Rules Are for Schmucks: Voting on Vouchers

Photo by scukrov / 123RF

Political pundits will be scouring next Tuesday’s off-year election results for clues about the national mood toward President Trump and the chances for Republicans to maintain control of Congress next year. They will do this despite the overwhelming historical evidence that these elections have essentially no predictive value at all. They have to fill all those hours with something, though, and the partisan horse race is all they think viewers care about.

This is too bad, because there’s actually an interesting election happening next Tuesday. Voters in Douglas County, Colorado, an exurb tucked between Denver and Colorado Springs, will choose between two slates of school board candidates who differ primarily on their views about the desirability of using government money to subsidize religious indoctrination.

Douglas County, the fifth wealthiest county in the nation, had its school board taken over by religious conservatives in a heavily funded campaign back in 2011. They promptly instituted a government vouchers program, allowing individual residents to force the government to pay up to $6,400 of tuition per student at religious or other private schools. Oddly, the school doesn’t even have to be located in Douglas County. Nine out of ten parents intending to use the vouchers planned to send their children to religious schools, the overwhelming majority of which are Catholic.

Residents promptly brought a lawsuit against the voucher program, claiming that it violated Colorado’s “Blaine Amendment”—its constitutional ban on handing out taxpayer money to religious institutions. Actually, the term is a misnomer. It was actually President Grant’s idea, and Blaine was just his water-carrier in Congress. Grant’s words still ring true today: “Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separate.” I’m going to call it the Grant Amendment.

In 2015 the Colorado Supreme Court ruled, unsurprisingly, that handing out state voucher money to religious institutions violates the Grant Amendment rule that you can’t hand out state money to religious institutions. That decision was appealed to the US Supreme Court, which, as discussed below, sent it back to Colorado.

Two other things happened that put a lot of pressure on what happens next Tuesday. First, in November of 2015 the voters of Douglas County had a chance to vote on three of the seven school board seats, and they took that opportunity to elect three members who adamantly oppose sending government money to religious schools. Second, earlier this year the US Supreme Court’s Trinity Lutheran decision appears to have erased the Grant Amendment in thirty-seven states, including Colorado, as well as Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. At the same time, it sent the Douglas County case back to the Colorado Supreme Court for further review, in light of its Trinity Lutheran decision. It appears to me the Colorado court will have little choice but to reinstate the Douglas County voucher program, if it remains in place.

That brings us to next Tuesday’s school board election. The four seats held by the pro-voucher members are up for grabs, while the three 2015 anti-voucher folks remain in place. If an anti-voucher candidate wins even one of those four seats, it is likely that the voucher program will be repealed by the board, giving the Colorado Supreme Court nothing to rule on.

There is no conclusive evidence as to whether Catholic schools outperform public schools. Studies go both ways, and it is inherently apples-to-oranges to compare a public school that has to take all students to a private school that can, for example, kick out difficult or disabled children at will, without regard to anti-discrimination laws. The best voucher proponents claim is that there is “no difference” between the performance of children at public schools versus their performance at religious schools. If there’s no difference, then what’s the point?

There are mountains of evidence, though, that Catholic schools brainwash children on every social issue from contraception to IVF to discrimination against gays, reserving their most vicious epithets for those of us who choose not to prostrate ourselves before their supernatural ghosts. The archbishop of Dublin just last week boasted that in Catholic schools, religion is “not an added extra to be fitted in during break time or twilight hours or during registration. Everything that happens in the school community is rooted in the Gospel values.” Vouchers, simply put, are a means for taking our money so they can use it to vilify us.

Some free market advocates—or at least one, whose article you are reading now—are intrigued by the idea of educational choice programs that exclude religious schools. There is every reason to believe that greater educational choice will lead to better outcomes than a government-monopolized system. The fact that results don’t back up the theory quite possibly derives from the fact that so many private schools are religion-dominated. The time students spend memorizing their catechism is time they do not spend on math or geography. It would be interesting to experiment with a voucher program that is limited to non-religious schools, to see whether that would make the theory work better. Unfortunately, under Trinity Lutheran that appears to be impossible. The only solution is to eliminate vouchers altogether, and concentrate whatever educational choice initiatives there might be on religion-free charter schools.

Generally speaking, voters—even religious ones—are adamantly opposed to the idea of taxpayer money being used to pay for religious indoctrination. This time last fall, even in religiously conservative Oklahoma, the voters crushed a referendum proposal that would have permitted such use. The only people who like this idea are political bigwigs like the Oklahoma political establishment and the justices on the US Supreme Court (and, of course, the moneygrubbers of the Catholic hierarchy). Next Tuesday night, it will be fascinating to see what the voters of Douglas County decide.

Update: On November 7, voters in Douglas County elected all four school board candidates who had pledged to end the county’s school voucher program, making opposition to that program unanimous on the board. The anti-voucher slate received approximately 60% of the vote.