Colorado Parents Fight for School Choice

P. Gardner Goldsmith | April 26, 2016
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The state of Colorado has a national reputation for being “progressive.” But the meaning of “progress” is subjective, and can only be determined by individuals making their own decisions with their own money in the market.

Just don’t tell that to the Philosopher Kings in Colorado running the Douglas County School District and Board of Education, or they might just see you in court.

On April 19, the Institute for Justice filed a lawsuit against the district and school board in response to their blocking parents from using state funds for their children’s religious schools.

The situation is simple. In 2016, the Douglas County Board of Education adopted the School Choice Grant Program, which, as the title indicates, hands out grants to students whose parents can, in turn, use the money to send the children to private schools of their choosing.

But religious schools are prohibited from the grant program, parroting the oft-held misconception that the U.S. Constitution demands a “separation of church and state.”

The I.J. correctly argues in its suit that “[t]he exclusion of religious options from the program violates the Free Exercise, Establishment, Equal Protection, and Free Speech Clauses of the United States Constitution, as well as the Due Process Clause, which guarantees the fundamental right of parents to control and direct the education and upbringing of their children.”

But isn’t there supposed to be that separation between church and state?

As much as one might wish that were the case, the United States Constitution only prohibits Congress from making any law “respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” It never prohibited states from creating their own religious laws (or speech laws) or even funding religious schools. For example, Pennsylvania, a state founded for religious purposes, had state-funded religious schooling until the mid-19th Century.

As much as one might like to see the state and the church separated at all levels in the United States, this simply is not what the Constitution insured.

But at the root of all of these problems is the practice of mandatory, public, taxpayer-funded schooling. Be it tax money expropriated from residents and fed directly to a school administration, or tax money taken from and given to parents in the form of vouchers or grants, the seizure of tax cash creates friction – a tragedy of the commons.

Children are forced to attend government-approved schools. Parents -- and non-parents -- are forced to pay taxes to feed the oh-so-wonderful system, whether they agree with the curricula of the schools or not.

While vouchers and grants offer parents more opportunities to release their children from the straightjacket binds of the one-size-fits-all public schools, they do not free the taxpayers from paying for the educations of children they never brought into the world. Collectivists might argue, “public education is a public good benefitting all when the child is grown.” That’s cute, but incorrect, and merely an excuse for the theft of tax cash. Certainly, if education were valuable, people would act on how they value it through their own choices in the market. Government force doesn’t indicate that anyone values anything. The politicians aren’t using their own money to fund something, and taxpayers will lose their homes or go to jail if they prefer to keep their money and do with it what they will based on their beliefs.

On a constitutional level, the IJ suit is strong, and one to watch. But it is just one step toward recognizing the moral quandaries all forms of taxpayer-supported education present.