Douglas County School-Choice Decision Highlights Need to Re-Examine Blaine Amendments

Published July 23, 2015

The recent Colorado court decision to stop a school-choice pilot program is more disappointing than shocking.

On June 29, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled against the Douglas County Choice Scholarship program by overturning a February 2013 Court of Appeals decision upholding the voucher program as constitutional. According to CSC’s decision, the Douglas County program violates Article IX, Section 7 of the Colorado Constitution, which prohibits the state from giving appropriations “in aid of any church or sectarian society… or to help support or sustain any school… controlled by any church or sectarian denomination.”

Douglas County, Colorado began the school voucher program in 2011. The program offered scholarships for 500 students to attend the school of their family’s choice, including religious and secular private schools.

This decision ignores the fact the voucher program exists to aid families, not schools. The money is not “appropriated” to any school, religious or secular. Parents who choose to join the voucher program select the school.

The decision references the state’s Blaine Amendments, sparking extensive debate regarding such provisions since the 4-3 ruling. Blaine Amendments are add-ons to many state constitutions that prohibit the government from giving direct assistance to religious organizations. Ironically, they originated in the 1800s as a way to keep schools Protestant by preventing funding of Catholic schools. In the 1800s, schools were largely Protestant institutions, and the Protestants prevailed in public schools for many years thereafter.

Today, Blaine Amendments are a constant cause for concern for anyone who sees the value in school choice. Cases such as this, filed continuously across the country, often result in the school-choice program remaining intact, but sometimes courts make rulings as upsetting as the recent Colorado decision.

The fear for teachers unions and others who wave the Blaine Amendments around like a medieval shield is this: If given a choice of whether to use the traditional public schools assigned to students based only on their zip code, parents, students and families will flee to other schools, religious or otherwise. The education establishment’s real fear is empty classrooms and a loss of funding that follows the students to other schools through choice programs.

Religion is thus just another excuse for stopping choice. A New York Times story reported the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado claimed the ruling “drew a clear border between public money and private faith.”

“Parents are free to send their children to private religious schools if they wish, but the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed today that taxpayers should not be forced to pay for it,” read a statement in the Times story by Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado, which represented some of the challengers in this case.

Such a statement blatantly disregards the fact the Douglas County choice program would provide taxpayers a greater say over how their tax dollars are spent. The public is already ponying up for these students’ education, and denying families any choice means the court is limiting taxpayers to only one option: to foot the bill for traditional public schools, a large percentage of which are underserving their children.

The voucher program would not force any parents to send their children to a religious school. It’s important to bear in mind many parents make such a decision not because the school is religious but because it is better — often far better — than the local public school. Many students who attend Catholic or other religious schools do not practice the religion of the school they are attending. They choose to go there because the schools offer a better education.

Blaine Amendments enable the education establishment to use religion as a convenient means of blocking choice for parents and students. School voucher programs are not “state appropriations,” and with traditional public schools failing to educate students, courts shouldn’t grant those responsible for the failures another place to hide.

[Originally published at Watchdog]