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chairmanships include the state Republican Party, the Denver
Public Schools Foundation, the Metropolitan State College
of Denver, and the University of Colorado’s capital campaign.
Benson was recruited by CCHE Executive Director Tim
Foster, a former Republican legislator and another key player
in the voucher drive. Governor Owens is said to support the
proposal, but he had not made his support public as of early
April.
Meeting in tandemwith CCHE and the state’s higher
education CEOs, the panel confronted some vexing statistics,
which are catalogued in their report: On the one hand,
Colorado is one of the nation’s wealthiest states, and it ranks
number one in terms of the percentage of citizens with a
college degree, according to U.S. census figures. On the other
hand, the state falls below the median in terms of college
attendance by its own citizens (according to the
Measuring
Up 2002
report published by the National Center for Public
Policy and Higher Education, which also publishes
National
CrossTalk
) and ties for third in the percentage of 16-to-19-
year-olds who are high school dropouts, according to an
Annie E. Casey Foundation report.
While the state’s population mushroomed by more than
30 percent in the 1990s, college enrollment grew by just
under ten percent, the panel said in its report. And, in terms
of probability of low-income families attending college,
Colorado placed dead last in 1999 and 41st in 2000, according
to higher education policy analyst TomMortenson.
“It was embarrassing to have the most educated population
and be doing such a poor job sending our kids to school. We
need to do a much better job,” said Lamm, noting that low
college attendance by the state’s growing Hispanic population
was a particular concern. During the 1990s, Hispanics grew
from 13 percent to 17 percent of the state’s population.
After considering six funding alternatives, the 17-member
panel almost immediately locked onto the voucher idea,
participants said. “Most of us felt pretty strongly about a
consumer-oriented program,” said Benson. “It really doesn’t
change the money that much. It changes how people think
about that money.”
The panel’s recommendation became legislation even as
a controversial K–12 voucher measure seemed destined to
become law. That bill would make Colorado the first state to
begin funding students attending private schools since last
summer’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling lifted a constitutional
cloud from voucher programs. The Colorado K–12 proposal
was limited to low-income children with poor grades in
designated school districts. But opponents were vowing to
challenge it all the way back to the high court.
Against that backdrop, the higher education panel made
a point of avoiding the most contentious aspect of K–12
voucher plans—the funding of private institutions. Though
sympathetic to that idea, Benson and his Republican allies
knew that Colorado had neither the dollars nor the will to
include independent institutions. “Philosophically I would
like the privates in it,” said Benson. “But the down and dirty
is that if you put the privates in this deal, it is dead. Down the
road, maybe things will get better and you can put the privates
in.”
In its final report, released in January, the panel eschewed
the term “voucher” altogether, instead talking about “student
educational savings accounts.” As the legislation was drafted
by Representative Keith King (R-Colorado Springs), who had
sat on the blue ribbon panel, the name morphed to “college
opportunity grants” and, finally, “college opportunity savings
accounts.”
Here are the particulars:
• Student Grants. According to the blue ribbon panel, these
would be $4,000 a year for undergraduates and $8,000 for
master’s degree students. In the legislation, the actual amounts
were left blank, pending the outcome of ongoing budget
discussions. As the joint budget committee took a knife to the
higher education budget, reducing next year’s appropriation to
$506 million, the grants seemed unlikely to pass at the $4,000
a year level. If they fell to the $3,200 figure that some officials
were predicting, support could quickly erode.
“Like a coupon with
a variable face amount,
it can go up and it can
go down,” said CCHE
spokeswoman Joan
Ringel, acknowledging,
“We would have to say
that very carefully.”
Undergraduate credit
hours would be capped
at 140 and graduates at
60, with some waivers
available and some
stipends for “lifelong
learners” six years after completing an undergraduate degree.
• Community College Tuition Reductions. Tuition at two-
year public institutions would be decreased by 25 percent
and then increased by the amount of the grant. At Colorado
Northwestern Community College in Rangely, for example,
tuition would drop from $1,981 for full-time in-state students
(an estimate for next year, assuming a five-percent increase
University of Colorado President Elizabeth Hoffman supports the voucher plan,
which should increase the university’s tuition revenue substantially.
Some higher
education finance
experts say the
voucher plan can
not work without a
boost in financial
aid dollars.