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Colo. Bill Allows Schools To Secede From Districts

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The Colorado House last week approved a bill that would allow individual public schools, with faculty and parental approval, to withdraw from their school districts to attempt new educational approaches.

Under the bill, seceding districts would affiliate with a new statewide "independent school district'' under the supervision of the state board of education. The board would have to approve the proposed educational program of a breakaway school before it would be allowed to cut ties to its current district.

The bill's sponsor, Representative John J. Irwin, said he proposed the measure in the wake of his attempt last year to link alternative schools into a single statewide district.

That bill faltered, but the Loveland Republican reintroduced his measure in the current legislative session and stretched it to cover any public school that wanted to opt out of its local district.

The Colorado proposal also resembles a current reform in Great Britain in which schools may "opt out'' of their local education agencies and receive funding directly from the national government. (See Education Week, March 25, 1992.)

Under Mr. Irwin's bill, two-thirds-majority support of building faculty and staff and of parents would be required to submit an opt-out plan to the state board.

The plan would have to "cover every detail of how they will govern and handle admissions, grading--you name it,'' Representative Irwin said. "You don't just walk in and plunk your 50 cents on the bar and get opted out. You have to prove to the state board your program can fly.''

Although the bill is staunchly opposed by every major education group in the state, it passed the House on a 38-to-23 vote.

Creating a 'Civil War'?

"This is being promoted by a bunch of limouisine liberals in Denver'' who had run-ins with the school board over getting their children enrolled in special programs, asserted Phil Fox, a lobbyist for the Colorado Association of School Boards and the Colorado Association of School Executives. "We believe it is absolutely unconstitutional.''

Ironically, the bill would not apply to the Denver school district, which was established separately under state law, Mr. Fox added.

Education groups contend that the proposal presents a host of thorny legal questions regarding who would own the school buildings and pay the insurance and other costs of the opted-out school, as well as whether such schools would have independent taxing authority.

"This bill would create a civil war,'' Mr. Fox contended.

Nevertheless, the bill has attracted a diverse spectrum of backers, including Hispanic groups, advocates for students with disabilities, and the influential Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry.

"Most of the concerns mentioned are niggling, bureaucratic matters,'' said Patrick Boyle, a lobbyist for the state business group. "The real issue is power. The school districts and teachers' unions support the existing structure because it is the one that they already control.''

But some critics in the legislature warn that well-organized, wealthier schools might be most likely to take advantage of the option, leaving their former districts with a higher percentage of minority or at-risk pupils.

Others have accused the measure of being a "school voucher'' program that would substitute for unsuccessful efforts in the state to create a voucher system for students.

"This bill suggests you have to apply for membership'' in the independent statewide district, said Representative Wilma J. Webb, a Denver Democrat who opposes the idea. "This promotes a concept of private schools within the public-school system.''

The bill will no doubt face a tougher time in the Senate, especially after being assigned last week to the Senate Education Committee. That panel has been described by some observers as a "legislative black hole'' for major school-reform measures.

Senator Al Meiklejohn, the Republican chairman of the education panel, is concerned about the constitutionality of the bill, Mr. Fox said.

No Finance-Reform Progress

The independent-school-district bill is one of a number of school-finance and education-reform measures being addressed by Colorado lawmakers in their current session.

But while adoption of a long-term solution to the state's school-finance puzzle is a primary goal for the legislative session--and an increasingly insistent demand by Gov. Roy Romer--lawmakers appeared last week to be no closer to that target.

The House last week defeated a school-finance measure that included several reform amendments.

The bill included a provision that called for site-based management for public schools and another that would have permitted districts to have local public colleges or universities oversee their administrative functions.

That proposal was inspired by an arrangement under which the University of Southern Colorado provides administrative services for the Pueblo school district.

With the defeat of the latest school-finance measure, those proposals are dead for now, observers said.

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