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Colorado Approves 'Second Chance' Voucher Effort

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The Colorado legislature late last month approved, as part of an omnibus education-reform bill, an experimental public-school voucher program, the first of its kind in the country, experts say.

The voucher amendment, which allows students who have dropped out of school for at least six months to re-enroll at another participating school or school system, was slipped into the education-reform package in the last moments of a late-night session by Senator Steven J. Durham, Republican of Colorado Springs.

Governor's Proposal

Part of the larger reform package approved in nearly unanimous votes in both the House and Senate, the voucher amendment is a variation on a proposal advanced in January by the state's Democratic governor, Richard D. Lamm. Governor Lamm's proposal, however, would have allowed dropouts to transfer to any public or private school in the state. (See Education Week, Jan. 16, 1985.) The Governor is expected to sign the reform bill this month.

Colorado's voucher program "is the closest thing that I am aware of to a choice program," said William D. Coates, executive director of the Education Voucher Institute, an independent research organization in Ann Arbor, Mich.

William J. Bennett, the U.S. Secretary of Education, and Albert Shanker, president of the 600,000-member American Federation of Teachers, have advocated "choice" programs in recent months. Mr. Shanker advocates choice among public schools only, while Mr. Bennett supports an open system for both public and private schools.

District Approval Required

Under Colorado's new program, a dropout's transfer to another school or district must be approved by the student's parents, the school the student left, and the "receiving" school district. The transfer can be initiated by either the students and their parents or the school districts. School districts must apply to the state education department to participate in the program.

Upon approval, 85 percent of the state funding for the student will be transferred to the receiving school district. The rest of the state money is divided between the sending school district and the state education department to cover administrative expenses.

Dubbed the "Second Chance Pro-gram" by Governor Lamm, the concept is designed to address the state's dropout problem.

Support for Program

According to Robin Johnston, assistant to the state commissioner of education, the dropout rate in 1983 was 6.5 percent for all students and 12.4 percent for Hispanic students.

Ms. Johnston said education department officials support the Second Chance Program as long as "it doesn't open the door to private-school vouchers."

'A Lot of Controversy'

"Needless to say, there was a lot of controversy on this," she added, "but we all agreed that there is a real need to do something for our dropouts."

The leaders of some education groups in the state, however, expressed serious misgivings about the new program last week.

Deborah Fallin, director of communication for the Colorado Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, explained that the Second Chance Program was attached to a $2-million education-reform proposal backed by a coalition of education groups that included the cea, the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Association of School Executives, the Colorado Federation of Teachers (an affiliate of the aft), and the Colorado Parent Teacher Association.

"Nobody is really happy about this," Ms. Fallin said, "but we agreed, in spite of the amendment, that we would continue to support the reform package so that we could get the other things that we wanted."

Coalition members had opposed the Second Chance Program when it was introduced separately earlier in the legislative session and it died in committee, Ms. Fallin said.

Amendment Amended

She added that legislators were forced to amend the amendment in the final hours of debate to exclude private schools from the Second Chance Program. The coalition would not have supported any of the reform package if the program had included private schools, Ms. Fallin said.

"We supported the amendment reluctantly," said Gayla M. Stone, president of the Colorado pta "We don't have any problem with looking at the dropout issue, but the direction we need to be going in is prevention programs in preschool. We need to be looking at that whole issue at a much earlier stage."

Gerald Difford, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, said last week that his organization took no formal position on the Second Chance Program. The members are somewhat concerned, however, about the administrative difficulties that could accompany it, he said.

'Not Far Enough'

But several supporters of the Second Chance Program said last week that it does not go far enough.

"The bill has been watered down quite significantly," said Thomas G. Tancredo, the head of the U.S. Education Department's regional office in Denver. "When you take the private entrepreneurs out of it, you retain the monopoly on the provision of educational services. Even though there is the possibility that there will be competition, it will be minimal."

He also said, however, that the program establishes the "important concept" that state funds follow the child and not the school systems.

Mr. Tancredo said his support of vouchers is a "personal commitment'' and not a policy position of the regional office.

Senator Durham, the amendment's sponsor, said he was "happy with the amendment but it didn't ac-complish everything that I hoped."

"I expect it will be back in the next session," he said.

Details of Reform Package

The reform package containing the voucher amendment also included programs to assess the basic-skills competencies of students in grades 3, 6, 9, and 11 and an assessment of prospective teachers and administrators.

According to Ms. Johnston, the assessment program is an attempt to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the state's educational system in order to make appropriate changes.

The reform package included a $240,000 appropriation for dropout-prevention programs in the lower grades and another $200,000 to support programs for gifted and talented students.

Legislators also approved an $801-million budget for elementary and secondary education, an increase of $40 million above last year's appropriation, Ms. Johnston said.

Overall, state education officials are very pleased with the outcome of this legislative session, according to Ms. Johnston. "I think this is the outstanding session in 13 years," she said.

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