My Side |

My Side

Sen. Bruce Cairns

This is an exciting time in Colorado for children and parents as we embark on a new era of public education. With the June decision by the United States Supreme Court giving its consent to school voucher programs, Colorado is poised to continue setting a new standard of educational excellence.

Before this state can take any steps forward, however, many questions need to be answered. Who will control the Senate after the November elections? How progressive do we want to be in expanding the educational opportunities for all of Colorado’s children? How hard are we willing to work to provide low-income children with an equal opportunity for future success? Do we want vouchers? Tax credits? Both?

To bring everything together under one umbrella, here is the underlying question that universally encompasses all these thoughts: Where do we go from here?

The ground work was set by the Supreme Court, which focused its recent decision on a school voucher program in Ohio. The court’s decision said many things in many pages, but to summarize: School vouchers are constitutional because they offer parents a choice, not a religious mandate. This fundamental difference in philosophy is often the dividing line between those who believe in the free-market system and parental involvement and choice vs. those who support monopolistic bureaucracies and governmental inefficiencies.

The Supreme Court has decided, and so have I.

According to a recent poll published in The Denver Post, 51 percent of the country supports school vouchers and parental choice. Only 40 percent opposed the idea. Further, a different study published in August 2001 finds that 65 percent of Hispanics in Denver support educational tax credits, with only 25 percent opposed. The populous has sided with me and the Supreme Court.

So who’s left to fight this battle? The liberal lawmakers and the educational bureaucracies continue to fight the movement for better schools. They say it will take away money from public schools. Not true. As students leave the public school system with their voucher or tax credit, it actually results in more money per year for the schools (refer to Amendment 23, passed by voters in 2000; Colorado Constitution Article IX, Section 17).

They say vouchers and tax credits won’t cover the cost of tuition at private schools. Again, this “fact” is false. I recently did a study on private school tuition and found the mean cost of private school in Colorado to be $2,625 – a viable option depending on what laws get passed.

I’ve been criticized for not understanding the principle “separation of church and state.” As the Supreme Court decided, the vouchers offer parents a choice. A voucher does not mandate what school a student will attend. The United States Constitution requires that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. …” I will grant that this should apply to all governmental entities, including the Colorado General Assembly. With school vouchers, however, there is no intent to establish religion. The parent often chooses a religious school, and that may be of any religious belief. Neither vouchers nor tax credits establish a religion, nor do they mandate any specific belief. Rather, it offers parents a choice for their child’s education based on that family’s values.

There is no Constitutional conflict here.

As a state senator, I support accountability on all sides of the aisles – Republicans, Democrats and educators. With the passage of Amendment 23 in 2000, which guarantees an increase of state funding to public schools, our hands are tied and we must push for tax credits or vouchers to create competition. This will demand that all public and private schools improve and ensure accountability as dictated by the free market. A school must improve and maintain a standard of excellence to survive.

I am a firm believer in and an advocate of the free market system. Parental involvement leads to empowerment and “ownership” of the process. If we have some form of educational choice, vouchers or tax credits, then we have the consumer of that product proactive in the decision. Everything works better that has less government, and efficiency increases when there is competition and the motive of profit and/or consumer acceptance.

In the Jan. 23 Wall Street Journal, columnist Jay P. Greene points out that school choice leads to better performances by students. He wrote that Minnesota, which ranked No. 2 on his Education Freedom Index, saw a 17 percent increase in proficiency on a standardized math test. Conversely, North Dakota, which ranks 44th on his index, only saw an increase of 4 percent.

“In the U.S., the government does not, in general, restrict how families raise their children – does not prescribe what clothes they should wear, what food they should eat, or what books they should read,” Greene wrote in his column. “Our states do vary widely, however, in the degree of freedom parents are permitted to decide how their children are educated. Given that education is really just an extension of child-rearing, it is curious that liberty is granted in one arena while often restricted in the other.”

Also in the column, he cites Florida’s increase from 35th place to fourth place in the Educational Freedom Index as a result of two school-choice laws there. According to statistical models, this should improve Florida’s math proficiency scores by 2 percent. While that may not sound like a lot, statistical models also conclude this same result, without school choice, would require per pupil spending to increase by more than 20 percent.

School choice is cheaper and more efficient, and it only makes sense to allow parents the freedom of choice for their own children. The ability to empower parents in Colorado with a choice in their child’s education is a right that every family deserves – including those who can’t afford educational alternatives on their own. This is what “No Child Left Behind” truly means.

Better student achievement, higher education levels for Colorado’s children and better schools – both public and private – is the realistic goal and logical result of school choice and parental empowerment. Teachers will also benefit, as I believe that choice will make the dollars follow the best educators. This means the great teachers will be rewarded while struggling teachers are forced to get better at their job to survive in the profession.

Just as schools must improve to survive, so must the educators. Employees in every other industry are burdened by this principle, and the education industry should not be an exception. The laws of the free market demand survival of the fittest among schools and employees. In this case, the free market can only benefit the children.

To me and so many other school-choice proponents, this seems so obvious. To the liberal bureaucracy, the teachers union and the National Education Association, school choice is seen as a threat – a self-testament to how they view the quality of today’s public education sector.

The state of Colorado has failed its students in many ways over several years. Most recently, the state’s General Assembly in 2002 voted down two bills that would have provided opportunities for public and private low-income children in the form of tax credits – House Bill 1309 and Senate Bill 163. HB 1309 would have provided voluntary and private scholarships to low-income children in public and private and allowed them to escape their failing inner-city schools. SB 163 would have used tax credits to scholarship organizations to assist all families choosing to exercise their credit. Additionally, means tested families’ credits could have been assigned to empower and enable parental participation in choice.

The few still opposing school choice somehow prevailed in these two debates, and another generation of Colorado’s children lost a great future. Governmental interference at any level is difficult to justify, especially at the level of how to educate Colorado’s children. Who do these students belong to – the parents or the government?

But now the tides are turning in this war of student achievement vs. liberal bureaucracies. Parents are beginning to see the light that school choice produces. The Supreme Court has ruled that school choice is a constitutionally accepted practice.

A move that is just now picking up momentum from school-choice opponents is a reaction to the fact that they are losing this battle of ideologies. The school-choice opponents are now, in the face of defeat, reaching out their hands and asking for a compromise. They are making overtures towards vouchers in the wake of the June Supreme Court decision, but we must stand firm. We cannot settle for a law with strings attached – for further bureaucratic jargon working against our children. We need true education reform and honest consumer/user empowerment.

In an age where per-pupil-funding discrepancies between low-poverty and high-poverty students is increasing – about $587 per year in Colorado and growing, according to an Aug. 9 article in the Rocky Mountain News – we must find a way to allow all children a choice without compromising our philosophy or the chances of success for our students. Failing schools have no competition, take students for granted, have no incentive to get better, and that means the students at these schools are the real losers.

Isn’t it about time we provided equal opportunity for all of Colorado’s children? Don’t you think all of our students deserve a future with the potential for success? Shouldn’t parents be able to tell their children, “We’re changing your school, Johnny, because we want to give you the best education possible?”

The answer to all these questions is a mighty and resounding “YES.” The time is now, and it’s up to the General Assembly and all of Colorado’s citizens to finally get something done for the betterment of our public schools, our private schools, and ultimately to allow our children the best scenario for a successful future.

So, Colorado, where do we go from here? I vote for parental empowerment. I vote to celebrate and reward great teachers. I vote for better schools. I vote that we allow all our students to achieve.

I vote for school choice. How about you?

Senator Bruce Cairns represents Senate District 28 which includes the city of Aurora and portions of Arapahoe County. Cairns serves on the Senate Education Committee.

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