School Choice & Charters

Gov. Owens Pledges to Sign Colorado Voucher Bill

By Alan Richard — April 09, 2003 3 min read
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Colorado will be the next state with a major statewide tuition-voucher program, and the legislative action finished recently could be a preview of things to come elsewhere.

Gov. Bill Owens announced last week that he intends to sign a newly passed bill that would allow thousands of students in several urban Colorado school districts to use state money toward private school tuition, starting in the fall of 2004.

“The passage of this bill is a real victory for Colorado’s students and their parents,” Gov. Owens, a Republican, said in a statement. “Parents should have control over their child’s education. We are placing this choice in the hands of Colorado’s families and giving students another chance to succeed.”

Opponents of the plan say they fear that vouchers will end up hurting public schools, rather than pushing them to improve. The outcome, some public educators say, could have been worse for them, however.

Superintendent Jerry Wartgow of the Denver schools said Rep. Nancy Spence, a Republican, and others who worked on the bill listened to his district’s concerns. When debate began, only the 72,000-student Denver school system was targeted for vouchers, and any student in the city would have been able to use the money. (“Colorado Voucher Measure Appears Certain,” April 2, 2003.)

Under the plan ultimately passed by the Republican-controlled legislature, only students who qualify for subsidized school meals and who score in the two lowest categories on state tests will be eligible.

Mr. Wartgow said in an interview that the vouchers now are aimed at urban students who could benefit from some degree of choice. The more sweeping program would have gutted enrollment of the best students at many public schools, he said.

“They were very interested in what our major concerns were,” Mr. Wartgow said of state lawmakers. “We’re going to try to make this thing work.”

Will Vouchers Spread?

What has happened in Colorado could happen in other states this year, but especially in the years to come, said Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow of the New York City-based Manhattan Institute, a scholar and advocate of school choice who works from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

“There are a few states where voucher legislation appears to have real prospects,” Mr. Greene said, adding that school choice could take many forms and approaches as proponents seek to expand its scope.

In Florida, for example, state-financed tuition vouchers are available for students who attend the lowest-rated schools and for special education students. A third program allows tax credits for businesses’ donations of scholarship money for needy students. (“Florida Sees Surge in Use of Vouchers,” Sept. 4, 2002.)

The Colorado plan could affect up to 11 districts, provided that they have eight or more schools rated in the two lowest categories on the state’s school report cards: “unsatisfactory” and “low.”

Students in schools rated in those same categories would be eligible if they met the subsidized-meals requirement that defines poverty, and if they had any state test scores in the two lowest categories.

The plan would increase the number of voucher-eligible students over four years. Starting in the fall of 2004, 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.

About 3,500 Colorado students may be eligible when the program begins in the fall of 2004, and that number could rise to 6,900 in its 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—or roughly $4,100, based on state averages. Enrollment caps for each eligible district using the vouchers would begin at 500 students in 2004, said Mr. Wartgow, the Denver superintendent.

Some lawmakers and the Colorado Teachers Association have threatened to challenge the new voucher law in state court.

Mr. Greene said legislators can always pass a different voucher law if parts of the current measure are deemed to violate the state constitution.

“These programs are growing quite large while they continue to operate, and so they’re gaining political constituencies,” Mr. Greene said. “A second passage is easier.”

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