Colorado Approves Vouchers!

Published May 1, 2003

To the cheers of hundreds of children from local private schools, Republican Governor Bill Owens on April 16 signed a bill that made Colorado the first state to adopt a voucher program since the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2002 ruling in the Zelman case, which upheld the constitutionality of allowing parents to choose private schools, including religious schools, for their children’s publicly funded education.

The bill, HB 1160, was sponsored by Representative Nancy Spence (R-Centennial) and by Senate Co-Majority Leader Norma Anderson (R-Lakewood). The voucher program will “open the door of opportunity to thousands of our childre,” said Owens, and could become one of the largest in the country.

“I congratulate the members of the General Assembly–from both parties–who had the vision to back this landmark legislation and the determination to see it become law,” said Owens when the bill won final passage in the Colorado House on March 31. The Republican governor’s nod to bipartisan support acknowledged the critical role Democratic Senator Bob Hagedorn played in the bill’s passage.

Not everyone shared the governor’s enthusiasm for the measure.

“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. She pointed out Colorado voters had rejected a voucher proposal in 1992 and a tax credit proposal in 1998.

The teacher union has threatened legal action. Institute for Justice attorney Clint Bolick was not surprised, noting a constitutional challenge to the bill “is as inevitable as death and taxes.”

Narrowly Targeted Program

Spence’s measure, the “Colorado Opportunity Contract Pilot Program,” would apply to only about a dozen school districts with at least eight schools rated “low” or “unsatisfactory” in 2001-02 state tests. Initially, Spence had discussed a measure that affected just the Denver Public Schools, but she expanded the scope of the initiative to benefit students in other districts.

Elementary students in the targeted districts could take up to 75 percent of the state education money assigned to them–i.e., a voucher of about $4,600 per student–and spend it at a private school of their parents’ choosing, including religious schools. The other 25 percent of the state funds would go to the student’s home district. High school students could take up to 85 percent of the state funding, with the home district receiving the remaining 15 percent.

To be eligible to receive vouchers, or “opportunity scholarships,” students would have to show unsatisfactory test scores and also qualify for the federal free or reduced price lunch program. The number of voucher students in the first year is capped at 1 percent of a district’s students; that cap rises to 6 percent by 2008.

The program will go into effect in the fall of 2004 and will be evaluated by a performance audit on January 1, 2008, at which time the legislature may terminate, expand, or otherwise modify the program.

While these limitations may not satisfy all voucher advocates, the editors of the Pueblo Chieftain urged legislators “not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” reminding them that establishing a voucher program in Colorado had been “a difficult, drawn-out task.”

The Road to Vouchers

The passage of voucher legislation in Colorado hinged on several critical factors, including Spence, who championed the measure through the legislature; Owens, whose willingness to sign the measure would finally turn it into law; and Hagedorn, whose independence assured passage of the bill in the Senate. Another factor was continuing grassroots support for vouchers from Latino and black constituencies that clearly would benefit from them.

“We’re not really the land of the free until we have educational freedom for disadvantaged children,” said Senate President John Andrews (R-Centennial) during the debate on Spence’s voucher bill.

The grassroots support helped Andrews and Anderson push school choice in a senate where Republicans hold just a one-vote majority and also provided a backdrop for Hagedorn’s decision to supply the swing vote necessary for the 18-17 passage in the senate on March 27. Hagedorn (D-Aurora) voted for the bill while Senator Lew Entz (R-Hooper) voted against it.

“My belief is I was elected to represent people,” the independent Hagedorn told The Denver Post when his fellow Democrats tried to remove him from the Senate Health, Environment, Welfare and Institutions Committee for voting against them on too many other issues. “I do not think I was elected to be a rubber stamp for special interest groups.”

The need for a nonpartisan approach to education issues was echoed in the public debate over Spence’s bill.

“There is not a Democratic way to build a street and a Republican way to fight a fire. Just a good or a bad way,” wrote Littleton resident Tomas Romero in a Rocky Mountain News op-ed, urging Democrats to support House Bill 1160. “Nor is there a perfect Republican or Democratic way to educate a child.”

Other School Choice Bills

On February 25, Hagedorn also provided the swing vote for the 18-17 approval of Senate Bill 99, a voucher measure sponsored by Senator John Evans (R-Parker) and directed toward low-scoring students in low-income families.

On March 14, the House tentatively approved House Bill 1137, a measure sponsored by Rep. Keith King (R-Colorado Springs) that would create private school scholarships from a $20 million tax credit program.

On April 3, a House Committee voted 6-4 on party lines to approve House Concurrent Resolution 1003, a measure introduced by Rep. Rob Fairbank (R-Littleton). The resolution would place a question on the November 2004 ballot to remove a “Blaine Amendment” from the Colorado state constitution. The intent of the amendment, added during an anti-Catholic period in the nineteenth century, was to deny Catholic schools access to public funds.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].