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Educational opportunity or educational scam?

In 1992, Colorado voters defeated school vouchers decisively. A statewide referendum that would have earmarked $2,500 in public funding for private religious school tuition failed by a two-to-one margin, 67 percent to 33 percent.

The results were particularly surprising in light of experts' predictions of comfortable passage and early opinion polls showing some popularity for the voucher plan. But a concerted educational drive by public school, civil liberties and civic groups warned voters of the pitfalls of the scheme.

Despite that crushing rejection, Colorado political observers were confident that it was only a matter of time before this issue returned.

That time is now. In November, Colorado voters will cast ballots on an amendment to the state constitution that would clear the way for a tax credit for private school tuition and home school expenses.

Innocuously called the Educational Opportunity Tax Credit, Amendment 17 is the only statewide initiative of its kind this year and is therefore receiving national attention. Though not specifically a voucher program, the proposal raises many of the same concerns. Opponents say it strikes at the heart of public support for public schools, diverts tax resources to religious schools and undermines church-state separation.

If passed, Amendment 17 would provide a hefty tax break for qualifying parents of students in private kindergarten through 12th grade. Parents who take children out of the public school system would be given priority, and while the initiative does not specifically detail the amount of the credit, most expect it would be about $2,500.

Naturally, those concerned with religious liberty have found the proposal problematic.

"The tax credit amendment would funnel taxpayer money right into the hands of the private religious schools," said Steve Sand, president of the Denver Americans United chapter and a member of a broad coalition opposing the referendum. "Citizens should not be forced to finance tuition at private schools. People have a right to choose a private school, but they can't ask all of Colorado to subsidize the choice."

In fact, both supporters and opponents of the initiative consider it the equivalent of a voucher initiative. Sand explained that in his personal discussions with leaders of the tax credit plan, he has been told that there is "no real difference" between vouchers and the tax credit, and the vote on the Educational Opportunity Tax Credit is "really a school voucher initiative."

The tax credit is structured to allow supporters to claim it would help low-income families. Children who leave low-performing school districts would supposedly be given priority, which proponents suggest will help disadvantaged families.

But as in the case against private school vouchers, opponents say this is just a smokescreen. They are concerned that the tax credit proposal will only benefit those already wealthy enough to afford private school tuition. Not only is there no guarantee that there will be sufficient funds to provide a tax credit to all eligible families, but in order to participate in the program, parents would need to have their tuition money up-front and then take advantage of the credit later.

As the Rev. Gill Ford, vice chairman of legal redress for the Denver chapter of the NAACP said to the Denver Post, "How many of the poorest families, those living hand to mouth, from paycheck to paycheck, are likely to have $2,500 extra to just set out there for tuition? They would have to wait until the end of the year before they could get that money back in the form of a tax credit."

AU's Sand added, "The only difference between a voucher and a tax credit is with a voucher you get state funds for tuition now and with a tax credit you get later. The proposal has no budget and no plan, but they're still trying to convince low-income voters that this will help them. It's very misleading."

Furthermore, many of the 384 private schools currently operating in Colorado, charge tuition that far exceeds the amount of the credit. Margerie Hicks, in her book "Colorado Private Elementary and Secondary Schools, 1997-98," provided data showing that private school tuition can go as high as $20,900, the annual cost at Fountain Valley Boarding School. The average tuition at nonreligious private schools is $5,700.

Critics say this proves that the initiative is very unlikely to help the poor.

Also, many initiative opponents believe that instead of finding new ways to help publicly fund private and home education, Colorado' s elected officials should be making efforts to improve their public schools.

Currently, Colorado ranks near the bottom in national comparisons of public K-12 funding, with one recent analysis placing the state 44th in the U.S. and another ranking the state 48th. The tax credit proposal does not address this problem, opponents point out, and could make the funding discrepancy worse.

Colorado now spends about $5,000 for each student in the state's public school system. If the referendum passes, when a student transfers from a public to a private school, that $5,000 would be transferred to a fund to finance the tax credits. In other words, the public schools would lose the students and the state aid.

Steve Schuck, a Colorado Springs real estate developer and 1986 Republican candidate for governor, joined forces in 1992 with Tom Tancredo, former director of the Independence Institute, to support the voucher referendum. The two are teaming up once again in an attempt to pass the tax credit plan.

Tancredo and the Independence Institute are receiving a great deal of the media attention surrounding this issue, because the libertarian-oriented think tank donated more than $84,000 of the $95,000 used for gathering signatures to get the initiative on the ballot.

More importantly, Tancredo has raised some eyebrows for being on record in support of a complete end to the existence of government-supported public schools. He has referred to the public school system as "dictatorial" and similar in character to the government of the former Soviet Union.

In addition, many of the traditional arguments against vouchers are being raised again with the tax credit proposal. For example, opponents of the Colorado referendum point out that private schools are already largely full and the initiative does not address availability issues for the many students who may not be able to take advantage of the credit.

Additionally, while public schools must take all students, private schools can place stringent restrictions on admission. Students who may not meet the private schools' standards, regardless of whether or not they qualify for the tax credit program, can be left behind without alternatives.

Just as troubling to some is the fact that the Colorado state legislature would have to develop a system to monitor the transfers of students from the public to the private system. The Colorado Office of State Planning and Budgeting has estimated that the creation of such a bureaucracy could cost as much as $640,000 for the first year, and almost $500,000 in subsequent years.

Opponents of the Educational Opportunity Tax Credit have organized to help inform voters of the many concerns surrounding this effort. The Colorado Education Association, representing teachers statewide, leads a group called Coloradans for Public Schools. Coalition members include the Colorado Association of School Executives, the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Denver branch of the NAACP and Americans United for Separation of Church and state.

In materials distributed to the public about the referendum, the coalition not only points out the practical and constitutional concerns with the initiative, they explain that the proposed amendment itself is dangerously vague. These ambiguities may make the idea too complicated and thus unappealing to voters.

Among the many questions left unresolved by the tax credit include where will the money come from for tax credits for parents whose children are already in private schools, what happens when a private school student comes back to the public school and whether there will be admission regulations placed on private schools that require acceptance of students they currently turn away.

Regardless of the many lingering questions about the benefits, legality and practicality of the tax credit initiative, the choice will ultimately be in the hands of the people of Colorado.

"If we lose, there will be a flurry of tax credit bills gathering support in the 1999 state legislature," Sand concluded. "If the amendment loses, it will close the door on the voucher issue in Colorado for many years to come. We'll have rejected vouchers in '92 and a similar idea in '98. The people will have spoken and the politicians will have no choice but to get the message."
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Title Annotation:school vouchers
Author:Benen, Steve
Publication:Church & State
Date:Oct 1, 1998
Previous Article:The public school bashers.
Next Article:Evolving debate.

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