent press conference organized by Amendment 66 opponents.
Proposal calls for permanent two-tiered income tax hike
The proposal calls for enshrining a permanent, two-tier increase in income tax rates in the state's constitution.
The current 4.63 flat income tax rate would be raised to 5 percent on an individual's first $75,000 of income under Amendment 66. That amounts to about a $133 increase for someone making about $58,000 a year.
But all income above $75,000 would be taxed at a 5.9 percent rate. For an individual making $100,000 a year, the increase calculates out to about $250.
One study showed that the tax increase, if passed, could cost the state about $224 million in economic activity during the first five years; another, however, showed that the improvements in education will net the state's economy roughly $3.3 billion annually after subtracting the cost to taxpayers.
Linda Gorman, an economist at the Independence Institute, a libertarian Denver think tank that's organized much of the opposition to Amendment 66, argues that the more affluent Coloradans, many of whom own small businesses, will bear the brunt of the tax hike.
"Those taxpayers pay over 60-70 percent of the income tax in any one year," Gorman said. "And they are very mobile. If this passes, they will leave."
Linda Hill, a mother of five in Jefferson County, echoed Gorman's point.
"As part of the middle class, I can say that we pay for everything and we qualify for nothing," Hill said. "All of the money that goes to free and reduced lunch students and English language learners -- there's nothing in there that even says this will help my children at all."
Supporters of Amendment 66 argue that the financial burden will pay dividends.
"This is an investment, but it's an investment that's really going to pay off," said Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat. "This is the single-most transformative education initiative in the history of the United States."
The campaign believes, contrary to the fears of its opponents, Amendment 66 will draw businesses to the state.
"Businesses are drawn to communities that invest in safe neighborhoods, good roads and—most importantly—good schools," the campaign said Thursday. "They want to make sure their employees can put their kids in good schools and that they can hire qualified workers."
An attempt to level the playing field
Should Amendment 66 pass, every school district in the state will have more money in its general fund budget than it does now.
But, it's also true that more affluent counties with a higher tax base will pay more in new income taxes than their local school districts get in return.
The inverse will be true in poorer places like Conejos County, where schools will receive more education funding than its citizens will pay in higher taxes.
Moore, who's been the superintendent in South Conejos for nine years, knows some taxpayers around the state don't think that's fair.
"By not providing these children what they need, that's the part that's not fair," he said. "This is great community. It's a small community, an impoverished community, but it's not these kids' fault.
"Why should their education be devalued?"