- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 27, 2003

DENVER Colorado lawmakers are marching toward approving a sweeping statewide voucher program that would allow low-income students to attend private schools, even religious ones.
"Everything seems to be coming together in Colorado," said Krista Kafer, a senior analyst at the Heritage Foundation. "It's a hot state right now for school choice the stars are all aligning there."
Two school-voucher bills have already won passage in the Republican-led legislature, one in the House and the other in the Senate. The details differ, but both bills would use public funds to pay for private or religious school vouchers for students from low-income families who attend low-performing public schools.
Republican Gov. Bill Owens, a longtime proponent of school choice and author of the state's charter-school bill, is expected to sign voucher legislation, although he hasn't endorsed a specific proposal.
Meanwhile, a handful of prominent Democratic and Hispanic leaders, notably state Attorney General Ken Salazar, have broken ranks to back vouchers, also known as "opportunity scholarships," saying they deserve a chance to show they can improve the performance of failing students.
"I've been opposed to vouchers as long as I can remember," said Republican state Rep. Nancy Spence, author of the House bill and a former school board member. "But the fact is, there's a huge gap between low-income and higher-income students, and we're not doing anything to close it."
She noted that Colorado has a Hispanic dropout rate of about 50 percent, the highest in the nation. "In DPS [Denver Public Schools], they have 95 schools that are rated low and unsatisfactory. And we're not making any headway into changing things," she said.
Leading the fight against vouchers is the Colorado Education Association, which argues that vouchers will drain funding from the state's struggling public schools.
Officials point to a CEA poll conducted earlier this month showing that 60 percent of respondents "oppose using taxpayer dollars to pay for children to attend private and religious schools."
What's striking about the Colorado voucher bills is that they come five years after voters rejected a ballot initiative to create a school-voucher program. But several factors have changed since then, say proponents, notably last year's Supreme Court decision, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, upholding the Cleveland school-voucher program.
"After the Zelman decision, a lot of lawmakers said, 'As soon as the legislature is in session, I'm putting in my [voucher] bill,'" said Miss Kafer, who's writing a book on school choice. "And it's been easier said than done. But Colorado is really doing it."
Another factor was the Republican landslide in November, which packed state legislatures and statehouses with Republican lawmakers. In Colorado, the state Senate went from a one-vote Democratic majority to a one-vote Republican majority, which has proved a critical factor in the success of school-choice legislation.
"You've got to have both chambers of the legislature, plus the governor, plus a couple of people who will go out front for you," said Miss Kafer.
Even then, there's no guarantee that voucher legislation will succeed. This year, several Utah legislators have submitted voucher bills, but Republican Gov. Michael O. Leavitt has said he won't sign them, explaining that he wants to focus on lowering class sizes.
Colorado would join Florida as the only states offering a statewide voucher program. Several school districts also provide vouchers for low-income students, including those in Cleveland and Milwaukee.


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