Colorado lawmakers were close to giving final approval to the nation’s first new publicly financed voucher program since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Cleveland voucher plan last June.
With enactment of the measure all but certain, it appears that thousands of students in some of Colorado’s urban school systems may be eligible for state-financed vouchers to pay for tuition in private and religious schools beginning in the fall.
The Senate gave its final approval to the bill March 27. Rep. Nancy Spence, a Republican from suburban Denver who sponsored a House version of the bill, said the House was expected to take up the Senate version early this week. Observers agreed that passage in the House was likely to be easy.
“It is a done deal,” said Phil Fox, the deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, which generally opposed the bill. “The bill will end up on the governor’s desk for signature.”
Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, wants the broadest school choice measure possible, and could sign the bill into law within weeks. Some opponents promised to challenge the plan in court if it becomes law. Colorado voters have twice rejected school-choice ballot initiatives. (“Colorado Poised to OK Vouchers for Needy Pupils,” March 12, 2003.)
“He’s a longtime supporter of school choice,” Sean Duffy, the governor’s spokesman, said. “Everything that is being discussed so far looks all positive.”
Under the Senate, students would have to attend public schools in the two lowest-rated categories on Colorado’s school report cards—"low” and “unsatisfactory"—to be eligible for the vouchers. Students would also have to score individually in those two bottom categories on state tests, and be eligible for free- or reduced-price meals.
Also, the bill would apply only to students in districts with at least eight schools scoring at the unsatisfactory or low level on the state report cards. That means, given current results, schools in 11 districts would be affected, including Denver, Colorado Springs, and Pueblo. An amendment took out any eligible schools in Boulder.
The plan would increase the number of voucher-eligible students over four years. Starting with the 2003-04 school year, 1 percent of students in the eligible districts would qualify. That figure would grow to 2 percent in the second year, 4 percent in the third year, and 6 percent by the fourth.
Some analysts estimate that about 3,500 Colorado students may be eligible this coming fall, with that number rising to 6,900 in the second year, 13,700 in the third year, and 20,000 by the fourth.
The vouchers would be worth 80 percent of a district’s average per-student spending, under the current plan, or roughly $4,100, based on state averages.
The number of schools eligible could grow or shrink based on each year’s test scores and school ratings.
School voucher supporters hailed the action in the Colorado Senate as a milestone in their movement.
Tone for Other States?
Only Florida has enacted a comparable state voucher program. Voucher plans adopted by the Ohio and Wisconsin legislatures apply, respectively, to Cleveland and Milwaukee only.
“It’s another indication that we’re making progress across this country,” said Willie Breazell Sr., a Colorado Springs resident who backed the Colorado bill, and serves on the board of the Washington-based Black Alliance for Educational Options.
He says tuition vouchers will help hundreds of minority children in Colorado find a better education each year.
“What we do here in Colorado is going to set the tone for what occurs in this nation for years to come,” he added.
Educator groups fought the bill.
“We have a long-standing resolution opposing public money to nonpublic schools,” said Jane Urschel, the associate executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards. “We certainly support choice, but we think choice is like fire—a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.
“We worry that this type of choice will become the master of public schools.”
The Colorado plan resembles Florida’s high-profile voucher programs in some ways. The Texas and Louisiana legislatures also are debating voucher plans. (“Add Texas to States With Voucher Proposals,” March 26, 2003.)
Florida has three major state-financed voucher programs. Its Opportunity Scholarships currently go to more than 500 students in 10 public schools that have received a grade of F on state report cards two years in a row.
The McKay Scholarships allow nearly 9,000 special education students to transfer to private or other public schools. Families can also use state money for tutoring, or educational counseling.
And some 7,000 students from low-income families receive scholarships funded by businesses that donate a portion of their state corporate taxes to nonprofit scholarship agencies, such as Florida Child. (“Florida Sees Surge in Use of Vouchers,” Sept. 4, 2002.)
Passage of the voucher bill in Colorado might also lead to an expansion of other school choice options there, Ms. Urschel warns.
She also advocates a serious evaluation before any expansion: “That ought to be the basis of using the public’s assets for a program like this.”
Educators and parents in Colorado are bracing for change.
“We’re sure not crazy about it, but there’s been a strong wind of inevitability,” said Mr. Fox of the school superintendents’ group. “There are administrators around the state that are angry, [and] there are those that look at this with a sort of resignation.”