Voucher Blunder: Colorado School District Approves ‘School Choice’ Scheme

A few months ago, I blogged about a Colorado public school district that was considering a voucher scheme that would allow some students to attend religious and other private schools.

I explained then that vouchers are a bad idea all around. Tuition subsidies for religious schools undermine church-state separation, hurt the public schools and have not improved student performance in places where they’ve been tried.

I also pointed out that most people in Colorado don’t approve of vouchers. Voters there overwhelmingly rejected a voucher referendum, and in 2004, the Colorado Supreme Court struck down a statewide voucher plan.

Based on all this, I hoped that officials at the Douglas County Public School District would take the hint.

Unfortunately, they didn’t.

According to the Denver Post, the school board voted unanimously on Tuesday to approve the “Choice Scholarship Program,” a voucher scheme that would make up to 500 students eligible to receive $4,575 to attend private school in the 2011-12 school year.

Back in November, Americans United wrote a letter to school board members, urging them to oppose the proposal. Several hearings were held, and Americans United members in the area provided testimony.

Americans United expressed concern that the proposed scheme would use public funds to pay for religious activities and instruction. According to the terms of the proposal, all but one of the 14 eligible private schools within the county were religion-based.

AU’s legislative department also pointed out that the Douglas County voucher scheme did not prohibit students who live in the school district but already attend private schools from enrolling in the public schools in order to obtain a voucher.

Instead of scrapping the scheme as they should have, board members tinkered with its provisions to make it look less obviously problematic.

The new proposal expands the boundaries to include a more diverse group of private schools, not just religious ones. A provision was added stating that current private school students who enroll in public school would not be eligible for the voucher money until one year later.

The board also tacked on a provision allowing students to opt out of religious instruction at religion-based schools.

But that just shows board members’ fundamental misunderstanding of how religious schools work. Church officials usually pervade every course with the teachings of their faith. It isn’t possible for students to “opt out.”

And the changes don’t alter the bottom line: public funds will still be funneled to support religious schools. And these private schools are free to discriminate in hiring on grounds of religion or personal status. They can refuse to hire you if you’re gay or divorced or married to someone the church doesn’t approve of or a dozen other irrelevant factors.

That means Douglas County taxpayers will be footing the bill for private schools where they would not be eligible for employment even if they are eminently qualified.

It’s a shame the Douglas County school board ignored these serious civil rights and civil liberties concerns. Local activists say a lawsuit is likely.

Sadly, many other lawmakers across the country are considering following Douglas County’s lead.

No matter where you live, contact your members of Congress and your local legislators and government officials and tell them you do not support voucher subsidies for religious schools. We need to make our voices heard.