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Colo. Voters Reject Parent-Rights Measure

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Many Colorado educators breathed easier last week after voters rejected a fiercely debated ballot measure on parental rights.

The briefly worded Amendment 17 would have added to the bill of rights in the Colorado Constitution the inalienable right of parents "to direct and control the upbringing, education, values, and discipline of their children."

Although polls leading up to the Nov. 5 election showed that voters favored the proposed Parental Rights Amendment, it was rejected by 57 percent of Colorado voters.

Opponents, including an array of civic and education groups, argued that the amendment would stifle educators, put workers in child health and welfare on the defensive, and clog courts with lawsuits against state agencies.

Fofi Mendez, who managed the opposition coalition, said the amendment, backed largely by conservative and religious groups, was not the answer to strengthening families in the state. She hailed the proposal's defeat as "a vote where reasonable people and common sense prevailed."

Backers said Amendment 17 would limit the authority of government and return power to parents.

Jeffrey Bell, whose Arlington, Va.-based parent-rights organization, Of the People, sponsored the Colorado measure, blamed its defeat on a misinterpretation. He argued that opponents wrongly portrayed the word "discipline" as physical abuse.

Bipartisan Opposition

The Protect Our Children Coalition, the bipartisan opposition managed by Ms. Mendez, debated the measure across the state, maintaining that it would allow an outspoken minority of parents to challenge virtually any government service or agency affecting their children, including public schools and school boards, libraries, and health-care and child-protection services.

Ms. Mendez said the coalition, which included Democratic Gov. Roy Romer as well as associations of teachers, churches, pediatricians, sheriffs, district attorneys, and others, was instrumental in convincing voters that the seemingly reasonable measure was not so simple.

"Of the People misjudged the effectiveness of our campaign and the intelligence of Colorado voters," Ms. Mendez said. "At first blush, it sounded like motherhood and apple pie. But once [voters] looked beneath the pretty packaging and saw the effects, they said no."

One of the primary targets of the amendment was the school system. School officials feared the measure would wreak havoc on the work of teachers, stunt curricula, and force schools to halt services such as confidential drug and birth-control counseling for students.

"It would have caused ideological battle fronts in schools," said Deborah Fallin, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Association of School Boards, "with individual parents pushing for their child's individual needs."

She also maintained that the language of the measure--by ensuring parents' "control" of their children's education--would ultimately have moved education in the state toward a voucher system.

The Coalition for Parental Responsibility, the Colorado group backing the amendment, denied that vouchers were part of the intent of the measure.

Outside Support

Backers said the measure was intended to affirm the fundamental rights of parents--rights that they said have been eroded by the courts, various government agencies, and other institutions and groups dealing with children, including state teachers' unions.

The Colorado sponsors said last week that they will push some version of the parental-rights measure in the legislature, while Of the People mounts a campaign to put the issue back on the ballot in 1998.

Mr. Bell said that given the swell of support that the amendment had through most of the campaign, the defeat was a major blow.

"I've learned a lot of lessons in this defeat," Mr. Bell said. "We needed more support from state officers--the governor and senators."

Perhaps the most prominent champion of the measure was Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole. While stumping in Colorado, Mr. Dole urged voters to "pass Amendment 17 and become the first state to enshrine parental rights in its constitution." No prominent state officials supported the measure, however.

The amendment was sponsored largely by out-of-state interests--Mr. Bell's group provided most of the $463,000 that the pro-amendment coalition raised--prompting charges from many Coloradans that the state was being used as a testing ground for questionable legislation.

The initiative was one of the most closely watched ballot issues nationally and the most divisive in the state since 1992, observers said. That year, voters narrowly approved an amendment prohibiting anti-discrimination legislation covering homosexuals, a measure that has since been declared unconstitutional.

If the parental-rights amendment had passed in Colorado, supporters were prepared to launch similar proposals in more than 20 states.

Bonds for N.C.

In other state ballot action elsewhere last week, voters in North Carolina overwhelmingly passed $1.8 billion statewide bond issue for school construction--the largest school bond issue in the state's history.

The measure will pay for construction, renovation, and other school-related building projects. Sponsors say the bonds will alleviate more than 30 percent of the state's school facilities needs. Funds will be distributed on the basis of a district's wealth, growth, and average daily attendance.

In Arkansas, meanwhile, voters approved a constitutional amendment drafted to reduce gaps in per-pupil spending across the state. The amendment allows the state to require a minimum local property-tax rate. Lawmakers who supported the measure saw the amendment as the final step in cementing a new school finance law.

An Arkansas judge ruled in November 1994 that the state's finance system allowed for unconstitutional inequities in schooling. The judge gave lawmakers two years to fix the problem. The legislature reduced many of the gaps in its 1995 session with a new equalization formula that encouraged districts to raise more funds locally.

Nebraska voters last week handed a resounding defeat to two constitutional amendments on school finance supported by the state's largest teachers' union. One would have created new statewide caps on property taxes. The other amendment, supporters said, would have ensured that the legislature made up for lost property taxes by making education the "paramount duty" of state.

But several other education groups opposed both measures, which they feared were not strong enough to provide the necessary funding from the state.

Idaho Tax-Limit Loses

In Idaho, voters defeated Proposition 1, which would have limited property taxes in the state to 1 percent of assessed value.

A coalition of businesses, school officials, and prominent Idaho residents came out against the tax-limitation measure, which was on the ballot for the third time since 1978. Critics said it would have dried up needed funding for schools and other services.

In Oregon, voters rejected Measure 42, which would have required annual testing of all students' verbal and math skills in grades 4-12.

Opponents of the measure had said the testing requirement--brought to the voters by a doctor from Salem--would have been costly and redundant because the state's public schools already assess students in the 3rd, 5th, 8th, and 10th grades.

Finally, the vote on Measure 47, Oregon's so-called cut-and-cap initiative to limit property taxes, was still too close to call late last week. The measure would limit property-tax increases to no more than 3 percent each year.

Opponents said that the cut-and-cap measure would punish schools and other government services--such as parks, police, and libraries--in a state already pinched by previous tax-limiting measures. However, polls showed that Oregonians are increasingly concerned that rising property assessments are taking too big a bite out of their stagnant incomes.

Staff Writer Jeff Archer contributed to this story.

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