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Public School Vouchers Back on the Agenda

By Floyd Ciruli
September 2002

On July 1, the United States Supreme Court shifted the framework of politics concerning public school vouchers away from constitutional issues to their efficacy and political viability. The court’s discussion in Zelman vs. Simmons-Harris, approving voucher programs for low-income children, recharged the political debate that had stymied over lawsuits, and provided fresh momentum to voucher advocates.

While the constitutional issue at the national level for certain types of voucher programs is settled, the public school education establishment has pledged to continue state-level legal fights. But acceptance of targeted vouchers for poor children in inferior schools is growing, at least among key legislators, editorial page editors, think tanks and policy wonks.

Colorado voters have defeated voucher-type proposals twice in the last decade (1992 and 1998) by substantial margins. And today they remain clearly divided on the issue of vouchers; 48 percent approve and 46 percent disapprove. The line-up of pro- and anti-voucher groups among Coloradans:

Colorado Voters and Vouchers
TOTAL 48% 46%
Strong Republican 70% 23%
Conservative 67% 28%
Hispanic 57% 35%
South Front Range 55% 38%
Parents with children under 18 53% 38%
Black 50% 50%
Eastern Plains 49% 32%
Western Slope 48% 43%
White 47% 47%
Metro area 47% 49%
Independent 44% 48%
North Front Range 41% 54%
Liberal 26% 68%
Strong Democrat 18% 68%
Ciruli Associates, N601, July 2002

Question: Give parents a government voucher or certificate to pay for all or part of the tuition if they decide to send their child to a private or parochial grade or high school; strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, strongly disagree.

Ideology and partisanship are the most strongly related characteristics that define support and opposition for vouchers. Democrats and liberals oppose vouchers; Republicans and conservatives support them. Other groups that offer support above the margin of error in this survey (+ 4%) are Hispanics and parents with children under the age of 18. Also, residents of the South Front Range, i.e. El Paso and Pueblo counties, support vouchers above the statewide average. National polls conducted since the voucher decision show Americans closely divided on the issue.

Republicans and Democrats both appear to have concerns about the effect of vouchers. National surveys show that Republicans worry the state might interfere with private education through the type of rules and regulations found in public education. Democrats focus on the possibility of draining resources from public schools.

Colorado is one of the states in which a private school tax credit program targeted for low-income children and under-performing schools would have a good chance of passing the legislature. Already five vouchers or tax credit type bills have been proposed for the 2003 legislative session. Tax credit legislation was approved by the Colorado House in the 2002 session and barely lost in the Democrat-controlled State Senate. Supporters may be able to find the extra legislative votes in the post-Supreme Court decision environment. Also, the State Senate could swing to Republican control after this November election.

This survey was prepared for publication on www.ciruli.com by Ciruli Associates as part of a regular scan of Colorado politics and public policy. Ciruli Associates is a non-partisan research, communication and public policy firm providing consulting services to Colorado and national organizations since 1976.

The voter survey was conducted by Ciruli Associates from July 8 to July 18, 2001. The telephone survey of 601 adult Colorado registered likely voters has a statistical range of accuracy of + 4.0 percentage points.

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