|Office of the Chancellor / Public Affairs||
Monday, May 10, 2004
USA Today/AP 5-10-04
Storm clouds for first-in-the-nation college voucher plan
DENVER (AP) — Trouble is brewing for Colorado's first-in-the-nation college voucher plan.
State lawmakers say the $2,400 voucher each student is expected to receive next fall will have to be cut to $1,600 unless voters ease fiscal restraints embedded in the state Constitution or agree to use millions of dollars Colorado gets from the national settlement with the tobacco industry.
Without one of those steps, higher education and Medicaid will be on the chopping block when lawmakers have to cut an estimated $254 million next year, said Rep. Brad Young.
The budget crisis threatens to overshadow the voucher program itself, which will give each high school graduate the annual stipend to use at any public college or university. Half-stipends can be used at three private schools: Regis University, the University of Denver and Colorado College.
The National Conference of State Legislatures said no other state has attempted a voucher program on such a scale.
Gov. Bill Owens championed the program and was expected to sign it into law Monday. He had pushed lawmakers to use $850 million from Colorado's share of the tobacco settlement to stave off budget cuts, but the measure was killed.
"At this point, higher education is a priority for me and I will work to do everything I can to assure that we have as attractive a voucher as possible," Owens said.
Opponents complained that giving state funds to private colleges would draw money away from state institutions and could be challenged in court.
Owens and others, however, said vouchers would encourage more students to go to college. And education officials warned that public universities could be forced to close their doors or become private without vouchers because the state is caught between conflicting constitutional requirements: The Taxpayer's Bill of Rights limits how much the state can tax and Amendment 23 requires annual increases to K-12 schools.
Lawmakers tried to fix the dilemma but failed this year to come with a plan to present to voters in November. Owens has said he is considering a special session to finish the job, while several groups are working on their own plans to put on the ballot.
University of Colorado President Betsy Hoffman said vouchers are a first step in giving the school the financial flexibility it needs until a long-term solution can be found. She said vouchers will help prevent the loss of talented teachers and researchers.
"To ensure future funding for Colorado's public higher education must involve more long-term solutions," she said.
Jerrett New, a 21-year-old industrial design student at Metropolitan State College of Denver, said he will stay in college, with or without vouchers. He said the state needs to resolve its budget crisis and stop balancing the budget on the backs of students.
"I think college is one of the most important things you can do," he said. "It determines what kind of job you get and how much you earn, which affects the taxes you pay."
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