Douglas County elections heat up over school choice

Voucher programs, Blaine Amendment could hang in balance

Few issues worry parents more than the quality of education available to their children, which is why school choice is a hot-button, emotional issue for many voters. This fall, the issue is about to reach a boiling point for the citizens of Douglas County, and it will have national implications.

On Nov. 7, four seats of the Douglas County School Board will be decided, and who fills them could determine the outcome of the school district’s debate over their voucher program, an innovative program launched in 2011 that seeks to provide universal school choice.

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled the program unconstitutional in 2015, stating that by providing publicly funded scholarships to qualifying students attending private schools, including faith-based ones, the initiative violates the 150-year old Blaine Amendment that forbids aid to “sectarian” (read: Catholic) schools.

The ruling was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and just this summer, as the school board election began to heat up, the case was sent back to the Colorado Supreme Court with instruction from the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider the constitutionality of the voucher program in light of its recent decision in another challenge to religious discrimination, Trinity Lutheran v Comer.

Now that the Colorado Supreme Court’s ruling on the voucher program has been vacated, the stakes are even higher when it comes to who sits on the Douglas County School Board.

If Douglas County voters elect a board that favors the Choice Scholarship program, which could become a model for school districts across the country, that would put pressure on the State of Colorado to reconsider not only its ruling on the voucher program, but also the existence of the discriminatory Blaine Amendment (and by extension similar pressure could be placed on the 37 other states where similar amendments exist).

If not, then universal school choice may never again see the light of day in Colorado, and it may hinder efforts in other states.

As a result, the 2018 school board election in Douglas County has been catapulted to the national political stage, placing one of the most polarizing topics in education in the spotlight.

Turn out, turn out, turn out

According to Jennifer Kraska, executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, this election is a critical opportunity for supporters of school choice in Douglas County to make their voice heard.

“The makeup of the board could determine the outcome of that voucher program,” she said. “[If the wrong people are elected], it could completely start from scratch, and this could have reverberations through the entire state, potentially in the entire country.”

With the current ruling, “public monies” are prevented from being given “in aid of any church or sectarian society,” she said. In other words, if tax-paying parents want financial assistance to send their kids to a Catholic or other Christian school, the government blocks funding for it.

Voting for candidates that support school choice is crucial, she said, encouraging all people in Douglas County to vote.

“People need to be aware and turnout is really going to be key,” Kraska underlined. “Anyone who can vote in Douglas County should. Learn about the candidates and who supports school choice.”

Ballots will be sent Oct. 16 and voting day is Nov. 7.

For those outside of Douglas County, Kraska said that getting involved in supporting those pro-school choice candidates and encouraging others is also important.

“[You can] also get involved with the election by helping different candidates, helping them raise money and encouraging people who want to protect school choice – those people need help,” she said. “And pray for the elections.”

Why vouchers?

Vouchers are public funds given to parents toward the education of their child in a private school. Those who oppose vouchers do so with the claim that it diverts needed money from public schools.

Jay Clark, Executive Director of Seeds of Hope, disagrees. He noted that many who oppose voucher programs might say they are in favor of school choice, “but only as long as that school is a public school.”

“But school choice that excludes religious education is not true school choice,” he added. “For real school choice to exist, which will push all schools, private and public, to serve students better, we need scholarship programs like Seeds of Hope and ACE Scholarships, and we need vouchers and tax credit programs.”

“A voucher or tax credit program would really empower families,” he said.

Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, in a letter sent to the parishes where Douglas County residents attend, noted that school choice isn’t just about vouchers and tax credits: “It is about empowering parents to choose educational programs and curricula that best suit the needs of their children and properly reflect the beliefs and values of their family.”

“The Catholic Church has always been very clear that it is parents who are the primary educators of their children,” he added, “and parents must enjoy true liberty when it comes to the educational choices they make for their children.

“Unfortunately, Colorado’s Constitution has been a barrier to voucher programs, like the one at stake in Douglas County.”

Therese Bussen contributed to this report.

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School choice a legislative priority for the archdiocese in 2017

The Office of Catholic Schools, the Colorado Catholic Conference and a diverse group of state-wide allies are teaming up to make school choice an important issue this legislative session, which opened Jan. 11.

Superintendent Kevin Kijewski and Colorado Catholic Conference executive director Jenny Kraska are pushing for Colorado legislators to consider implementing a scholarship tax credit program within the state, which would grant a tax credit to individuals and/or businesses who make donations to scholarship-granting organizations. Those organizations can then use the donations to create scholarships that can be given to help pay for the cost of tuition at private schools or out-of-district public schools that would otherwise be too expensive for families.

The overarching goal for passing such a law is to promote school choice, or as Kijewski and Kraska prefer to call it, parental choice.

“We’ve been making a concerted effort to get away from using the term ‘school choice’ to the term ‘parental choice,’ because really, it’s about parents being able to make the decisions for their kids,” Kraska said.

Implementing a scholarship tax credit program could be beneficial not only for Catholic schools, but for private and charter schools as well. Ultimately, it empowers parents to be, as the Catholic Church teaches, the primary educators and teachers of their children.

“It’s not just about Catholic schools; it’s about giving kids and parents choices,” Kijewski told the Denver Catholic.

The concept of school choice is a hot button issue in education, made even more so with the nomination of known school choice advocate Betsy DeVos as education secretary. School choice, in its simplest form, can be defined as programs that offer students and their families alternatives to public schools. Every taxpayer funds public schools with the taxes they pay; school choice allows for these public funds to follow students the schools or services that best meet their needs, whether that be public schools, private schools, charter schools, or homeschooling.

“It’s not just about Catholic schools; it’s about giving kids and parents choices.”

While the current federal ruling supports private school choice through public funding–a precedent set by the 2002 Supreme Court case Zelman V. Harris–the main obstacle to school choice lies within the states. In Colorado’s case, there are two Blaine Amendments in the state constitution that strictly prohibit any public funds from being allocated to private school entities. These provisions date back to the late 1800s and are named for Congressman James G. Blaine, who fueled the anti-Catholic rhetoric of the time by lobbying for these provisions to be passed in each of the states after a federal proposal was shot down.

Thirty-eight of the 50 states in the U.S. still have some sort of Blaine amendment in their state constitutions.

“[Blaine amendments] provide a huge impediment for [public] money flowing to private schools,” Kraska said.

There are a few different options when it comes to school choice, including the popular voucher system and the more recent Education Savings Accounts. For Colorado, however, Kijewski and Kraska suggest the best option is to implement a scholarship tax credit program, which have also been implemented in 17 other states.

Giving parents control

Brittany Corona is a national school choice advocate and former director of state policy for EdChoice. She is starting a National Catholic education reform nonprofit organization, the vision for which is based on the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Christian Education, Gravissimum Educationis. It will work primarily to unify the Catholic voice in education reform and advocate directly within the school choice network.

According to Gravissimum Educationis, parents are the primary teachers of their children and should be free to choose which school their child goes to in conformity with their conscience. To that end, Corona said that school choice works in conjunction with the Church’s teachings regarding education.

“Allowing for public funds, or in the case of tax credit scholarships, charitable donations to scholarship granting organizations, to be directed toward families who direct those dollars towards school choice or education options in choice, is consistent with Church teaching,” Corona explained.

There are limitations to scholarship tax credits, however. Corona said that because they’re funded entirely by charitable donations, there is a cap on the money that students are able to access. According to Corona, the ideal method for school choice would be to “allow parents to direct the dollars that are allotted for their children to an education option of choice.” Education Savings Accounts are the best option to systematically change the system for school choice, she said.

Still, she said that in the case of Colorado, scholarship tax credits are the best way to go.

If parents are able to choose what school to send their kids to, you’re going to have a healthy amount of competition among all the different schools out there, including Catholic schools. Everyone needs to raise the bar, and school choice is the incentive to do so.”

“Scholarship tax credits differ from other school choice options because they’re completely made up of charitable contributions, so it’s not coming out of the state pot of public funding at all,” she said.

Though results vary on a state-by-state basis, statistics show that attendance rates at private schools increase when parents are given choices of which schools to send their kids to. The state of Florida implemented a scholarship tax credit program in 2001, and recent statistics published by the Florida Department of Education show a steady increase in private school enrollment rates from 2011-2016.

Competition also plays a factor when parents have a choice, which can increase the overall quality of education a school offers.

“If parents are able to choose what school to send their kids to, you’re going to have a healthy amount of competition among all the different schools out there, including Catholic schools,” Kijewski said. “Everyone needs to raise the bar, and school choice is the incentive to do so.

“This is about empowering people, not only to go to Catholic school, but to go to whatever school they want. It’s about empowering people to make choices for their kids.”