By Colorado Governor Bill Owens

Student Power

COLORADO just became the first state in the nation to send students to college with vouchers. This month I signed a law that overhauls the way Colorado funds our colleges and universities, bringing vouchers and the virtue of the free market to public higher education.

Starting in the fall of 2005, all Colorado residents who decide to attend any of our world-class public colleges or universities will receive a voucher worth up to $2,400 a year.

This revolutionary system — known as the College Opportunity Fund — empowers students and makes public institutions more accountable to students and taxpayers. Here's how:

Previously, the state of Colorado subsidized our public colleges and universities directly through block grants adding up to almost $600 million a year. The money went straight to institutions.

With this new law, the variables stay the same, but the equation is radically altered. The $600 million will be divided into individual stipends — vouchers — for students to use at the schools of their choosing. We're putting money directly into the hands of students, causing colleges and universities to compete for the funds.

This ground-breaking change will yield two results: First, more Coloradans will take advantage of the state's investment in their education; and second, schools will become more responsive to the students they serve.

Under the old system, many Coloradans — particularly our minority and low-income residents — were unaware that the state stood ready and willing to help with their tuition. The new system enables parents, teachers and others to show students the money: to tell them that there are funds earmarked just for them, waiting to be put toward a college education. This tangibility, this sense of ownership, will make all the difference.

What's more, with students controlling their destinies, schools will be in the position of recruiting for the funds — with students in effect becoming discriminating consumers.

The good news is that our vouchers aren't limited to public institutions. Students attending Colorado College, the University of Denver and Regis University will receive $1,200 a year. Public schools will thus have to compete with their private brethren. In the end, the students win, which is the way it should be.

This new model for funding higher education makes financial sense, and it makes moral sense. If the state is going to invest in human capital, a sound investment by any measure, it should do so directly, by placing money straight into the hands of the beneficiaries — straight into the hands of taxpayers.

For over a decade, Colorado has been a home base for education reform. As a state legislator back in the early '90s, I sponsored bills introducing statewide public school choice and charter schools. As governor, I have continued to extend the blessings of school choice to more and more Colorado families.

Colorado's new college voucher bill reminds us that reform doesn't stop at the 12th grade. It reminds us that no government service should be exempt from the values of the free market: competition, accountability to consumers and freedom to choose.

I'm proud to have taken the first step in bringing the common-sense philosophy of vouchers to the world of higher education. This is a new strategy for the voucher movement, and it's a winning one.


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