Colo. Voters Face Menu Offering Radically Divergent Reform Fare

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GREELEY, COLO.--Gov. Roy Romer doffs his suit jacket and rolls up his sleeves before launching into his stump speech here on why Colorado voters should support a sales-tax increase and reform package for the state's public schools.

Speaking before the Rotary Club of Greeley, an agricultural center about an hour north of Denver, the plainspoken Democratic Governor scribbles feverishly on a sketch pad as he describes the financial morass of the public schools, a mess he contends was caused by the legislature.

"This is not fun to be your Governor and come into a room and say I'm going to raise your taxes,'' Mr. Romer tells the Rotarians. "It's not a popular stand for a politician. Why do I do it? We've got a disaster about to happen to public education. We've got a cut coming of about 11 percent. That word should not go out from Colorado to the nation.''

A few hours later the same day, at a health-food restaurant in suburban Denver, another group of Coloradans also has gathered to hear about a plan to reform education. But it is a radically different vision of reform than that embodied in Amendment 6, the Governor's Children First measure.

The group of home-schooling parents from Golden want to learn about Amendment 7, which would provide state vouchers for parents to use to enroll their children in private schools or public schools in other districts. The measure also covers home schoolers, who would be reimbursed for the costs of educational materials--but not their time--up to the value of the voucher.

After a presentation by a representative of Coloradans for School Choice, Denise Newman, who teaches her kindergarten-age child at home, expresses an opinion shared by several others in the group.

"Of course, being reimbursed for curriculum costs would be wonderful,'' she observes, noting that she spends at least $300 a year on educational materials.

But her real motivation for backing the voucher measure is that "the public school system needs a kick in the butt,'' Ms. Newman explains. "It really has become a monopoly.''

The voucher system, she adds, "is going to shake up some things, for sure, but in the long run, it is going to mean improved education.''

No one in Colorado doubts that the public education system here is in line for a shake-up after Election Day. On Nov. 3., voters will decide on three ballot measures with major implications for education. They are:

  • The proposed sales-tax increase, a statutory measure that would raise the state levy from 3 cents to 4 cents, producing an estimated $330 million in its first year. The measure also includes a long list of education reforms, such as statewide standards and performance assessments, site-based decisionmaking incentives and performance-based pay plans for school employees, and a $50 million innovation fund.
  • The voucher proposal, a complex constitutional amendment that would essentially require the legislature to rewrite the school-finance system to provide all parents with a voucher to be used in public or private education. The voucher's value as tuition for private schools would vary depending on the resident school district's per-pupil expenditure level. Estimates of the value range from $1,800 to $3,000.
  • A tax- and spending-limitation measure, Amendment 1, that would restrict local governments' ability to raise taxes without voter approval and limit school district spending. Versions of the proposed constitutional amendment were rejected by voters in 1988 and 1990.

'A Bewildering Set of Choices'

The combination of the three ballot measures has put Colorado in the national spotlight this year as a battleground for direct democracy on education issues. The voucher proposal, in particular, is drawing attention, and fund-raising dollars, from across the country.

"It is a very bewildering set of choices on the ballot,'' said Rexford Brown, a senior fellow at the Education Commission of the States in Denver. "To actually read these amendments and try to make a reasoned choice is extremely difficult, because you don't know what the consequences will be of various combinations winning and losing.''

The public education community, which has been able in the past to beat back tax limits, has its hands full this year. It is generally supporting the Children First measure, while working to defeat the voucher and tax-limitation amendments.

Lewis Finch, the superintendent of the Jefferson County schools, estimated that his district would face a $52 million blow to its $390 million budget next year if the three measures "fall the wrong way''--that is, if voters reject the sales tax but approve vouchers and tax limits.

"The whole notion of public school education in Colorado is on the brink of disaster,'' said Mr. Finch, whose suburban-Denver district is the state's largest.

Voucher Questions Undecided

But those who back the voucher and oppose the sales-tax package consider such dire comments to be overblown rhetoric.

John Andrews, the president of the Independence Institute, a think tank in Golden, said the voucher system "would require a complete overhaul of the way Colorado funds education.''

"It is not really about money,'' Mr. Andrews argued, "it is about power and performance.''

Voucher proponents portray their measure as empowering low- and middle-income parents to have the same educational choices for their children that the wealthy enjoy.

"We don't have much confidence that the public schools can reform themselves,'' said Ron Pierce, the head of Coloradans for School Choice.

Although the proposed amendment is lengthy and complex, it leaves several key points to be decided by the legislature. It requires lawmakers to apportion all state funding for elementary and secondary education in the form of vouchers, whose value must be set at no less than 50 percent of the average per-pupil expenditure in each student's resident district.

The vouchers could be used to enroll in any public school with space available, to pay tuition at any private school that does not violate state or federal discrimination laws, or to cover home-schooling expenses.

The Legislative Council, a nonpartisan research arm of the General Assembly, has noted in a report that per-pupil expenditures vary widely across the state. The amendment does not make clear whether the voucher would be calculated using only state funding or whether federal and local revenues would be included.

The council estimated that the cost to the state of the voucher system would be about $84 million in 1993-94, when the plan would take effect.

Home Schooling Covered

Since it covers home-schooling expenses, as many other voucher proposals do not, the Colorado plan is raising issues that other states have not had to consider.

Such questions are prominent at the Golden meeting, where the home-schooling parents are curious about what expenses would be covered.

Participants ask, for example, whether they would be reimbursed for computer hardware or software, or if the expense of attending a home-schooling seminar would be covered.

Brett Miller, the treasurer of Coloradans for School Choice, tells the group that many such details would have to be worked out in legislation.

"There is always that concern that some people, not necessarily you or any current home schooler, would not be serious about using it for education,'' Mr. Miller says in explaining why the measure would require some accountability.

Trease Hartman, who teaches her 8-year-old at home, expresses concern that the voucher system might result in the state's telling her where to buy curriculum materials or educational toys. But she agrees that it would shake up public education.

"I don't think there is anything that could be done that could make the public schools worse,'' she says.

The pro-voucher forces have attracted support from outside the state, including several large contributions from wealthy Californians. A similar voucher proposal will be on the ballot in that state in June 1994.

Meanwhile, the public education community in Colorado has mobilized to fight the voucher plan, and last week began running television ads to match those being aired by the pro-voucher side.

Opponents warn that the voucher plan would funnel state funds to a private education system that has the ability to exclude students.

New private schools could be created easily under the voucher system, Mr. Finch of Jefferson County said, and would have "a license to steal.''

'A Defining Moment'

In two campaign appearances this month, Governor Romer does not mention the voucher proposal, which he opposes. Instead, he focuses entirely on the Children First initiative.

Addressing a crowd of about 200 supporters at a Saturday rally in the parking lot of a Denver high school, the Governor says providing adequate support for education "is not just another political issue for me.''

"I find this a defining moment for what this state is going to be,'' he says.

Pointing to the recent budget chaos in California and its impact on the public schools, Mr. Romer adds, "That can happen in Colorado. We must not let it happen.''

In an interview, the Governor acknowledged that most of the debate over his proposal has focused on the sales-tax increase, which he said is designed not so much to provide additional funding as to prevent further cuts. The Republican-dominated legislature has failed in recent years to provide full funding for a 1988 school-finance-reform law, he noted.

Mr. Romer, who has had a prominent role in education circles through his work with the National Governors' Association and the National Education Goals Panel, admitted that the package of reforms included in the initiative is getting scant attention. His critics argue that many of the items are already being tried.

"The reforms are a wink to the educational establishment,'' argued Mr. Andrews, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in 1990. "They are a cosmetic afterthought on Romer's part, and they have gotten lost.''

Opponents of the Governor's plan also contend that new revenue projections show that there may be more money available for public education next year than originally realized. Thus, they say, the public schools do not actually face an 11 percent cut without the new tax.

"There is no shortfall in education,'' Carol Taylor, a representative of Coloradans Opposed to the Sales Tax, told a Denver luncheon of the Lincoln Club, a Republican group.

"This amendment is not about education,'' said Ms. Taylor, a former state lawmaker. "It's not about putting kids first.''

Recent public-opinion surveys show strong support for the tax-limitation measure, a slight but slipping lead for the sales-tax initiative, and trouble for the voucher measure.

A survey released last week by Talmey-Drake Research and Strategy Inc. showed 65 percent support for the tax-limitation measure, with 29 percent against and 6 percent undecided.

The Children First measure had 51 percent support in the poll, with 45 percent opposed. But the voucher initiative, which started with a lead in the polls, slipped to 37 percent in favor and 51 percent against.

Floyd Ciruli, a Denver pollster, said the voucher proposal has begun to suffer as voters learn more details about it and its potential costs.

The tax-limitation measure is "stronger than it has ever been,'' Mr. Ciruli said, perhaps because it has repeatedly been on the ballot.

"It just gets harder for the opposition to keep repeating the same arguments against it,'' he said.

The Governor's measure will be a close call, Mr. Ciruli predicted.

The overall result is highly unpredictable, because the three measures affecting education have a total of eight possible outcomes.

"It's going to be voter roulette,'' the pollster said.

Vol. 12, Issue 07

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