We in Colorado are proud of becoming the first state to enact a voucher program since last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision. In achieving this huge breakthrough for our schoolchildren–a program destined to become the nation’s largest at 20,000 pupils–we took both encouragement and practical lessons from the states that went before us: Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida.
We also took a page from the recent success of U.S. military operations on the other side of the world. I’d like to suggest that Operation Educational Freedom, leading to the passage of Colorado’s House Bill 1160, was similar in several ways to Operation Iraqi Freedom, leading to that country’s liberation.
We succeeded, much as Secretary Rumsfeld and General Franks did, through unswerving purpose, patient diplomacy, coalition-building, coordinated strategy, and tactical envelopment.
School vouchers and tax credits have been on the policy agenda in Colorado for more than 15 years. We have knocked at the door again and again through ballot initiatives, legislative bills, think tank research, citizen lawsuits, and privately funded voucher programs. I’ve been personally committed to this goal for more than 30 years, beginning with a voucher speech I wrote for President Richard M. Nixon in 1971.
As in the U.S. effort for a nonmilitary solution in Iraq over the past dozen years, the advocates of educational freedom in Colorado have worked through all sorts of lesser options before this year’s victory. Public school open enrollment, charter schools, recognition for homeschoolers, standards and assessment, tougher testing, and school report cards have all been patiently put in place.
Republican majority legislators cultivated key Democratic allies. Black and Hispanic community leaders mobilized the grassroots. Parochial schools and evangelical churches did their part. Suburban voucher advocates met halfway with doubters from urban and rural areas. Conservative and liberal interest groups ignored other deep differences to cooperate around this one bill.
Major donors committed to vouchers helped us take the state senate in 2002, then funded the lobbying and media effort when legislation began to move in 2003. Egos were kept in check, bill drafting was kept reasonable, and legal research was airtight. Poll data were heeded, and votes were counted meticulously. Nothing was left to chance. Everyone was on the team.
Like tank columns converging on Baghdad, like pass receivers flooding the defensive zone, our legislative attack in Colorado swarmed the opposition with more than they could possibly defend against. We hit them with means-tested vouchers and universal vouchers and local-option vouchers, tuition tax credits, and scholarship tax credits–five strong bills in all. One of those bills became law, one remained in play until the session’s last week, and three stayed alive until the final hours before adjournment.
Winning the Peace
One other similarity to America’s recent military victory remains. Now that Colorado voucher advocates have won the war, we must fight equally hard to win the peace. We must actually make vouchers work.
That means close coordination with educators both public and private, ongoing partnership with families and neighborhood groups, and strong defense against political or judicial counterattack.
We’ll do all that because Colorado’s children are worth it. In order to give them educational excellence, we must expand educational freedom.
State Senator John Andrews, a Republican from the Denver suburbs, is president of the Colorado Senate for 2003-04. He founded the Independent Institute in 1985 to advocate for school choice and other freedom principles. His email address is [email protected].
This article first appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of ALEC Policy Forum and is reprinted here with permission.