Politics & Policy

The Wrong Choice For Colorado

A Republican torpedoes school choice.

This week, the Colorado supreme court struck down that state’s parental-choice program. Now, tens of thousands of children in Colorado will have to wait at least one more year for their much-needed educational opportunities.

”I don’t know how these parents can wait,” said State Representative Nancy Spence, a champion of Colorado’s voucher legislation. For Yvonne Trujillo, it’s not easy. Her six-year-old son Jacob has tried two public schools in as many years, and she has not been happy with the results. “It’s not what I want for him,” she said. “I want my son to get the best education he can.” But as a single mother of three, she cannot afford to send her children to parochial schools. She has no choice but to wait.

She is not alone. The Colorado parental-choice program would have given over 6,000 families who applied for vouchers a chance to get out of failing schools and into private schools of their choice. Instead, the state’s teachers’ unions sued and the state supreme court, in a 4-3 decision, held that Colorado’s “Opportunity Contracts” violated a provision of the state constitution which grants local school boards sole control over instruction in public schools.

While the program did not interfere with local school boards’ control over instruction in public schools, it did use locally raised funds to empower parents to send their kids to private schools. The court ruled that controlling locally raised funds is controlling instruction in public schools, and therefore the state cannot do it.

Rep. Spence expected this reasoning from the court’s members, a majority of whom were appointed by Democrats. Therefore, she introduced a bill last April that would have negated the “local control” issue by reworking the parental-choice program to use only state money for vouchers. However, the new bill failed by one vote. Rep. Mark Cloer, a Republican, voted for the original bill but then changed his mind about vouchers. After he single-handedly defeated the new bill, he told the press he did not want to put private schools, “especially religious ones, under further state control.”

It is unclear whether Cloer was being willfully ignorant, politically craven, or both, but in any case his statement was wrong. The new program did not put additional state controls on private schools, nor was it different from the first program, for which he voted, except for its reliance on state money to avoid the “local control” issue. Nevertheless, the teachers’ unions were so impressed with Cloer’s change of heart that two of their lobbyists (Ryan Wulff and Tony Salazar) donated to his reelection campaign.

Conservatives in Cloer’s district weren’t so impressed. One, local activist Linda Stahnke, is challenging Cloer for the Republican nomination. Despite the best efforts of Cloer’s supporters to keep her off the ballot, she prevailed in a decision handed down yesterday–only hours after the state supreme court made her race much more significant–and she will face Cloer in an August 10 primary election.

“This school district is on probation for weak standardized-test scores,” Stahnke said. “This is a very blue-collar, very ethnically diverse district,” she said, “but I’ve found that this issue cuts across traditional boundaries. Most people here want school choice.”

The only option left for Colorado parents of children in failing schools is the bill that Cloer defeated. Rep. Spence will reintroduce that bill and try to pass it when the legislature reconvenes next January, but that will be difficult unless Colorado Republicans send lawmakers a strong message by voting Cloer and school-choice opponents like him out of office.

A state legislature with just a few more school-choice advocates like Stahnke could pass a bill in January that comports with the state constitution, and Colorado could have a voucher program working for kids by the fall of 2005. Institute for Justice president Chip Mellor, who represented Trujillo and other parents against the unions, explained why this is so important: “Otherwise, these kids will lose irretrievably another year in which they could have been in good schools, but instead have to stay in schools that clearly and manifestly do not meet their needs.”

In addition to this year, he meant.

Stephen Spruiell is a Collegiate Network/NR intern.


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