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Colorado Lags Behind Other States in Advancing Educational Choice

As state after state puts parental choice and educational quality for all ahead of politics and entrenched interests, it is becoming increasingly clear educational choice is no longer a novel idea.

Even so, Colorado has not yet adopted legislation to fully empower its parents and students.

Educational choice has seen big victories around the nation this year. Scholarship tax credit programs, which provide tax credits to private donors who give money to nonprofits providing K-12 private school scholarships, are on the rise. Nevada adopted a generous scholarship tax credit program, and Montana has dipped its toe in the water with a small-scale pilot program. At least two other states, Illinois and New York, are edging closer to adopting their own scholarship tax credit programs. Including Nevada and Montana, there are now 16 scholarship tax credit states in America.

Mississippi, Tennessee, and Nevada all adopted education savings account (ESA) programs in recent months. The programs provide parents with an “education debit card” that can be used to pay private school tuition, purchase educational materials or access specialized educational services. The three newcomers bring the total number of education savings account states to five. While most programs are limited to special needs students, Nevada’s massive new program, which will exist alongside its new scholarship tax credit program, will allow 93 percent of the state’s students to participate.

Arkansas also adopted a voucher program for special needs students, and Florida’s venerable 70,000-student scholarship tax credit program successfully withstood a teachers union-led legal assault. New Hampshire won a similar legal victory late in 2014. To date, no scholarship tax credit or savings account program ever has been struck down by the courts.

All told, 25 states and the District of Columbia now offer some type of private school choice. If Illinois and New York ultimately succeed in their efforts — and they likely will — more than half of the United States will have empowered parents and students to chart their own educational course, even if that course takes them to a private school.

Unfortunately, Colorado has yet to follow suit. A 2004 Colorado Supreme Court decision thwarted hopes for a statewide voucher program, and the legislature this year killed our state’s first effort to create a small-scale savings account program. Douglas County’s pilot voucher program — the first of its kind in the nation — continues to wind its way through the court system, with a Colorado Supreme Court decision expected this summer.

Despite these setbacks, Colorado has a tremendous opportunity to expand educational choice for low-income students. Although our state already has strong public school choice laws, including inter-district open enrollment and a wide variety of charter schools, access to the best schools is often hindered by long waiting lists and lotteries that most students cannot hope to win. Meanwhile, more than 10,000 quality seats sit empty in Colorado’s private schools.

Several K-12 scholarship-granting organizations already operate in Colorado, but they simply cannot raise enough money to help every student who applies. Thousands are turned away. Research shows clearly that children — and particularly low-income children — who do not have access to quality educational options often face uncertain futures.

Research also illustrates that well-designed educational choice programs can improve student outcomes, increase parental satisfaction, and even save money. A scholarship tax credit program would help connect the dots by providing a greater incentive to give to scholarship-granting organizations, thereby increasing the number of scholarships available.

The ever-growing wave of educational choice sweeping across America makes clear that parents and students everywhere are hungry for more educational options. Like dominoes, state after state is embracing the notion that every child deserves access to the educational opportunities he or she needs to build a bright future, regardless of where those opportunities exist.

Educational choice is no longer a purely philosophical debate or a quest only for the politically bold. It is no longer a discussion held quietly in the backrooms of state capitols or the halls of think tanks and universities. Rather, educational choice has grown into a full-throated, bipartisan movement toward more options, more fairness, and more opportunity for students and families.

Educational choice is the new normal.

It’s time for Colorado to join the crowd.

Ross Izard is an education policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver. This article originally appeared in the Greeley Tribune on June 11, 2015.