IJ Defends Rocky Mountain Education Reform
By Chip Mellor
Colorado is the latest battleground over school choice. In April the Rocky Mountain State became the first state since last summer’s historic U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding school choice in Cleveland to enact a voucher program. Within days of the Colorado program’s enactment, the National Education Association and its local affiliate (joined by the usual interest groups) sued, claiming, among other things, that Colorado’s program violates the state constitution’s Blaine Amendment. The Institute for Justice immediately intervened in the lawsuit, representing 12 Colorado families seeking to use the vouchers to escape from woefully inadequate public schools.
At our news conference on the courthouse steps, Institute for Justice client TroyLynn Yellow Wood spoke passionately about what choice would mean for her two children. A longtime Native American activist, TroyLynn underscored the need to address the desperate educational plight of Native American children and how, for those in urban areas, vouchers offer real hope. Another IJ client, Yvonne Trujillo, intends to use Colorado’s new vouchers because of the appalling violence in her child’s public school.
Joining IJ in supporting the program are a dedicated and energetic array of organizations including the Black Alliance for Educational Options, the Coalition for Latino Children in Education, Choices and Actions Regarding Education, Alliance for Children in Education, Parents Challenge, Escuela Tlatelolco Centro de Estudios, and the Independence Institute. Representing the State of Colorado is Attorney General Ken Salazar, an outspoken supporter of vouchers.
Colorado’s new law creates Opportunity Contracts that enable parents of qualified children in the worst school districts in the state to take their children out of those failing schools and place them in a private or religious school of the parents’ choice. The Opportunity Contracts program phases in over four years beginning with the 2004-05 school year. When fully implemented, nearly 20,000 children will be eligible for the Opportunity Contracts, making this program larger than any currently existing voucher program in the nation. Consistent with U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence, our position is that the Colorado program is constitutional because it is entirely neutral with respect to religion—meaning the state doesn’t encourage or discourage parents from selecting religious schools for their children. All money in the program is directed by the private individual choices of parents rather than by the government.
As regular readers of Liberty & Law know, choice opponents have used state constitutional religious provisions (the so-called Blaine Amendment and the “compelled support” clause) in similar challenges to school choice in Milwaukee, Cleveland, Arizona, Florida and Illinois. These constitutional provisions prohibit the use of public funds in support of sectarian institutions. Each state’s supreme or appellate court rejected the unions’ arguments. The Arizona Supreme Court went further, calling that state’s Blaine Amendment “a clear manifestation of religious bigotry” against Catholics as it upheld the constitutionality of Arizona’s tax credit program. The U.S. Supreme Court has also recognized the Blaine Amendments’ “shameful pedigree” as a legacy of long-past anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant discrimination.
Thirty-seven state constitutions have Blaine Amendments and 29 contain compelled support clauses. Thus the outcome of this lawsuit will not only affect the lives of thousands of Colorado children, it will also impact the future of school choice nationally.
As always in our school choice cases, the stakes are high—the future of thousands of schoolchildren. Working with our allies in Colorado, we won’t rest until that future is secured.
Chip Mellor is the Institute’s president and general counsel.