Organization Trends

Newly Reconstituted Colorado School Board Rescinds Choice Program

Douglas County, Colo., has been home to one of the nation’s unique school-choice programs – unique, and attention-getting, including from the national teachers’ unions.  Despite hundreds of applications to participate in the county-wide program with no income limits, its initial implementation was put on hold in 2011 by a state judge while legal challenges against it were to work their way through the courts.

In 2015, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the program – which, when operating, would have allowed parents to use vouchers to send their children to private, including religious, schools – violated the Colorado state constitution.  The Colorado constitution has what’s known as a Blaine Amendment, an ugly vestige of religious bigotry inserted into many state constitutions in the nineteenth century, which prohibits tax dollars from aiding religious practices.

Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Missouri’s Blaine Amendment did not allow it to prohibit a church-run preschool from participating in a state program that repaved playgrounds.  The Court found that, under the First Amendment, a state must allow churches to participate in state programs when the benefit meets a secular need.

The next day, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered that the Colorado Supreme Court should reconsider its ruling on the Douglas County, Colo., choice program in light of the Missouri ruling.  Thus the legal challenge to Douglas County’s school-choice program seemed to be losing prospects of success.

Driven by these diminishing legal prospects, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) turned to trying to boost the political prospects of its anti-choice stance.  During the weeks preceding the November 7 elections there, the AFT spent $300,000 to support a slate of candidates for four open seats on the county’s seven-member school board.  The anti-choice slate won — ensuring a unanimous, 7-0 anti-choice majority on the board.

It didn’t take too terribly long.  On December 4, the board rescinded the choice program, 6-0.  The seventh member abstained from voting because he is a plaintiff in the legal challenge to the program.  The newly reconstituted board also directed that its legal defense of choice in the courts be halted.

Several philanthropies, including the Daniels Fund in nearby Denver, have been supporting the legal defense of choice in Douglas County.  The Daniels Fund’s grantmaking in this area is profiled in Martin Morse Wooster’s book How Great Philanthropists Failed and You Can Succeed at Protecting Your Legacy,* newly published by the Capital Research Center in Washington, D.C.

In funding the defense of school-choice, Daniels Fund president Linda Childears told Wooster the foundation was following the donor intent of Bill Daniels, who “wanted us to fund programs that were really trying new and different ways to accomplish things in education.  He specifically mentioned vouchers as a concept that made sense to him, based on his belief in the free market and that parents should have the right to determine the best education for their kids.”

Before the new Douglas County board’s vote to bail on these kids, Leslie Hiner of the EdChoice Legal Defense and Education Center said, “To see the Douglas County school board eliminate this chance for students in the district will strike a sour chord for parents across the country.”

*To obtain a free copy of Wooster’s book, How Great Philanthropists Failed and You Can Succeed at Protecting Your Legacy, email Kristen Eastlick at [email protected]

Michael E. Hartmann

Hartmann is senior fellow and director of the Center for Strategic Giving at the Capital Research Center. For more than 18 years, he served on the program staff of The…
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