Merrifield bedevils parental hopes

Writing from a special place in Hell where I rent a small office, I’d like to congratulate state Rep. Mike Merrifield on his reappointment to chair the House Education Committee. Why the soon-to-be-Speaker of the House, Rep. Terrance Carroll, himself a school choice advocate, would allow Merrifield to remain in this powerful position is a good question. Carroll has been critical of Merrifield’s attempts to weaken the Charter School Institute and his notorious email claiming “There must be a special place in Hell for these Privatizers, Charterizers, and Voucherizers! They deserve it!”

Perhaps Carroll thinks the Manitou Springs Democrat has reformed his ways. After all, he has managed to stay out of the papers. After Face The State exposed the infamous email in March 2007, Merrifield stepped down from the chairmanship. He resumed his leadership position in the 2008 session and the year went by quietly. I guess Merrifield learned a lesson; if you want to condemn your opponents to the fires of Hell, don't do it over email.

Fellow proponents of school choice, us denizens of brimstone acres, have reason to be concerned about Merrifield’s continued leadership. Emboldened by the last election, liberal politicians have no reason to feign moderation. Last year’s attacks on charter schools will be nothing compared to this year’s. As long as Merrifield is at the helm, we can expect anti-school choice legislation to pass through the committee while pro-school choice legislation languishes.

As both a charterizer and a voucherizer (no doubt doomed to the inferno’s ninth circle), I feel compelled to define the terms of parental choice in education for the reader who may not know what’s at stake. When I was a kid, parents had one choice—send their kids to a designated neighborhood school or pony up for a private school. Parents who could not afford a home in a desirable neighborhood or private school tuition simply had no other options. Thanks to untiring grassroots advocates and a courageous bipartisan group of leaders, today’s parents have a few more options than we had growing up.

Colorado parents can choose any public school that has seats available. They can educate their children at home. Families can also choose from over 140 public charter schools. Like other public schools, charter schools are free public schools open to all students. Unlike other public schools, charter schools have their own governing boards and may adopt their own curriculum and personnel procedures. No two charter schools are the same. There are college preparatory schools, schools that emphasize the arts, on-line schools, schools that encourage hands-on learning, and back-to-basics schools, to name but a few. Charter schools can be authorized by school districts or by the Charter School Institute, a statewide public authorizer.

Making a choice has become easier thanks to school report cards and parent-friendly Web sites that provide information about schools. Even so there are still too many families in areas without good public schools either traditional or charter. Even though private schools typically operate at a fraction of the public per-pupil funding level, for some families, even modest tuition is still out of their reach. In 14 states and the District of Columbia, parents can choose from among private schools with the help of a scholarship or tax credit/deduction. In Colorado, parents do not have this option. Tenacious school choice proponents in Colorado have tried to try to expand options for parents but as long as politicians like Merrifield remain in leadership, their efforts will be blocked every time.

How can the Speaker-to-Be believe Merrifield will act any differently in 2009? How likely is it that we’ll see a kinder, gentler chairman? About a snowball’s chance, I’d say. According to Colorado Capitol Watch, Merrifield received thousands of dollars from unions and other anti-school choice advocacy groups this past election. He isn’t likely to bite the hand that feeds. This is bad news for families seeking new school options and even those trying to hold on to the ones they have. It is difficult to predict exactly where the school choice movement will go next session, but I’m certain Merrifield has a special place in mind.