Private Education Voucher Program Wins Approval In Colorado

Colorado has become the first state to approve a voucher program since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of "indirect" tax aid to religious schools last year.

The measure cleared the Colorado House of Representatives in February and passed the Senate in April. Gov. Bill Owens (R) signed the bill on April 16.

Under the plan, 11 of the largest school districts in Colorado would have to offer vouchers to low-income students in "failing" public schools starting this September. Religious and other private schools will be permitted to participate in the program.

Critics charged that the voucher scheme could drain as much as $193 million from public schools if all eligible students participate. Opponents also said the plan is unnecessary since Colorado already has charter schools and an open system of public school choice and that these reforms are having results.

Colorado voters in 1992 soundly rejected a voucher ballot referendum, 67 percent to 33 percent. Foes of the measure are also considering a legal challenge in the state courts. Article IX, Section 7 of the Colorado Constitution states that no "public fund or moneys whatever" can be given "in aid of any church or sectarian society, or for any sectarian purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college or university...."

In other news about tax aid to religious schools:

Voucher advocates in Missouri are trying to change the state constitution to remove its ban on government aid to religious schools. Derio Gambaro, a former Democratic lawmaker from St. Louis, is leading the effort. If passed by the legislature, the proposed constitutional change would have to be approved by the voters as a ballot question in 2004.

Legislators in Louisiana are pushing voucher bills. Rep. Peppi Bruneau (R-New Orleans) has introduced a bill that would provide $6,000 vouchers to any public school student in the state. A second bill, sponsored by Rep. John Hainkel (R-New Orleans) would peg vouchers at $3,000 and would limit them to students in public schools considered failing.

Gov. Mike Foster (R) supports vouchers but insists that any private school that accepts them must administer state-mandated graduation assessment exams, a move opposed by the politically powerful Roman Catholic hierarchy.

Florida lawmakers are promoting vouchers as a solution to public school overcrowding in the state. In 2002, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment mandating lower class sizes. To meet that mandate, some lawmakers are proposing voucher bills. A bill sponsored by Rep. Joe Pickens (R-Palatka) would allocate vouchers worth $3,500. It passed a House committee on a 17-10 vote in March but must pass two more committees before reaching the full House.

Rep. Curtis Richardson (D-Tallahas­see) said the legislation was disingenuous. "This bill does not address what the will of the voters intended when they passed the class-size amendment," Rich­ard­son said.

A legislative panel in Texas has approved a voucher proposal. The Texas House of Representatives' Public Educa­tion Committee voted 4-3 to approve the measure on April 3. The bill must now go to the House Calendars Committee, which can schedule it for debate on the full floor of the House.

Voters in Milwaukee have chosen a school board that opposes vouchers. In an April 1 election, four pro-voucher candidates were returned to office, but one lost. Incoming board member Tom Balistreri, a former high school principal, was backed by the Milwaukee Teachers' Association and is expected to join an anti-voucher four-member block on the board.

Milwaukee's 13-year-old voucher program allows 11,000 low-income children to attend religious and other private schools at taxpayer expense. It is administered by the state, but voucher opponents hope opposition from the Milwaukee School Board will lead to more government oversight and control of the plan.