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3 Ballot Initiatives To Decide Future of Education in Colo.

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The direction of public education in Colorado could hang in the balance this November, when citizens will be asked to vote on three controversial school-related initiatives.

State officials last month certified for the ballot a $320 million education-reform and tax-increase plan, a school-voucher proposal, and a tax-limitation measure.

Observers say the three contradictory proposals will present voters with a de facto referendum on the future of public schools in the state.

"There certainly is an opportunity for voters of this state to make some very specific decisions,'' said Deborah Fallin, the director of communications for the Colorado Education Association. "What we have to do is make sure they understand the implications of those decisions.''

The school-funding proposal, dubbed the "children first act,'' was proposed by Gov. Roy Romer, a Democrat. It would increase the sales tax from 3 cents to 4 cents, beginning in December, to fully fund the state's school-finance program and launch a variety of reforms.

The act would require the development of "world class'' standards and assessments for students. It would also establish shared decisionmaking at the school site; expand preschool programs for all 4- and 5-year-olds; base teacher and administrator pay, at least in part, on performance; and set aside monies for innovation and incentive payments for schools whose students make the most progress toward achieving the higher standards.

Governor Romer, who has campaigned hard for the initiative, has estimated that schools will face a shortfall of up to $300 million for the 1993-94 school year if it does not pass.

Mr. Romer decided to put the measure directly before citizens after failing to win support for it from the Republican-majority legislature this spring.

Lost Revenues Seen

In contrast, the other two measures on the ballot could result in lost revenues for the public schools.

The school-voucher initiative would require the state to provide parents with vouchers equal to 50 percent of the per-pupil expenditure in the school district where they live, or an average of $2,500 statewide.
Parents could then use the voucher to choose among any public or private school in the state or to educate their children at home. If approved, the measure would take effect in 1993-94.

The amendment is backed by a group called Coloradans for School Choice and has the support of the Independence Institute, a conservative research organization.

Bret Miller, the assistant to the campaign's director, said the initiative would provide "encouragement'' to districts to continue their reforms or else lose students.

But opponents of the amendment predict that it would drain at least $90 million from the public schools by providing taxpayer support for nearly 40,000 children who are already enrolled in private schools or educated at home.

The proposal is a "direct attack on public education and everything that public education stands for,'' Ms. Fallin charged.

The tax-limitation constitutional amendment is designed to restrict government growth by requiring voter approval of any tax increase or long-term debt at all levels of government. It would also limit state and local spending and property-tax growth to the rate of inflation plus the percentage change in state population or local growth.

The amendment also would prohibit several new taxes, such as a statewide property tax and a local income tax.

Similar tax-limitation initiatives were rejected by voters in 1988 and 1990.

'A Close Call'

Polls indicate that the two measures specific to education will face a close fight for adoption.

In a survey of 565 voters in early August, Ciruli Associates, a Denver-based research and polling firm, found that 56 percent supported the "children first'' measure, while 38 percent were opposed.

"It's positive, but a close call,'' said Floyd Ciruli, the president of the firm. "It will depend on a couple of things: the quality of the campaign--which is greatly enhanced in this state by a very popular Governor--and the quality of the opposition.''

City officials in particular are chafing at the proposed tax increase, Mr. Ciruli stated. At least one, Aurora, a large suburban community in the Denver area, has taken an official position against the measure.

Other observers noted that in tight fiscal times, Mr. Romer's package may be hard to sell, absent some demonstration that the public schools are willing to change.

"The issue that he keeps facing, and it's an interesting one, is you've got to reform first,'' said Cindy Parmenter, the Governor's spokeswoman. "You show us where you've made changes and gotten results, and then we'll talk to you.''

The Ciruli poll also found that voters favored the school-voucher initiative by a margin of 48 percent to 39 percent.

Mr. Ciruli noted, however, that those results may depend on the questions asked. "It's one of those issues that people know so little about that any nuance in how you ask it changes'' the numbers, he said.

Given the heavy focus on school choice at last month's Republican convention--and the recent deferral of a school-voucher initiative in California to the June 1994 ballot--Mr. Ciruli predicted that Colorado could become a key battleground for advocates on both sides.

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