A suburban school board just set back educational opportunity for all Americans

A suburban school board just set back educational opportunity for all Americans
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Last week, the new 7-0 union-backed school board in Douglas County, Colorado, voted to repeal a first-of-its-kind local voucher program and to end the district’s role in a related constitutional case involving nonpublic parental choice. In so doing, the board drastically decreased the likelihood that the case will ever reach a final resolution — a resolution that could have changed the story for disadvantaged children across the United States.

With a median income of over $100,000 and poverty rate below four percent, Douglas County is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation. More than 90 percent of the county’s population is white. Much of Douglas County’s landscape is dominated by multilevel suburban homes, packed shopping centers, and broad avenues lined with impeccably manicured grass and trees. Elsewhere, large ranches sprawl in the shadow of the foothills.

Only 12 percent of the district’s nearly 70,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch under the National School Lunch Program, compared to 42 percent statewide. Although the new board and their supporters have worked hard to portray Douglas County as an educational disaster zone following eight years of reform, the school district boasts an on-time high school graduation rate of over 90 percent and higher SAT scores than most of the surrounding school districts.

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Here, surrounded by money, safety, and gleaming monuments to middle-class American success, the school board voted to substitute its judgment for the courts’ by sabotaging a nationally watched constitutional case impacting students across the country. The board may well have rendered the case moot by repealing the program in a purposeful attempt to preclude all future chances of resolution.

 

Ironically initiated in 2011 by newly elected board member Kevin Leung and his political allies, Taxpayers for Public Education v. Douglas County School District was set to answer a longstanding question about whether historically discriminatory Blaine Amendments prohibiting government aid to “sectarian” institutions in 38 states are  compatible with First Amendment religious protections. Had Blaine Amendments lost in court — and it seemed highly likely that they ultimately would — the most commonly deployed means of denying choice to underserved students would have been neutered.

As they celebrate the “victory” of running from their own legal questions, I wonder if the new board or its supporters understand the implications of this vote for children far removed from Douglas County’s suburban paradise.

I am reminded of the many stories I have heard as an advocate for parental choice programs for disadvantaged students. I remember the story of a little boy who tried to stab a principal using a knife he kept to ward off the strange men his single mother often brought home. I remember speaking with immigrant students in Denver who live in constant fear that they will be left alone in poorly performing public schools if their parents are deported. I remember hearing of a family who had to embed steel plates into their walls to keep rats out of their children’s bedroom. I remember asking a classroom of young students with disabilities which of them had experienced bullying and watching nearly every hand rise.

I remember speaking with a now-successful man who told me that his friends’ childhood heroes were the corner drug dealers who would hand them cash on the way home from school to feed their families. I remember a private school leader who took in students after their parents abandoned them or found themselves in jail. I remember the pain of two elderly grandparents who felt like they failed their young granddaughter as she struggled with school after school following her mother’s departure from her life. I remember watching grown men cry as they describe the difference their children’s private schools — schools they could not have afforded without assistance — have made in their lives.

These stories irrevocably changed my view of parental choice in education from one of economics and policy to one of morality. These stories are lacerating, but they taught me that educational choice is about more than spreadsheets and dueling philosophies. It is about compassion, justice, and a fair shot at earned success for children living in unimaginable situations. Yet these things were never mentioned as the Douglas County school board coldly executed its political agenda to a standing ovation last week.

Things did not have to be this way. The board could have voted only to end the district’s role in the case while leaving the non-operating program intact in district policy. Such a vote would have satisfied the board’s supporters, who repeatedly have insisted that they are interested only in blocking vouchers in Douglas County and not in a national conversation, while leaving open a slim opportunity for other parties to settle the issue. The board members could have kept their political promises to local voters without endangering the futures of children in other communities far removed from Douglas County. They chose not to do so.

I’ll never forget the stories of those whom parental choice has helped. And I’ll never forget how an insulated suburban school board voted unnecessarily to preempt thousands of similar stories from reaching the same conclusion.

Ross Izard (@RossIzard) is the director of policy for ACE Scholarships and a senior fellow in education policy for the Independence Institute (@i2idotorg), a free market think tank in Denver.