With Republican Donald Trump’s election as president, and his subsequent selection of school voucher advocate Betsy DeVos as education secretary, school choice boosters are hopeful that a nationwide scholarship system for K-12 students could become a reality.
But even if the voucher system passes muster at the federal level, in Colorado some previous court rulings and the partisan political picture in the state could complicate things.
On the campaign trail Sept. 8, Trump spoke of his plan of shuffling $20 billion in the federal budget to be used toward school choice. The plan would prioritize the 15 million children living in poverty, providing scholarships or vouchers that could follow the students to a new school of their choice.
“Not only would this empower families, but it would create a massive education market that is competitive and produces better outcomes,” he said.
“The current government monopoly, while great for the bureaucrats, has utterly failed too many students,” he added.
Trump noted that if states collectively spend $110 billion from their education budgets toward school choice, each K-12 student who lives in poverty would have $12,000 in school-choice funds available to them.
Education Week noted a voucher system is less politically tenable than other forms of school choice — likely because the funds come directly from traditional public schools’ coffers to move with students to their new schools — and the logistics of implementing a nationwide program “are enormous.” Also, Congress recently enacted the new education program Every Student Succeeds Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law last December. Lawmakers may be unwilling to overhaul educations laws again so quickly.
Luke Ragland, vice president of policy at pro-school choice group Colorado Succeeds, told Watchdog.org his group will continue the push in Denver, regardless of what Trump and DeVos decide to work for in Washington, D.C.
“I think it’s important that no matter what happens at the federal level, that important decisions continue to be made at the state level,” he said.
It’s no easy feat to implement a voucher system in Colorado. Just ask school choice advocates on the Douglas County school board.
In 2011, that panel attempted to start a voucher program, but 2nd Judicial District Court Chief Judge Michael Martinez said the inclusion of religious schools violated state law. The decision was upheld by the Colorado Supreme Court, which said the state constitution contains “broad, unequivocal language forbidding the State from using public money to fund religious schools.”
The Douglas County school board tried to start a voucher program again this March, excluding religious schools, but Martinez also shot that plan down.
Previously, the Republican-controlled Colorado Legislature tried in 2004 to create a voucher system that would have allowed students in 11 of the lowest-performing school districts to use 85 percent of state per-pupil funding to transfer to a private school. But the Colorado Supreme Court said the state’s attempt to tell school districts how to use local tax revenue violated the state constitution.
Nora Flood, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said charter public schools “have a long history as a bipartisan issue” in the state, which breeds optimism about school choice expansion, given the ascension of fellow advocates in Washington, D.C, to high levels of government.
“We are hopeful that the Trump administration will focus on ensuring that all students have access to high-quality, public educational options, including charters,” she told Watchdog in a statement.
But Chalkbeat notes that the Colorado Board of Education’s flip, from primarily Republican to primarily Democratic, could hurt the odds of vouchers in the state, especially given that the newest board member, Rebecca McClellan, ran on a campaign opposing vouchers.
“I do not favor voucher schemes that drain funding from our public schools and make an already challenging financial picture that much harder,” she said in Aurora at a candidate forum.