|Office of the Chancellor / Public Affairs||
Thursday, July 8, 2004
Wall St. Journal 7-8-04
Editorial: Colorado's Choice
Opponents of education reform scored a victory in Colorado last week when the state Supreme Court quashed a voucher program for the system's neediest students. The good news is that the victory could be short-lived -- which says a lot about the political progress that school choice continues to make around the country.
Colorado's Republican state Legislature approved the Opportunity Contract program in April 2003. Low-income families from the state's poorest-performing school districts were to receive up to $5,000 for use toward tuition at private schools. Lest anyone doubt that parental demand exists for educational options, particularly among minorities, consider that more than 6,000 families applied for 3,300 spots.
But no sooner had GOP Governor Bill Owens signed the bill into law than the Colorado Education Association filed suit to block implementation. The union argued that because the program was funded in part with local tax dollars, it violated the state constitution by stripping local school boards of their authority. A state judge agreed and halted Opportunity Contract in December.
Last week the state Supreme Court upheld that decision, 4-3, but school choice advocates remain optimistic. Satisfying the court's "local control" concerns would seem to be a simple matter of crafting a voucher program that uses state tax dollars only and leaves local funds out of the equation. Republican State Representative Nancy Spence, who authored the voucher bill, has vowed to make the necessary adjustments and re-introduce it when the General Assembly convenes next year.
It also helps that the entire state House of Representatives and half of the state Senate is up for re-election in November. School choice has become such a potent issue in Colorado that anti-voucher votes can now earn you a primary opponent. Just ask Mark Cloer, a GOP state representative from Colorado Springs who buckled under union pressure and cast the deciding vote against a voucher bill earlier this year. The incumbent is now facing a strong pro-choice challenger with Republican establishment backing.
"There are also going to be a number of Democrats who will have a hard time getting themselves re-elected unless they make election time commitments to get a voucher bill passed," says Bob Schaffer, a GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate who also heads the pro-voucher Colorado Alliance for Reform in Education. "Black pastors and Latino inner-city community leaders who are fed up with 70% minority drop-out rates in Denver public schools will make certain of it."
The teachers union has made it clear that should another school choice program pass, it will challenge it on other grounds, such as religion. But Chip Mellor of the Institute for Justice, which represented families defending Opportunity Contract, thinks the opponents have already played their ace. "They won on 'local control,' their strongest claim," he says. "The religion claims are far weaker because of the fairly recent interpretations of the state Supreme Court, which would be very consistent with the way the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Zelman case" upholding the constitutionality of vouchers for religious schools.
Fortunately, the "local control" language is unique to Colorado and only a handful of other states. The ruling has no application outside Colorado's borders, where a national school choice movement continues. In the fall, Washington, D.C., will add its own a voucher program to a list that already includes Cleveland and Milwaukee. Missouri, South Carolina, New Jersey and Utah are among the states currently considering tuition vouchers to help underprivileged children escape to better schools. Small cracks in the edifice, perhaps. But cracks all the same.
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