Time to Respond to Denver Post’s Anti-DougCo Voucher Letter Writers

Update, Noon: Here is the one-page summary of official recommendations made to the Douglas County Board of Education by the School Choice Task Force’s “Option Certificates” subcommittee.

So unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past couple weeks, you may have heard Douglas County — one of Colorado’s largest school districts — is considering the adoption of a local voucher-style private school choice program. Independence Institute blogger “Eddie” has covered the story well here and here.

With all the coverage in the Denver Post, it’s not surprising that plenty of readers wanted to weigh in with letters published in Sunday’s Perspective section. I was disappointed to see most of the letters rely on misinformed premises and/or produce shoddy arguments. As a result, I feel impelled to respond.

First, from Ken in Parker:

Since the only six private schools in Douglas County are faith-based and the district’s public schools are among the best in the state, the only reason for Douglas County School District to explore a voucher program is seemingly to support religiously conservative and financially secure parents who want the state to subsidize their child’s religious education.

Unfortunately, the statement that all Douglas County private schools are faith-based is both factually incorrect and ultimately irrelevant. One can almost imagine the Parker Montessori School and Castle Rock’s Woodlands Academy standing in the corner of the room saying, “What about us?” But even if these independent, nonsectarian options didn’t currently exist, nothing at all would stop a consumer-empowered marketplace from attracting credible and qualified private school operators from setting up shop in the area.

Second, from K.F. in Arvada:

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech … .” One could argue that the religion has already been established, but could a child from a non-religious family or a non-Christian family be eligible for the vouchers? If not, is that not discriminatory?

Huh? I guess some sort of case could be made “that the religion has already been established,” but it would have little connection to reality. My guess is the author was trying to make a point based off the misinformation cited above. But it’s a silly hypothetical. Any program the Board may choose to adopt has to treat choices equally. So yes, of course, non-religious or non-Christian families would have the same eligibility as anyone else. The Board is well aware of this fact and has no intention to incorporate some sort of absurd religious test.

Third, from Walter in Denver (no, I don’t think it’s this Walter in Denver):

When special interests and religious groups are allowed to take over education, their influence always becomes pervasive and coercive. Using public money in this way will remove choice, not promote it. Choice is not being forced to pay for someone else’s prerogatives.

Memo to Walter: Vouchers are not block grants or subsidies to private institutions, including churches and religious groups. They are allotted shares of publicly-collected dollars made available to students to spend on tuition to the accredited education institution of their choice, a school or program that the family believes best serves their needs. Ironically, the author more accurately has described the current system within the last sentence quoted above: “being forced to pay for someone else’s prerogatives.” The Board should be commended for considering the enactment of a system that brings the district true competition and thus helps to promote excellence.

Fourth, Joel in Highlands Ranch writes:

One wonders how the plan to possibly use public money for religious schools would play out if a madrassa opened in Douglas County. I can hear the screams and shrieks already in my backyard.

Boo!! Gotcha! Seriously, is there some latent, hidden demand for madrassas in Douglas County? This old scare tactic has been dredged up to oppose a number of voucher and tax credit programs operating in different states. And it has never been an issue. But it works as a clever post-Halloween scare.

Fifth, from L.H. in Morrison:

The Douglas County move to have public funds support religious or other types of non-traditional schools does not help low-income families, as they claim, but will only be possible for those with adequate transportation options. The real goal, of course, is to drain public money to support these people’s lifestyle and to provide a tax-supported religious curriculum for their kids.

This issue doesn’t make a potential private school choice program a non-starter. It’s an issue that can be worked out within the system, possibly by the market itself. The author makes the claim about transportation from his/her experience driving a child to a charter school, yet many charters serve low-income kids. In any case, the argument that a voucher system should be rejected because not all students could take advantage of the choice is a poor argument to stop the expansion of choice to more families who could benefit from an incremental improvement.

Sixth, from Dick in Aurora:

The folks who want to undermine public education are at it again, this time aiming to get their foot in the door of Douglas County Schools. Not only have they stacked the board and hired an almost inexperienced superintendent, but now they have garnered the enthusiastic support of The Denver Post.

Tired rhetoric about undermining public education, especially to those of us who see an educated public as a preeminent good regardless of whether our fellow citizens have been taught in government schools, private schools, online schools, at home or some combination of the above. But the real kicker is the suggestion about an “almost inexperienced” superintendent. Dr. Elizabeth Celania-Fagen was only in charge of the Tucson Unified School District for two short years, so that proves… uh, um, well… never mind.

Seventh, from Katharine in Denver:

The proposed voucher system for Douglas County schools, which would allow parents to obtain public money for use in private schools, including religious schools, is a serious violation of the separation of church and state, and will also erode the population of Douglas County schools; other counties may be quick to emulate what Douglas County does. This is a serious problem for Colorado’s public school systems.

And how would she know it’s “a serious violation of the separation of church and state”? There is of course the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in the famous Zellman case that lays out the parameters upholding private school choice programs under the First Amendment. And there is the clear rationale of the experienced litigators at the Institute for Justice about the likely constitutionality of such a program within Colorado’s state legal scheme.

But if the author is correct that such a system not only would incite families to leave Douglas County district schools in droves but also lead to a mass exodus from other school districts, what does that say about the author’s assessment of the quality of Colorado’s public school systems? And why should we care more about those systems than the students they are supposed to serve?

Finally, from Robert in Parker:

The Douglas County School District’s recent consideration of a voucher program simply defies logic. Last year, the district was in such dire financial straits that parents were asked to pay for school busing. Next the district hired a superintendent that we couldn’t afford. Now the district is considering a program that would effectively subsidize private schools, when the public schools are underfunded.

A careful read of the original Denver Post story on the topic noted of the original proposal under consideration that “any student who decided to attend a Douglas County private school would take with them 75 percent of the per-pupil funding the district receives from the state.” This condition would create a net financial benefit to the district on a per-student basis. Though it may reduce the number of some unionized or administrative employees on an absolute basis, it would mean more money for services to remaining students.

Most private school choice programs nationwide have had such a positive fiscal impact, and none has had a negative impact.

Bottom line? It’s difficult to say how much of the ignorance expressed in the above letters is willful rather than honestly uninformed. If more the former than the latter, it’s just a sad tale and further proof of the need for reform. If vice versa, reformers should heed the message that we need to improve not only the education of students but also the education of the public in the realities and benefits of school choice.

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