School Choice & Charters

Colorado Poised to OK Vouchers for Needy Pupils

By Erik W. Robelen — March 12, 2003 8 min read
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Colorado appears on track to become the first state to enact a program of public aid for private school tuition since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last summer upholding vouchers in Cleveland.

Two bills—one approved by the state House, another by the Senate—would create a program subsidizing private school tuition for students from low-income families who attend academically struggling public schools. Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican who has long been a supporter of vouchers, is expected to sign such a bill if it reaches his desk.

At least a few other states—including Louisiana and Texas—also are gearing up for debates this year that could ultimately add to the list of publicly financed voucher programs nationwide.

“We’re very optimistic that Colorado will produce the first post- Supreme Court school choice program,” said Clint Bolick, a vice president in the Phoenix office of the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based legal- advocacy group that helped defend the Cleveland program in court. “There’s no question that the Supreme Court decision removed a major anti-school-choice weapon from the arsenal.”

That said, Mr. Bolick anticipates plenty of legal challenges to vouchers under state constitutions, including in Colorado, should vouchers become law. So far, five educational choice bills are on the table there, including two that would provide tax credits for private school tuition.

The voucher bill with the best chance of success in Colorado, several voucher advocates there said, is one put forward by Rep. Nancy Spence, a Republican who chairs the House education committee.

That bill, approved 35- 29 on Feb. 19, would apply to any district with eight or more schools that rated poorly under the state accountability system, a category that currently includes 12 districts, Denver among them, according to Rep. Spence. Other districts could opt, but would not be required, to participate in the pilot program.

“My bill will give an opportunity to low-income families to have some choice about where their children are educated,” she said.

The Supreme Court decision last June in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris helped persuade her to push the voucher bill this year, Ms. Spence said. Such a measure also has a far better chance of reaching the governor thanks to last November’s elections, which gave Republicans an 18-17 edge in the Senate, where Democrats had previously held a one-vote majority.

In its Zelman decision, the high court held that the inclusion of religious schools in the state-enacted voucher program in Cleveland was not an unconstitutional establishment of religion under the First Amendment.(“Justices Settle Case, Nettle Policy Debate,” July 10, 2002.)

Colorado Variations

The Spence bill is modeled after the contracts that public schools in Colorado currently arrange with private schools to serve special education students.

The bill would divert some funding from students’ home districts to pay for the vouchers. As crafted, the vouchers would either cover the private schools’ actual cost of educating students, or 75 percent of the districts’ per- pupil operating revenue in the case of elementary and middle school students, whichever is less. For high school students, that amount would rise to 85 percent.

“I recognize that [public schools] have certain fixed costs,” said Rep. Spence, who estimated that in the currently eligible districts, the per- pupil operating revenue ranges from about $5,000 to $6,000.

Meanwhile, Sen. John Evans, the Colorado Senate’s assistant majority leader, is optimistic that his bill will go to the governor instead. It cleared the chamber on a 18-17 vote, with all but one Republican voting yes and all but one Democrat voting no.

“It’s the Senate that’s always been the [obstacle],” Sen. Evans said.

Although the specifics of the two voucher bills differ, both would be aimed at children from poor families who attend low-performing schools and would allow the aid to be used at religious as well as secular schools. Both also would limit vouchers to students who had performed poorly on state standardized tests—where applicable.

Perhaps the most notable difference is that Mr. Evans’ bill would requires either a local school board or local voters to approve participation.

“I’ve always believed in empowering local government,” he said.

Also, only Rep. Spence’s bill would limit how many students could participate. The first year, the cap would be 1 percent of the district’s student population. It would grow by a percentage point each year.

Dan Hopkins, a spokesman for Gov. Owens, stopped short of endorsing a specific bill, but noted that “the governor supports the concept of vouchers.”

“He has always been an advocate of choice in education,” Mr. Hopkins said.

But not everyone wants to see vouchers in Colorado.

“We are opposed to any kind of proposal that would take public dollars and give them to private or religious schools, directly or indirectly,” said Deborah Fallin, a spokeswoman for the 36,000-member Colorado Education Association. But she’s not optimistic that opponents will be able to derail the legislation.

“With Republican control of the House, Senate, and governorship ... there’s no stopping an agenda once they decide to run it,” she said.

Ms. Fallin also noted, though, that the state constitution contains “very specific language” prohibiting public funds from supporting private or parochial schools, and that Colorado voters had rejected a proposed voucher program in 1992 and proposed tax credits for private schools in 1998.

“We’ve had them on the ballot, and the voters don’t want them,” she said.

She said her union has not decided whether it would file a lawsuit should vouchers become law, but Mr. Bolick from the Institute for Justice anticipates a legal challenge.

“We fully expect a battle, but we also expect to prevail,” he said.

Louisiana Legislation

Louisiana and Texas are also among the states expected to seriously consider vouchers this year. The thrust of such proposals, consistent with existing voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida, is to tailor them to children who especially need help.

For Milwaukee and Cleveland, the programs are primarily for children from low-income families. Florida’s has no means test, but is limited to students in schools identified as persistently low- performing. Todd Ziebarth, a policy analyst at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, said the current fiscal constraints in states have “led some supporters to think pretty hard about the financing of these things.”

“The universal voucher sort of thing—I just don’t see that happening,” he said. “What’s going to continue to happen are these tailored programs, especially with these tight budget times.”

That’s exactly what Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster, a Republican, is angling for. He plans to introduce a pilot voucher proposal this month, though details were still being worked out as of last week.

The idea is to target vouchers toward students in low- performing public schools, said Michael J. Wang, the governor’s education policy adviser. He said the plan would also focus on children from low-income families.

As envisioned, Gov. Foster’s plan has a catch that has upset some private school leaders: Any participating schools would get roped in, at least partially, to the state accountability system.

While they would not be subject to state intervention or the academic labels that Louisiana places on public schools, Mr. Wang said, the governor wants those private schools to take part in a portion of the state assessment system, probably mathematics and language arts tests.

“The governor’s belief, simply put, is: So go tax dollars, so goes accountability,” Mr. Wang said.

Fight in Texas

In Texas, meanwhile, a political shift may give a lift to vouchers. There, both chambers of the legislature are controlled by Republicans for the first time in more than a century.

In his State of the State Address last month, GOP Gov. Rick Perry urged lawmakers to approve a pilot voucher program aimed at children in low-performing schools.

Rep. Ron Wilson is a leading advocate for vouchers and has already introduced a bill that targets poor children in such schools who themselves have struggled academically.

“If the school choice idea has any merit at all,” Mr. Wilson said, “it will provide some kind of outlet for those children.”

The Houston-area Democrat said he believes some version of his bill has a “very good” chance of enactment, although others think it could face a tough road. The rules of the Texas Senate make it hard for any bill to succeed, because two-thirds of lawmakers must vote “aye” to bring a bill to the floor.

“I think we’re probably going to have a bigger fight here than maybe they’re having in Colorado,” said Doug Rogers, the executive director of the 100,000-member Association of Texas Professional Educators, a nonunion teachers’ group that opposes vouchers.

The District of Columbia could also see its own voucher experiment if President Bush and his allies in Congress have their way. As part of his fiscal 2004 budget plan, Mr. Bush proposed a $75 million “Choice Incentive Plan” that would provide aid for public and private school choice initiatives. Of that, the president said he wants a portion to be reserved for vouchers in the nation’s capital.

With Republicans controlling the White House and Congress, a voucher experiment appears to have a better shot than in the past, though political analysts say that fierce opposition may still be enough to prevent it.

The Bush plan doesn’t just have enemies in Congress. Some local leaders in Washington, including Mayor Anthony A. Williams, a Democrat, have made plain their opposition.

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