By Michael Bindas
The Douglas County, Colo., Board of Education wanted to save taxpayers money and improve the already-high quality of public education in their region, so they created a new school choice program that will allow 500 families to direct a portion of their share of education revenue to select the best school for their children. No sooner did the program go into effect than the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and other allied groups filed suit to block other people’s educational options. Within days of the choice opponents’ suit, however, the Institute for Justice moved to intervene to protect the rights of parents who want nothing more than to direct the education of their children.
The Douglas County school choice program is about education, and giving parents and kids the widest possible array of options to meet their educational needs; those with a political ax to grind have tried to make this about religion, but Douglas County’s is a well-crafted, religiously neutral program that will withstand any close scrutiny in that regard. Through this program, it is parents—and not government officials—who are deciding what school a child attends. No educational money will be spent at any school through this program—be it secular or religious—without a parent making that free and independent choice. That is what makes this program constitutional.
And IJ knows a thing or two about what constitutes a constitutional program: IJ has defended school choice programs from legal attack every single day from the time we opened our doors 20 years ago. We are confident the program passed in Douglas County will pass constitutional muster.
IJ represents four Douglas County families—the Doyles, Oakleys, Andersons, and Lynotts—who want to protect their interest in receiving the offered scholarships. Each family has one or more children who have received scholarships and have been accepted by a private school participating in the program. Each couple believes transferring their children to a private school is vital to providing their children an education best suited to them.
For example, Diana and Mark Oakley plan to use their scholarship to enroll their son Nate, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, in Humanex Academy, a private school that focuses on children with special needs. Flo and Derrick Doyle plan to send their children Donovan and Alexandra to Regis Jesuit High School, and Tim and Geri Lynott plan to do the same for their son Timothy Jr. The Doyles and Lynnots believe Regis’ rigorous college-prep curriculum and religious grounding are best suited for their kids. And Jeanette and Mark Anderson plan to send their son Max, who has a keen interest in and aptitude for math and science, to Woodlands Academy, which has a particularly strong and unique math and science curriculum. Max spent two days sitting in on classes at the school and described his first day there as “the best seven hours of my life” and “the best math class I ever had.”
Not only is the Douglas County school choice program constitutional, it also makes fiscal sense, saving taxpayers money they would otherwise have to spend to educate each child in the program. Under the program, parents are eligible to receive a scholarship of up to either 75 percent of per-pupil revenue for a student in Douglas County or the cost of tuition at the private school, whichever is lower. This year, the upper amount is expected to be $4,575. The average cost of educating the same student in the Douglas County public schools is far greater. The scholarship families can apply to private schools participating in the program just as if they were using their own money, except they will receive a scholarship to help them defray the cost of attendance. The scholarship students will take the same state tests they would have taken had they remained enrolled in the Douglas County public schools.
At least 27 private schools (both religious and non-religious) have asked to participate. And just as the program allows religious and non-religious schools alike to participate, two of the families IJ represents have chosen to attend a religious school with their scholarships, and two have chosen to attend non-religious schools.
As readers of Liberty & Lawknow well, IJ believes that parents—not government—ought to make the choices concerning their children’s education. Douglas County’s program goes a long way to making that a reality. IJ therefore looks forward to defending the program and to vindicating the right of all parents, in Douglas County and beyond, to choose the schools that are best for their kids.
Michael Bindas is an IJ Washington Chapter senior attorney.