Colorado is Changing the Face of Vouchers
By Scott Flores
In April 2003, Colorado became the first state in the nation to pass a statewide voucher law since the victory for school choice before the U.S. Supreme Court. The legislation passed with the support of a broad-based group of school choice advocates we call ?the Alliance?—a group of people who under different circumstances might never be in the same room together, but nonetheless united to help poor children receive a better education.
Various Alliance members made previous attempts at large-scale education reform in the state, but as individuals or small factions, they failed. From those attempts, we learned that success requires inclusion, sewing together diverse groups with the common thread of educational freedom.
Leaders from the Latino community, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, the Catholic Archdiocese, private schools, churches, Democrats and Republicans, Save Our Youth, La Raza, the Independence Institute, the ACE Scholarship Fund, the Parents Challenge scholarship fund, and the Colorado Alliance for Reform in Education began to meet and quickly jelled as a cohesive, dynamic team.
One of the keys to our success was recognizing the importance of leadership from the Latino community. Until Colorado’s voucher movement came into the national spotlight, school choice efforts focused on providing educational opportunity to inner city African-Americans. But in Denver Public Schools, for example, Latinos comprise the majority of students and more than 70 percent of those who qualify for free lunch. Nationwide, Latinos have the highest dropout rates. Our work in Colorado brought the opportunity—and arguably the need—to broaden the coalition of school choice supporters and leaders.
Working under the umbrella of the Alliance, Latino community leaders in Colorado established the Coalition for Latino Children in Education (CLCE). The CLCE drafted model legislation for the Alliance, established themselves as expert advocates for Latino children and parents, and—critically—helped secure the support of Colorado’s leading Democrat and Latino politician, Attorney General Ken Salazar.
Our success derived in part from understanding that strategies and tactics used to organize choice advocates back east will not always work in the southwest. We must appreciate the diversity of the Latino community—not just Mexican, but Cuban, Puerto Rican, Panamanian and more, each with a unique character. Educating and recruiting embedded and trusted Latino leaders through long-standing relationships is critical.
Since the school choice bill passed, the CLCE and the Alliance have continued to channel the support of Latinos, African-Americans and others for school choice, providing assistance to the state and districts on implementation, keeping parents and private schools informed, and working with the Institute for Justice to give voice to parents in the media and the community as litigation defending the program continues.
The CLCE and the Colorado Alliance achieved success through inclusion, bringing together a diverse coalition that crosses all lines of race and ideology and working hard to gain the trust of the new majority minority, the Latino. For the democratization of education to become a reality nationwide, school choice advocates must continue to build strong coalitions—always remembering to serve, defend and include those communities most in need of educational freedom.
Scott Flores is executive director of ACE Scholarships and a board member of the Latino Coalition for Children in Education.