Colorado Governor Signs College Voucher Law
State will become first in nation to offer program
By Steven K. Paulson
Community College Times
May 25, 2004
DENVER - Colorado became the first state with a college voucher program this month as Gov. Bill Owens signed a law that will give high school graduates hundreds of dollars to attend state schools, public and private.
The Republican governor said vouchers send a message to high school students that college is not out of reach and that taxpayer money is available to help. He also said the program will spur competition for scholars.
“The more students you attract, the better your institution can do,” Owens said at the May 10 signing. “Today Colorado becomes the first state in the nation to transform the way it funds higher education by empowering individual students.”
The National Conference of State Legislatures said no other state has attempted a voucher program on such a scale: Stipends will be available to all Colorado undergraduate students who qualify for in-state tuition. They can use the money for up to 145 hours of credit, with some allowance for unusual circumstances.
The students do not get a check. Instead, they apply for the stipend when they register and the state sends the money to the school. The amount is set each year by the Legislature, depending on the state budget.
When the program begins in the fall of 2005, the amount will be $2,400 for students attending a public school and $1,200 for low-income students attending three private institutions: Regis University, a Jesuit institution, the University of Denver and Colorado College.
The law says the money can go to religious schools as long as they are not “pervasively sectarian.”
Jacob Garcia, a 23-year-old community college student who wants to major in journalism, said vouchers will force schools to improve.
“I like it when colleges compete for students,” Garcia said.
Ryan McMaken, director of the Colorado Student Association that represents about 60,000 college students, said the program does not put more money into higher education. But he said attaching a dollar figure to each student will make it harder for lawmakers to make cuts.
“This does put us on a better footing. This is half of the solution, making people aware the money is there,” he said.
There is concern among lawmakers that vouchers may have to be cut next year unless voters ease fiscal limits in the state Constitution or agree to use millions of dollars Colorado gets from the national settlement with the tobacco industry.
Without one of those steps, lawmakers warn, higher education and Medicaid will be on the chopping block when they cut an estimated $254 million next year.
Owens is considering whether to call a special legislative session to address the fiscal restraints after the Legislature failed to come up with a plan to present to voters in November.
The vouchers give schools some breathing room: They do not have to count voucher tuition toward revenue limits imposed by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR).
University of Colorado President Betsy Hoffman said vouchers are a first step until taxpayers agree to loosen the constitutional restrictions of TABOR and Amendment 23, which requires increased annual spending on K-12 public education.