Asked to defend a voucher program he and his Republican colleagues proposed earlier this year, state Sen. Bob Rankin (R-Carbondale) said, “I don’t think we used the word ‘voucher,’” despite the fact that the policy they floated meets the textbook definition of a voucher program.

Rankin and his challenger, Democratic candidate Karl Hanlon, squared off at the Club 20 Candidate Debates recently.

Hanlon asked Rankin to justify his co-authorship of a letter (along with nearly the entire Republican caucus) to Gov. Jared Polis (D-CO) calling for a special session to address education funding in light of the COVID pandemic.

The letter included a single specific policy proposal: “a direct education support package for families, called “Safe Learning Choices.” Rankin and the other Republicans described it in detail:

Parents need the financial resources either to remain at home to teach or to engage someone to serve as their children’s educator,” reads the letter from Rankin and other Republicans to Polis. “In response to this, one proposal we will introduce is a direct education support package for families, called ‘Safe Learning Choices.’ This support would be available to families whose children cannot attend public school full-time due to the virus—whether due to their own risk concerns or due to their local school deciding not to operate. These families would be entitled to all or a portion of their child’s per pupil revenue to access the educational resources they need to thrive during the pandemic.

This transfer of public funding is the definition of a voucher program. Traditionally the state allocates a certain amount of money to public school districts for each attending student–the “Per Pupil Revenue” or PPR. Vouchers are a term for any program that withholds those public dollars from the local school district and instead gives them directly to the parents, who can then choose to spend them on alternative forms of education, such as private schools or homeschooling.

At the time, Polis and Democrats in the state legislature dismissed the proposal as exactly that–a backdoor attempt to implement a voucher program that Republicans never been able to pass during the regular session. Furthermore, the pandemic-induced economic collapse forced legislators to withhold well over a billion dollars from the K-12 budget just months earlier, double the previous year’s amount.

Republican leadership pushed back by saying it was only temporary, “an emergency response to provide parents with money to educate their children who have to stay home,” state Sen. Paul Lundeen (R-Monument) told The Denver Post.

Yet the letter itself supports the GOP proposal becoming permanent, stating “…many of our assumptions and models of operation have had to change rapidly to meet the changed circumstances of the current crisis. Many changes will remain after the passage of this crisis, and other old models and methods will be forever altered. These changes must happen for our State to adapt and prosper. One of the most important is the education of Colorado’s children.”

In his debate remarks, Rankin reiterated his party’s position that the proposed funding of educational options beyond the public school system isn’t just an emergency fix, but rather the way forward:

“I’m trying to lead the vision for the future of education. So I think this is part of it: Give parents the options of what they want to do,” he said. “Why should they not be able to choose options for their kids?” 

Rankin did not respond to an email request for comment. This article will be updated with any response received.

Rural school districts are particularly vulnerable to the funding reductions that vouchers create, according to a 2017 report by the American School Superintendents Association.

“Vouchers are especially harmful to the public school systems serving large rural areas because the schools are forced to spread the same costs for facilities, transportation, administration, and instruction over a smaller stream of revenue,” states the report. “Because of their small enrollments, rural schools encounter diseconomies of scale.”

Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been pushing vouchers during the pandemic, and Rankin was an early supporter of the president. The senator has also been comfortable with publicly supporting not just the concept but word “voucher” in the past. The issues page of his 2010 campaign website openly advocated for vouchers, stating “Vouchers for private schools and homeschool should be implemented as the budget improves in order enhance competition.”

Screenshot of Sen. Rankin’s 2010 campaign website

Watch the full exchange between Hanlon and Rankin and read the transcript here:

HANLON: Senator Rankin, I’d like to take a minute to talk about education in Colorado. You, on the Joint Budget Committee have been in charge of those budgets, in that senior role. And you’ve referenced that you wanted to expand funding for that even though over the years you’ve been a leader in cutting back that funding. On July 28 you were the co-author of a letter that was sent to Governor Polis asking for a special session to essentially have a discussion about a voucher program while districts out here were hurting so badly for funding.  Could you explain to the voters why a voucher program is appropriate out here in western Colorado?

RANKIN:  Thank you. I don’t think we used the word ‘voucher.’ What we asked for was a special session to address the special needs of school districts that are going back to work. There are 178 school districts and they all have a slightly different plan. What is happening is parents are realizing that they have options. You know, they are forming these pods; they get about 10 students together and they hire a teacher.  They’re going to online schools that are not part of the public school system. There are so many different ways- education will change.  

I was appointed by Governor Hickenlooper and reappointed by our current governor, Polis, to head — to co-chair Education Leadership Council, and that’s a bipartisan group of people who are sup— our challenge is to look forward. I had a lot of work in industry on visioning. And so I’m trying to lead the vision for the future of education. So I think this is part of it: Give parents the options of what they want to do. Why should they not be able to choose options for their kids?