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Educational Choice in Colorado
Statewide Survey of Voters
July 2003

by Floyd Ciruli

In March of 2003 a statewide survey was conducted among Colorado voters concerning programs to increase parental choice for kindergarten to 12 grade public school children. The survey was sponsored by the Colorado Alliance for Reform in Education. In addition, four of Colorado’s state senate districts were surveyed due to their significant minority populations.

The following analysis of survey results was presented to legislators and educational choice advocates in April 2003. The final report adds background text and provides analysis of data presented in addition to PowerPoint slides. For the full report, contact info@ciruli.com.

School Improvement Initiatives
For more than a decade there have been significant efforts to reform Colorado K-12 education through increased accountability, and competition within public schools and between public and private schools.

A series of reform initiatives have been supported or opposed in recent years by governors Roy Romer and Bill Owens, the state legislature, state and local educational bureaucracies and interest groups such as local school boards, teacher unions, parent-teacher associations and reform advocates. Some of the proposals have produced political stalemates, but many have lead to compromises and considerable changes in educational policy. For example, public school funding was significantly increased, school standards and accountability tests were adopted, charter schools were created, and most recently, in the 2003 legislative session a voucher program for low-income families in under-performing schools was approved.

Educational Choice Appears to be Growing in Colorado
Despite considerable opposition to charter schools among legislators and local school districts, such schools have flourished and have posted a 70 percent increase from 1997 to 2001, the last year of data reported by the State Department of Education.

The number of children in charter schools has multiplied four times in five years, from 11,000 in 1997 to a reported 55,000 in 2001. Home-based schooling (25% increase) and non-public schools (23% increase) also are growing faster than the overall student population (8% increase).

Public Education Strongly Supported
Public education is a powerful force in Colorado politics. It is consistently one of the most important topics among voters and elected officials. The K-12 public education establishment is the state’s most powerful interest group. Factors in public education’s power and importance:

  • Public K-12 education receives the largest single state government expenditure and the bulk of local property tax. The state legislature spends considerable energy each session on education finance and policy issues. Much of the state’s current fiscal conundrum reflects the political imperative and legal and constitutional requirements of funding K-12 education.

  • Public elementary and secondary education is a leading local economic generator and as this survey reports, 10 percent of voters work for the public school system or have a family member who does. In many communities, K-12 education is the largest and best-paying employer. Facilities and equipment are significant local investments. Supplies, maintenance and school construction are significant local revenue generators.

  • The members of the network that comprise the K-12 education establishment are well educated and influential. Teachers, administrators, school boards and activist parents and their associations often unite in support of more funding and in opposition to reforms such as standardized testing and competition.

  • The political strength of public education is demonstrated by the frequency with which local school bond and mill levy initiatives pass. The one-quarter of voters (24%) who have children in public K-12 education are the political support base on which most funding proposals can depend.

  • The issue receives extensive media coverage. Newspapers and television stations dedicate significant resources to K-12 issues.

  • There is a strong emotional attachment to public education. Most voters are graduates of public education and many still follow their school’s sports teams and other accomplishments.

Research shows that voter support for K-12 public education hinges on the view that education is essential if children are to be productive members of society. They also value a public system for attempting to teach a basic curriculum and civil ideals. Although many voters criticize public education for its failings, they tend to blame factors other than the system and its employees.

Colorado Ballot Initiatives and Vouchers
Since 1992 there have been four statewide ballot proposals related to financing education. Only one passed, Amendment 23 in 2000, which guarantees yearly increases in state spending for public K-12.

Governor Romer, in concert with most of the public school establishment, proposed a 1 percent statewide sales tax increase in 1992 for public education. It included a number of reform proposals but lost in the face of well organized opposition, including the future state treasurer and governor Bill Owens, and a strong anti-tax electorate. (Amendment 1, the tax limitation initiative passed that year.) Two public school choice initiatives have been defeated: first a voucher program in 1992, and second an income tax credit proposal in 1998. Both faced expensive professional opposition campaigns that received grassroots support from the education establishment and financing primarily by local and national teachers unions.

Amendment 23 was the first successful statewide exception to the TABOR tax limit. Its passage, even if by a narrow margin, was a demonstration of both the education establishment’s ability to promote a ballot initiative and the influence of education as an issue for a majority of voters.

Voucher Legislation: HR 1160
With its 2002 Zelman vs. Simmons-Harris decision, which approved a targeted voucher program for low-income students in Cleveland, Ohio, the U.S. Supreme Court provided voucher advocates new momentum.

The Colorado legislature passed HR 1160 in May 2003 to create a pilot program to allow low-income children who are receiving failing grades in poorly performing school districts to send their children to private or church-related schools and receive part or all of the tuition from the government. The legislation represents a significant addition to the national parental choice movement and has attracted considerable attention from supporters and opponents. In fact, national and local voucher opponents are mounting a major court challenge.

Summary of Findings
In March 2003 the Colorado Alliance for Reform in Education, a support group of the new pilot program, commissioned a statewide survey of adult registered voters (603 interviewed with ±4.0 percentage points statistical range of accuracy) to investigate attitudes concerning the pilot program and the educational choice issue in general. An additional 1,153 voters were contacted in Senate District 3 (Pueblo), Senate District 29 (Aurora), Senate District 33 (NE Denver) and Senate District 34 (NW Denver). This analysis also incorporates a review of polling, election and education data from the last decade.

The following are the major findings of the research.

  • Education is the top issue among Colorado voters. A majority of voters support standards testing and more money for public education.

  • Public education is highly valued by Colorado voters. It is seen as a key to generational betterment, career opportunities and critical basic skills and civic knowledge.

  • Voters believe the right to educational choice is fundamental. Children in failing public schools should be able to transfer to better schools.

  • A third of parents would transfer their children from public to private school if money was not an issue. Parents with less income and education are most likely to want to transfer their children. Forty-eight percent of parents in the four minority senate districts would transfer their children.

  • Overall, a majority of Colorado voters do not support the pilot choice program for low-income children in under-performing schools.

    - Parents with children in public education and families with K-12 public employees strongly oppose the program and view the pilot program as a potential drain of resources from public education.

    - Parents with children in private schools are supportive.

    - Minority parents are more supportive of the pilot (a majority favors the program).

  • Voter opinion on the use of public money for non-public schools remains fluid and shifts pro and con depending on the positive and negative statements presented to them. About half the voting population holds strong and opposing views on the issue and between 30 to 40 percent change their position depending on the values and facts presented. For example:

    - Voters are closely divided on the issue of public funds for religious schools.

    - They are supportive of low-income children having a voucher-type program to choose a better school.

    - Voters are reluctant to support any program that appears to remove funds from public schools.

    - But voters are not opposed to having the legislature consider the issue.

  • People support equal access, quality assurance and safety standards in private schools that receive public funding.

  • Narrowing the program to a limited number of under-performing children versus apply it to all under-performing children does not add voter support for the program. In fact, it appears to be one of the reasons for the program’s low level of support among many parents.

  • There is high level and widespread support for tax credits to provide funds to pay for tuition in private schools.

Ciruli Associates
Ciruli Associates is a non-partisan research, communication and public policy firm providing consulting for Colorado and national organizations since 1976.

Floyd Ciruli founded Ciruli Associates in 1975. Clients have included numerous educational institutions such as the Adams Five Star, Boulder Valley, Denver and Jefferson County Public School Districts and nonprofit organizations involved with educational improvement such as the Piton Foundation.

Mr. Ciruli is perhaps best-known to Colorado audiences as a pollster and political analyst for 9-KUSA TV, The Denver Post, The Rocky Mountain News and KOA Radio. In addition, he has appeared on ABC Nightly News, the MacNeil/Lehrer and Lehrer News Hour, CNN, Nightline and National Public Radio. Mr. Ciruli also has authored numerous articles, among them Clash of Civilizations, a Nov. 25, 2001, Denver Post Perspective piece that detailed the political and public policy implications of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Mr. Ciruli is a member of the American Political Science Association and the American Association of Public Opinion Research. He regularly presents papers on political and research topics. He currently teaches a graduate class in media, public opinion and policy for the Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado-Denver.

Mr. Ciruli holds a law degree from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and a bachelors degree in political science from UCLA. He is a native of Pueblo, Colorado.

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