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Concerned Coloradans wasted no time in implementing the largest school choice program in the nation after the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for vouchers in Zellman v. Simmons-Harris last June. Governor Bill Owens worked with legislators, activists and concerned parents this spring to make Colorado the first state to adopt a school voucher law since the Court handed down its landmark decision. But almost before Owens’s signature dried on the bill, the Colorado Education Association (CEA), the state’s largest teacher union, was threatening to sue.
Last week it made good on that threat, as its lawyers assisted the Colorado PTA in filing a lawsuit alleging that the bill violates the Colorado Constitution. Now all Coloradans should be concerned, not just about the threat to a program that gives educational choices to parents and children, but also about the particular way in which that program is being threatened.
When Governor Owens signed the Colorado Opportunity Contract Pilot Program last April, he put into action the idea that giving parents a choice over where to send their kids to school is the only way to hold schools accountable for their results. The program was designed to help struggling kids from low-income families in 11 Colorado school districts. The “Opportunity Contracts” would allow their parents to take them out of failing schools in those districts and choose among private schools instead. This program will not only rescue students from failing schools now, it will provide incentives for public schools to reform and improve in the future.
The CEA and their allies are taking aim at this program in their new lawsuit, claiming such a program would be prohibited under the Colorado Constitution. All of the arguments they use have been rejected in other states like Arizona and Illinois. But one of their arguments is more troubling than the others. It invokes Article IX, Section 7 of the Colorado Constitution – one of the notorious “Blaine amendments.” The Blaine amendments, banning any governmental aid to any “sectarian society,” were written into the constitutions of 36 states in the late nineteenth century – at a time when anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant bigotry raged across America. U.S. Representative James G. Blaine, hoping to ride the fear of Irish immigration to political success, crafted the amendment to specifically target Catholic schools and institutions.
(Coincidentally, the same week the CEA filed its lawsuit, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would hear a case on Blaine amendments in the fall. Seven of the Court’s current justices have already written about the amendments’ “shameful pedigree” of discrimination, so the outcome, while hardly certain, seems to favor school choice supporters.)
PTA President Mark Townsend has cloaked his constitutional argument with rhetoric about “Colorado’s founding fathers.” However, while Colorado ratified its constitution in 1876, by 1875 the U.S. Congress, under Speaker Blaine, already required new states to include Blaine amendments in their constitutions. The argument that Colorado’s founders would have opposed the Opportunity Contract program because they were forced to include a Blaine amendment is not credible. Besides, who could really imagine Casimiro Barela, signer of the Colorado Constitution and one of the greatest Hispanic rights advocates in American history, telling Denver mother Yvonne Trujillo, who planned to use this voucher program to find better schools for her son Jacob and her daughter Kaitlyn, that she should not have that right?
Trujillo and other concerned parents, represented by the leading school choice litigators at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice, have filed papers defending their rights against the teachers unions. Citizens for a Sound Economy supports these families in their fight for educational choice. Providing parents with a greater say in their child’s education and injecting competition in the system can provide the necessary reform measures to improve children’s educational futures.
We also support Coloradans in their efforts to expand their current school choice program and add new ones. Last spring an innovative tax credit for underprivileged K-12 children lost by one vote in the state Senate. Coloradans should continue to let their legislators know that they support improved opportunities for children all over the state. The hope is that, once the smoke from the legal battle clears, Colorado legislators will finally be accountable to parents, just as schools should be.