Campaign for Colorado Choice Continues

August 1, 2004

Campaign for Colorado Choice Continues

Colorado children rally for school choice the morning the Colorado Supreme Court heard the Opportunity Contract case.

By Lisa Knepper

The atmosphere was electric on the morning of May 25, 2004. On that day, the Colorado Supreme Court heard oral argument in a challenge by the usual suspects—teachers’ unions and their allies—to Colorado’s Opportunity Contract program. There to defend the right of high-poverty, low-achieving schoolchildren to opt-out of failing school districts and into the private schools of their parents’ choice was IJ’s President and General Counsel Chip Mellor, alongside the Deputy Attorney General of Colorado.

A diverse and highly dedicated coalition of school choice advocates—including Latino and African-American civil rights activists and Colorado political and business leaders—was out in full force to support parents and children rallying for equal educational opportunity.

“No more do we want our children to be led from the playpen to the state pen,” Colorado Springs choice advocate Evelyn Taylor told the gathering. Echoing her message, fellow Colorado Springs activist Lisa Villanueva told a National Public Radio reporter covering the event, “We’re trying to make everything better for everyone, but, see, we don’t have time to wait on [the public schools] to change to save our children.”

That morning, an op-ed by IJ client and Denver mom Rosa Morales appeared in the Denver Post. Rosa made an impassioned and personal plea for choice: “Opportunity Contracts are a lifeline, the only way I can afford to give my sons the schooling they need.”

Unfortunately, Rosa and thousands of Colorado parents like her will have to wait a little longer. On June 28, the Colorado Supreme Court struck down Opportunity Contracts in a sharply divided 4-3 decision. The majority ruled that because Opportunity Contracts were to be funded in part with local tax dollars, local districts must have control over the instruction paid for with those dollars under the state constitution’s “local control” provision.

In a strongly worded dissent, Justice Rebecca Love Kourlis countered that claim: “Because the school district loses no control whatsoever over the education provided in its public schools, but merely loses some revenue that it would otherwise have, I do not view the program as unconstitutional.”

Save Our Youth Director and Colorado choice activist Luis Villareal inspires choice supporters and rally participants.

After the decision, Chip explained to choice supporters and the media, “While disheartening, the decision was narrow and fortunately provides a roadmap for a constitutional school choice program in Colorado—and, importantly, the ruling does not touch the merits of school choice.”

In fact the majority noted, “[T]he goals of the program and the policy considerations underlying it are laudable”—an encouraging sign for defending a new program limited to state funds. Moreover, because only five other state constitutions have similar “local control” provisions—and Colorado’s is by far the strictest—the legal impact of the ruling will not extend beyond Colorado, nor will it disrupt the nationwide momentum for school choice.

And there’s more good news: the ongoing campaign for choice in Colorado galvanized a dedicated and talented coalition that will not rest until equal educational opportunity is achieved. As the ever-optimistic Jorge Amaya of the Coalition for Latino Children in Education and the Colorado Alliance for Reform in Education told the Rocky Mountain News, “I’m not disheartened by this at all. All this does is give us a clear idea of what we need to do.”

As our friends in Colorado enter the next phase of battle, the IJ team will lend our support every step of the way until educational freedom is at last secure.

Lisa Knepper is IJ’s director of communications.

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