Colorado private school vouchers are back, disguised as tax credits

A nearly annual bill that could encourage dissatisfied parents to withdraw their children from public schools is being sponsored by Republican Sen. Kevin Lundberg, Berthoud, and Rep. Spencer Swalm, R-Centennial, this year. Swalm said the bill is an effort to spur competition and potentially save the state money. However, Colorado educators and school boards are adamantly opposed to the tax credit that would have public taxes subsidizing private education. They say the program is a de-facto voucher program that would see public money being used for religious and non-state accredited schooling.

The bill, The Quality Education and Budget Reduction Act, sponsored by the two private-school advocates, would provide a tax credit for individuals or companies who pay for a child to leave a public institution and enter into a private or home-school education. The credit would be equal to the cost of the schooling or 50 percent of the current per-pupil state expenditure, whichever is lower. In addition, the bill provides a $1000 tax credit for students who are home schooled full-time. The fees for students already in private schooling could not be used as a credit.

“My intent is not to go after teachers or public schools,” Swalm assured. He said with a billion dollar shortfall the state needed to find a way to provide an education for Colorado students “without spending as much as we are spending.”

However, it is clear that public schools and teachers would face significant budget cuts even as the state saved money from the program.

Last year the Legislative Council’s fiscal report of the same bill found that 7,700 students would likely leave the public education system each year to go into a private or home-schooled education if the tax credit was enacted. According to the report, had the bill passed, the state could have saved $56 million in fiscal year 2010-2011 and $98.9 million in 2011-2012.

School districts would lose per pupil funding tied to student registration when students failed to enroll. Currently that funding averages $6,822 though it is likely to see cuts this year as in years previous. The report noted the school districts would see a loss of student enrollment and, as a result, a reduction in full time employees.

Though funding is tied to students, that money also pays for fixed costs that are not contingent on student enrollment such as school non-teacher instruction, food programs, and due to the gap in public/private school enrollment of special-needs students, programs to provide for those needs.

Jeanne Beyer, director of communications for the Colorado Education Association, said that the bill was a staple for Republican legislators looking to find a way to circumvent a 2003 Colorado Supreme Court ruling that found voucher programs unconstitutional. She said her organization has been at the forefront of the opposition against similar bills in the past due to their belief that public money should not be used for religious purposes.

“[The bill is] just exactly like a voucher except that they would give a citizen a tax credit on their income tax,” Beyer said. “We are basically opposed to spending tax dollars on private schools, private or religious. We have nothing against private schools, nothing against religious schools, nothing against home schooling. We just don’t think that we should be spending tax money on them.”

Beyer said she was not certain how many religious schools were in Colorado.

Jane Urschel, lobbyist for the Colorado Association of School Boards, agreed with Colorado Education Association’s assertion that funds would be directed in part to schools with a religious curriculum. “There is no money in the budget for a bill like this,” Urshel said, “We are on record opposing public funds from being directed to religiously based education.”

Swalm said schools would be asked to follow the same state regulations currently in places for public and home schooling. This requires that private schools provide sequential instruction in reading, writing, speaking, mathematics, history, civics, literature and science.

The Department of Education does not accredit private institutions or mandate a prescribed set of adopted textbooks, approved curriculum, or course of study for non-public schools, according to the Colorado Department of Education’s (CDE) website.
In the fall of 2010 there were 6,462 students being home schooled while 50,209 students attended non-public schools.

While Swalm said the bill is unlikely to make it past a vote of the Democratically controlled Senate, he said that the state would benefit both from a reduction in education costs and an introduction of competition into the education market. He said the bill deserved to be heard. State educators continue to disagree.

[Image: Kevin Lundberg ]

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