Bills that would allow state tax credits for private school tuition and guarantee parent rights in educational and medical decisions were passed Thursday by the Republican majority on the Senate Education Committee.
The 5-4 vote on the tax-credits measure marked the first time in several sessions that such a bill has moved out of committee.
The five hours of hearings drew an overflow crowd, and the meeting was punctuated with sometimes-emotional testimony on the parent rights bill.
Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud and prime sponsor of the tax-credits measure, Senate Bill 15-045, argued that the bill is needed to give more support to private schools and home schooling. The current system “encourages in every way public schools and pretty much tolerates private schools and home schooling. This bill is intended simply to change that policy,” he said.
The witness list for the bill was surprisingly short, and committee members took more time discussing the bill than advocates did supporting or opposing it. Democratic committee members took up a fair amount of time with unsuccessful amendments designed to make points about other issues like education funding and non-discrimination.
There also was a bit of back and forth among committee members about whether tax credits, as opposed to vouchers, actually involve public funds and therefore have constitutional problems.
The bill would allow a tax credit equal to half of statewide per-pupil public school spending for taxpayers with children enrolled full-time in a private school. A tax credit of $1,000 would be allowed for full-time home-schooled students. People who donate to private school scholarships could claim a credit of half of statewide per-pupil funding or the amount of the scholarship, whichever is smaller.
The bill moves next to the Senate Finance Committee, where testimony and discussion is supposed to focus on the possible fiscal impacts of the bill.
Legislative staff analysts estimate the measure would cost the state $12.1 million in 2015-16 and $37 million in 2016-17, involving 35,891 students in that second year. It’s estimated the loss in tax revenues could reach $318.3 million by 2028-29.
K-12 funding is projected to drop by $44.1 million in 2016-17 and $81.3 million in 2017-18. Total K-12 spending currently is about $5.9 billion a year. (Read the full financial analysis here.)
Parent rights bill sparks emotional responses
Parent’s bill of rights sponsor Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, said those rights are under “assault” and that his bill would “reinforce” the rights of parents to raise and educate their children as they see fit.
Representatives of the Colorado Bar Association and children’s advocacy organizations testified against the bill, warning of possible unintended consequences.
Much of the testimony from both sides focused on medical consent issues and alleged problems with family courts. There also was testimony from anti-vaccination activists.
Schools were less of a focus. Witnesses representing the Colorado Education Association, Colorado Association of School Boards and the Colorado Association of School Executives said the bill isn’t necessary because existing laws cover parent rights to opt their children out of lessons they object to, or out of sex education.
But anti-testing activist Anita Stapleton of Pueblo complained of students being coerced to take state tests and required to answer questionnaires that asked about drug use and sexual habits.
Senate Bill 15-077 declares that parents have the fundamental right to raise, educate and provide medical care for their children and that government cannot interfere with that unless there’s “a compelling interest.” It sets out a long list of parental rights, including withdrawal of children from classes whose content they find objectionable, receiving information about opting out of sex education classes, access to textbooks, and consent to medical and diagnostic procedures and to video and audio recording of children.
Read the bill text here.
It’s possible that both bills will pass the Senate, where Republicans hold a 18-17 majority. If that happens their chances are dim in the House, where Democrats have majority control. That’s what happens when there’s split legislative control – strongly ideological bills passed in one house tend to die in the other.