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Colo. Defeats Voucher Plan, Backs Limits on Taxes

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Colorado voters last week overwhelmingly rejected a school-voucher proposal but threw funding for public education into potential turmoil by turning down a sales-tax increase for the schools and passing a tax-limitation measure.

While hailing the defeat of the voucher plan, public educators in the state last week were bracing for a projected 9 percent drop in funding as a result of the loss of the 1 cent tax hike and the approval of the tax curbs.

The Colorado election was being watched nationally as a test of public support for school vouchers that included private and religious schools.

The proposal would have given parents vouchers worth one-half of the average per-pupil expenditure in their children's resident school district for use in attending any public or private school. The vouchers would have been worth a statewide average of about $2,500. (See Education Week, Oct. 21, 1992.)

The measure was soundly rejected, with 66.8 percent of voters against it and 33.2 percent in favor.

"I think the citizens of Colorado have stated very clearly that vouchers is not a program they want in this state,'' said Bill Comer, a National Education Association official in the state who directed the No on Vouchers Committee.

Tax Fears Cited

Bret Miller, the treasurer of Coloradans for School Choice, the group that backed the voucher plan, said it was hurt by opposition efforts to paint it as a measure that would require a tax increase.

"Anything having to do with increasing taxation didn't pass,'' said Mr. Miller, noting the defeat of the sales-tax increase for education.

Proponents said they would try again, perhaps by proposing a voucher designed to benefit low-income families.

"This is the first time it has been on the ballot and it is kind of a radical idea for a lot of people,'' Mr. Miller said.

Some education experts contended last week that the defeat of the Colorado measure, combined with the defeat of President Bush, who backed the idea, could slow the momentum of the movement for vouchers and school choice.

But the director of a California campaign to enact a voucher system said the effort in that state will not be hurt by the defeat of vouchers in Colorado.

"Colorado is a totally different animal than California,'' said Kevin D. Teasley, the director of the Choice in Education League, whose voucher measure has been slated for the June 1994 statewide ballot. "We have more time, and a much larger public outcry for reform.''

Governor's Plan Rejected

The public education establishment in Colorado appeared to be reeling last week from the passage of the tax-limitation measure and the defeat of the sales-tax increase.

The sales-tax increase was proposed by Gov. Roy Romer to provide a stable source of funding for public education after he became frustrated with perennial school-finance deadlocks in the legislature.

The measure was expected to provide about $330 million in its first year, thus covering a projected deficit in K-12 education next year of at least $275 million. The Children First measure also included a lengthy package of school reforms.

The sales-tax measure was defeated 56 percent to 44 percent.

The tax-limitation constitutional amendment, which was defeated in different forms in two previous elections, passed this time by a vote of 53.7 percent to 46.3 percent.

The measure requires the state or local governments to get voter approval of any tax increase. It also limits annual spending increases to the rate of inflation, plus increases in population growth, school enrollment, or the property-tax base.

Douglas Bruce, the chief proponent of the measure, said there were a number of factors that combined to put it over the top this year, including the crowded field of ballot initiatives.

"Our opponents were busy'' with the voucher, sales-tax, and other controversial ballot measures, Mr. Bruce said. "We were no longer the hot-button issue. Their attention was diverted.''

Educators said the failure of the sales-tax increase alone would have forced lawmakers into a difficult fight over how to reduce the anticipated budget shortfall. But with the passage of the tax limitation, their task will be more difficult.

Teacher Layoffs Predicted

The Legislative Council, the research arm of the legislature, said the passage of the tax limitation and the defeat of the sales-tax hike mean that public schools face a minimum 9 percent drop in per-pupil funding next year.

School districts in which property values have declined also face a reduction in tax revenues as a result of a provision of the tax-limitation measure that prohibits them from certifying higher tax rates, the council said.

Since the legislature cannot raise taxes on its own, and school districts cannot replace lost state revenues with property-tax hikes without voter approval, many districts will now have to lay off teachers and increase class sizes, officials said.

"It is unlikely the voters knew the impact of these two things together,'' said Deborah Fallin, the spokeswoman for the Colorado Education Association.

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