School Choice Options Debated in Colorado

Published December 1, 2002

One hundred and fifty activists, legislators, educators, and concerned parents gathered in downtown Denver on September 10 to address the question: “What’s next for Colorado families now that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of school choice?” They heard speakers debate vouchers vs. tax credits, learned about Blaine Amendments, heard grassroots leaders talk about their efforts, and were offered a variety of school choice proposals from legislators on both sides of the aisle.

With so many students at risk of dropping out of school or getting involved with gangs, many Denver-area parents fear their children may be headed for prison, said Kathy Porter, program administrator for Alliance for Choice in Education (ACE). ACE has provided more than 790 students from low-income families in the Denver area with privately funded scholarships to attend private secular or religious schools, but applications total almost 3,000. Parents Challenge provides similar privately funded scholarships and grants to low-income families in Colorado Springs, according to executive director Evelyn Taylor.

Nita Gonzales, chairman of Children Having Opportunity in Colorado Education (CHOICE), voiced alarm about Colorado’s Latino dropout rate–which she called a “pushout” rate–of more than 50 percent. CHOICE seeks to give parents more choice in their children’s education, and Gonzales is teaching parents that they can, in fact, hold elected officials accountable and demand more from principals and teachers.

“We have to get people saying, ‘This [meager academic improvement] is not acceptable!'” said Gonzales. “We need to put ‘for the People, by the People’ back into government.”

Smart Legislators Listen

When the grassroots speak, smart legislators listen. And since symposium organizer Pam Benigno, education policy director with the Independence Institute, had made sure both groups were present, Colorado legislators who have been school choice leaders told how they were planning to expand their efforts in the next session.

  • Rep. Nancy Spence (R-Centennial), whose scholarship tax credit bill got as far as the Senate Education Committee in the recent legislative session, said she would likely propose a bill with vouchers targeting low-income children and children in failing schools.
  • Rep. Keith King (R-Colorado Springs) said he would propose a tax credit program with a similar focus on low-income children and children in low-performing schools.
  • Rep. Shawn Mitchell (R-Broomfield) reported his plans for introducing a universal choice bill next year, which could involve either school vouchers or a universal tax credit.
  • Sen. Bruce Cairns (R-Aurora) planned to renew his proposal for allowing taxpayers to take a credit against their school district property taxes for donations to organizations that award scholarships for children to attend independent or parochial schools, with benefits for renters also.
  • Sen. Bob Hagedorn (D-Aurora) carried a voucher bill in 1996 but it died in the GOP-controlled legislature. Although Hagedorn no longer supports vouchers, he plans to offer a tax credit measure targeted to give priority to children from low-income families.

“What you have here in Colorado is grassroots leaders and a panel of legislators duking it out about who has the best [school choice] program,” observed panelist Kevin D. Teasley, president of the Greater Education Opportunities Foundation, which has offices in Indianapolis and Denver. “The nation is looking at Colorado for the next [school choice] victory.”

“The debate over ‘Should we have school choice?’ is over,” declared Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, which hosted the symposium. “The debate now is ‘What type of school choice will it be?'”

Revolution Underway

Institute for Justice Vice President Clint Bolick agreed. “A revolution is taking place, and it’s overdue,” he said. For the past 12 years, Bolick has led the successful nationwide effort to defend school choice programs against legal challenges, with victories in the Supreme Courts of Arizona, Ohio, and Wisconsin paving the way for the most recent victory in the U.S. Supreme Court.

For Willie H. Breazell, the school choice revolution can’t come soon enough. Breazell, a national board member of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, was ousted as head of the Colorado Springs NAACP chapter when he announced his support for school choice. Black children, he said, are being “lynched” by the poor education they receive in the public schools. According to Breazell, school choice efforts need to be focused on vouchers–vouchers that are large enough to empower parents, not underfunded ones like those in Cleveland.

Breazell got no argument on that point from School Reform News Managing Editor George A. Clowes, who briefly took off his reporter’s hat to argue the pro-voucher side in a debate on the relative merits of tax credits vs. vouchers. Matthew J. Brouillette, president of The Commonwealth Foundation, took the pro-tax credit side.

Clowes argued vouchers are the most effective means of injecting competition into under-performing public schools and prompting them to improve. Still, he suggested, parents should have a whole menu of school choice options to pick from, not just one.

Brouillette agreed with this last point, but argued tax credits had the edge over vouchers in restoring the proper roles of government and families in our lives. Tax credits not only would reduce the government’s role in the education of our children but also would reduce the amount of money going to the government, he said. By fostering the creation of local organizations, tax credits would better encourage the creation of civil society, argued Brouillette.

“Public education is the education of the public by diverse means,” he said. The problem now is that “the goal of an educated public has given way to a monopoly system of government schools.”

Bolick described how this monopoly issue had come up in oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in the Zelman case. At one point, the teacher union’s counsel, Robert Chanin, was arguing the Cleveland schools needed more money. Justice Antonin Scalia quickly cut him off with the comment: “It isn’t a money problem. … It’s a monopoly problem.”

The Court’s June 27 decision in Zelman “removed the federal constitutional impediment to school choice,” explained Bolick. However, the teacher unions now are arguing that restrictive provisions in state constitutions override the First Amendment of the federal constitution. In 37 states, these restrictions consist of so-called “Blaine Amendments,” which bar tax dollars being paid to support religious institutions. Some states also have a “compelled support” clause, which generally states: “There shall be no compelled support of religion.”

But Bolick pointed out that aid represented by a voucher goes to the parent and the child, not to the institution, and therefore neither of the two constitutional objections would apply.

“This is not aid to schools,”he explained, “this is aid to children.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.

For more information …

The Institute for Justice has prepared a paper detailing “Answers to Frequently Asked Questions About State Constitutions’ Religion Clauses,” by Richard Komer. This paper, together with additional information, is available at

The Independence Institute’s Parent Information Center has prepared an informative summary of education voucher, tax credit, and tax deduction laws in effect across the nation. This summary is available at

The Parent Information Center also has posted links to the text of school choice statutes across the nation at