Saturday, August 13, 2011

Douglas County Vouchers Unconstitutional

The Denver District Court has pulled the plug on the controversial voucher program that was implemented by the Douglas County School District in Colorado earlier this year. In a 68-page rule Judge Michael Martinez ruled that the program - which allowed a percentage of district funds to be used by students for private schools - violated Colorado's Constitution which specifically prohibits any use of public funds from supporting religious schools. Thus, the 304 students who had applied for - and received a portion of - a voucher of roughly $4,000 will not be able to proceed in their plans to attend a school other than a public school on the taxpayer's dime. The suit was filed by, among others, the ACLU and a group of Douglas County residents who opposed the program.

The program raised intense debate over the last year as proponents argued from freedom of choice on the parts of parents - who are taxpayers - and opponents who argued it violates the law. To be clear, Colorado's state Constitution does, in fact, literally forbid the use of public funds for religious schools. Thus, this is not simply a debate over whether the US Constitution literally or figuratively creates a "separation of church and state." Additionally, this case tested boundaries precisely because of the socioeconomic status of the students involved. Generally, vouchers have been proposed to help poor students escape struggling schools. However, Douglas County is the sixth wealthiest county in the nation, and its schools are not in any way struggling. Well, that's not true - they are struggling for money in one of the most tax-averse parts of the country. But the quality of the education is not in dispute. It's merely the freedom of choice.

As I've noted before, I am not completely rigid in my opposition to the use of vouchers. For me, education reform is all about whatever works. To that I would assert that Douglas County schools are, in fact, working. Yet, I do believe in freedom of choice - though Colorado schools do have open enrollment laws that apply statewide. And, I won't dispute that school reform darling Finland uses a voucher-style system. So, this particular program is awkward for a variety of reasons - and I don't support change for change sake or the idea that freedom and taxpayers' rights know no bounds. Thus, my gut overall is that this program is unnecessary and not in the best interest of public education or education reform. Supreme Court, get ready.

For the most part, the students were choosing religious schools, which clearly and literally violates Colorado's state Constitution. However, some parents filed for the money because they claim their child's special needs require a private school. That's a discussion for a later post.

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