Supreme Court ruling fully opens the door for Colorado school vouchers – The Denver Post


Do you remember where you were when the Zelman v. Simmons Harris ruling came down? I do.

It was a beautiful spring day in Washington, D.C., and my pensive mood turned sunny upon hearing that the Supreme Court upheld the Ohio school voucher program. The “Ohio program is entirely neutral with respect to religion….It permits such individuals to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious,” wrote Justice William Rehnquist for the majority.

At the time, only five states had voucher programs: Ohio and Wisconsin had scholarship programs for eligible families in Cleveland and Milwaukee. Florida awarded students with disabilities and students in failing public schools vouchers to attend another public or private school. Maine and Vermont operated century-old tuition programs for students in towns without a public school. Additionally, Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois offered taxpayers a tax deduction or credit for tuition expenses. Pennsylvania, Florida, and Arizona gave taxpayers a credit for contributions to philanthropic organizations that awarded students scholarships.

These programs had overcome challenges in state courts, but Zelman would make or break the movement to expand private school options for families. Twenty years ago students won the day.

Today, 16 states have voucher programs; nine states offer tax deductions or credits for tuition expenses; 21 states offer credits for contributions to scholarship organizations, and eight states offer families education savings accounts from which they can pay for private schools. Public school choice programs such as charter schools, magnet schools, and intra-district and inter-district transfer programs, as well as homeschooling, have also grown significantly over the past two decades.

Of course, families of means could always choose a school by buying a home near a desirable public school or paying private tuition. Since the public school movement took off in the mid-19th Century, however, the education landscape has never been more diverse than it is today. The ability to choose a good public or private school is increasingly open to families with low- and middle-income.

This year, the final impediment to expanded school choice fell when the Court found Maine’s “nonsectarian” requirement for its tuition assistance program violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. If a state supports families who choose independent schools, state legislatures cannot arbitrarily disallow faith-based independent schools.

In Carson v. Makin, the majority cited two recent precedents — Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer (2017) and Espinoza v. Montana (2020) — that struck down discriminatory restrictions against faith-based schools taking part in state education programs. After ruling in the former case, the Supreme Court vacated a 2015 Colorado Supreme Court ruling against the Douglas County voucher program. If enterprising school districts decide to support families who choose faith-based schools, the state’s courts cannot stop them.

Fellow western state, Arizona, just expanded the education savings account program, which it enacted in 2011. All K-12 students are eligible for Empowerment Scholarships. Previously, West Virginia had the most extensive ESA program. The Arizona bill expanded options for parents and increased funding for public schools, a win-win for families regardless of the education setting they prefer.

Although Colorado offers vouchers to students attending public, private, or faith-based universities and preschools through the College Opportunity Fund and the Colorado Universal Preschool Program, it is one of a minority of states that does not support a full array of choices in grades K-12. The state passed a voucher pilot program in 2003, and the Douglas County School Board passed its countywide program in 2011, but the programs were blocked by state court decisions. The roadblocks encountered by these reformers have now been cleared.

Private school choice programs provide students the opportunity to enroll in a school that best meets their academic needs. School choice also diffuses controversies over Critical Race Theory, sex, and gender, shutdowns, masking, and discipline/safety by letting parents and students select for themselves what works for them. And it treats families fairly regardless of what they choose.

Krista L. Kafer is a weekly Denver Post columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @kristakafer.

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