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Proposed Voucher Plan Divides Colorado Politicians, Educators

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Political and educational factions in Colorado are gearing up to wage a major battle for public support in their contest over a proposed referendum that would mandate a statewide voucher system--along with a core curriculum for high-school students and merit pay for teachers--if approved by voters next November.

If supporters of the referendum are able to obtain the 46,737 signatures required to place the initiative on the ballot this fall, it will mark the first voter test of the voucher concept, said William D. Coats, executive director of the Education Voucher Institute, an independent research organization in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Both the proponents and the opponents of vouchers have been meeting to discuss plans of action, and both sides indicate they expect to spend money in their attempt to influence voter opinion.

The voucher section of the three-part proposal would require the state legislature to provide vouchers to all parents, allowing them to "buy" the educational services of any accredited school in the state that is not "pervasively sectarian," according to the proposal.

Prominent Activists

In the last legal hurdle to be cleared before proponents of the initiative can begin soliciting signatures, Hugh Fowler, a member of the University of Colorado Board of Regents and a former state senator, last week registered a final draft of the proposal with state officials.

The measure has also had the active support of Thomas G. Tancredo, the head of the U.S. Education Department's regional office in Denver, and opponents of the referendum say they believe that the industrial-ist Joseph Coors is a backer of the proposal.

But at the same time, leaders of the state Congress of Parents and Teachers, the Colorado Education Association (an affiliate of the National Education Association), the Colorado Association of State School Boards, the Colorado Association of School Executives, and the state commissioner of education have been meeting informally every two weeks to discuss strategies to combat the referendum, said Wesley L. Apker, executive director of the school-executives group.

Proponents of the proposed referendum say they believe vouchers will create healthy competition among schools that will improve the quality of education overall and will benefit the poor by allowing them an educational "choice."

Mr. Fowler, who was the chairman of the Senate Education Committee between 1970 and 1980, said he agreed to draft the final version of the "education improvement amendment" and present it to Colorado's secretary of state after the legislature "failed to pass significant" educational reform legislation during its current session.

"They labored mightily, but they didn't even bring forth a mouse," Mr. Fowler said. "So we're going to ask the people to initiate this constitutional amendment."

Mr. Fowler said he is expecting the public to support the voucher proposal because opinion polls have shown a steady increase in the number of people who favor vouchers.

About 48 percent of the adults polled in last May's "15th Annual Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools" said they favored a voucher system. In 1971, 38-percent were in favor.

Funding the Petition

The petition drive to collect the necessary signatures will begin as early as next week, Mr. Fowler said. All of the signatures must be gathered before August 6.

Mr. Fowler said he expects the referendum battle to be difficult and costly. He estimated that just obtaining the signatures will require about $50,000 and a "troop" of volunteer petitioners.

[A campaign to place an education-voucher initiative on the 1982 ballot in California failed, largely because organizers did not receive the financial support and endorsement from private-school interests that they had anticipated. (See Education Week, Nov. 16, 1981.)]

Financial support for the referendum campaign is expected to come in large part from the state's business community, according to Mr. Fowler and Clint Bolick, one of the original drafters of the education improvement amendment. Mr. Bolick is also a leader of the Foundation for Educational Excellence, an organization he characterizes as a "bipartisan group of conservative political and business leaders."

The foundation, established last year to advocate "freedom of choice" in education, strongly favors the referendum, Mr. Bolick said.

Choice for the Poor

According to Mr. Fowler, the referendum, if adopted, would improve education for all the state's students.

Requiring a core curriculum for graduation that includes four years of English, three years of science, three years of mathematics, three years of social studies (which must include a "comprehensive presentation of the free-enterprise system and the responsibilities of the citizen" in a democracy), and two years of foreign-language studies, is the only way to ensure that all students receive a "basic" education, he said.

The drafters of the referendum included a proposal for merit pay, Mr. Fowler said, because it was recommended by the National Commission on Excellence in Education in its report, "A Nation at Risk."

And the voucher system was included to ensure a "just" distribution of statewide resources, he said. "We're talking about breaking the monopoly of public education--the requirement that parents send their children to schools where the children aren't learning anything," Mr. Fowler said.

"The rich don't need vouchers," said Mr. Tancredo, of the U.S. Education Department. "They can send their kids anywhere they want. It is those who do not have economic mobility who will benefit."

Mr. Tancredo said the most "frightening" aspect of the voucher debate has been the negative response of educators. "They seem to think that public school came over on the Mayflower and it didn't," he said. "We need to show that public schools are not afraid to compete and can provide as good an education as private schools."

Public Educators Opposed

Public-school educators in the state are working to defeat the measure in part because they fear that the "elitist" nature of vouchers will create a "continuing fracture" of American society, said Mr. Apker of the school-executives association.

"One of the strengths of American public education is that it exposes students to many different points of view, to students from different socio-economic backgrounds, and to students of different races and cultures," Mr. Apker said.

"Under a voucher system," he added, "there is a real possibility that a student could attend a school with a very narrow point of view for his or her entire life, and in my judgment, such a system has the potential to be very divisive."

Mr. Apker pointed to Holland as an instance in which a voucher system may have fostered divisiveness in the community because students are not exposed to the diversity of public schools. "There are many articles which seem to suggest that tension in that community breaks along cultural and religious points of view," he said. (See Education Week, April 28, 1982.)

'Technical Difficulty'

Calvin M. Frazier, Colorado's commissioner of education, is on record as opposing the referendum.

If the proposal becomes law, Mr. Frazier predicts, the "technical difficulty" of working out the details of a voucher system would "bring to a halt the normal educational responsibilities" of the state government for several years. "At which point, the system would come under even more criticism," he said.

"Colorado education has been considered quite good," he added. "We would be throwing over a system that has not served that badly. I think the need for such a drastic change is lacking."

Although Mr. Frazier said he did not think there would be a "mass exodus" from the public schools if a voucher system were instituted, he said there would be a gradual erosion over time and public schools would end up educating "the leftovers"--students private education is unwilling or unable to educate.

Mr. Frazier also said he is concerned about the cost of a voucher system, adding that the state might have to spend an additional $35 million on the education of approximately 25,000 of Colorado's private-school students whose parents currently pay for their education.

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