Amicus brief on empirical data about school vouchers

The School Board of Douglas County, Colorado, has created a voucher program. The program allows up to 500 students (out of 66,000 students in the School District) to receive a voucher of about $4,500 towards tuition at an independent school. The ACLU of Colorado filed a lawsuit against the voucher program. The ACLU won in state district court, lost in the Colorado Court of Appeals, and the case is now before the Colorado Supreme Court, as Taxpayers for Public Education v. Douglas County School District, Case number 13SC233.

The ACLU argues that the voucher program violates various provisions of the Colorado Constitution, including article IX (education), section 7: ” Neither the general assembly, nor any county, city, town, township, school district or other public corporation, shall ever make any appropriation, or pay from any public fund or moneys whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian society, or for any sectarian purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatsoever; nor shall any grant or donation of land, money or other personal property, ever be made by the state, or any such public corporation to any church, or for any sectarian purpose.”

The Douglas County School District argues that the vouchers are not in aid of the schools, but rather in aid of the parents who choose from any of the schools which have met the District’s standards for participation in the voucher program. Families might choose a religious school, such as Regis Jesuit High School, or they might choose a non-religious school. In defendant’s view, the K-12 scholarship program is legally indistinguishable from the statewide College Opportunity Fund, established by the state legislature. The Fund offers state residents a stipend of about $2,000/year towards college tuition at any eligible college in the state, including private religious universities such as Regis University.

Last week, I filed an amicus brief in the case, on behalf of the Independence Institute and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. The brief does not address the constitutional questions, but instead concentrates on some issues which were raised by amicus briefs filed by the National Education Association, the Colorado Education, and the American Federation of Teachers. Those briefs forecast that the scholarship program will be ruinous to the Douglas County School District, and they argue that school choice programs do not benefit students academically. My brief examines the fiscal details of the scholarship program, and the empirical studies on school choice in other places. According to the Summary of Argument:

The School District’s Choice Scholarship Program is fiscally prudent. It is a small pilot program; and it is structured to protect the District and individual public schools from losses.

The pilot program is also well-designed to improve family satisfaction with schools. The program expands choices that may be of interest to some families. Families not interested in the additional choices continue to enjoy just as many options in the District as they did before.

Studies of choice programs throughout the United States have come to a common conclusion: particular choice programs have led to measurable educational benefits for some students, and have been neutral for other students. No empirical studies anywhere in the United States (including those cited by the Colorado Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers in their amicus briefs) have found that vouchers harm students or schools.

If you’d like to read the amicus brief, it’s available here. The 2-1 decision of the Colorado Court of Appeals upholding the voucher program is available here.

David Kopel is Research Director, Independence Institute, Denver, Colorado; Associate Policy Analyst, Cato Institute, Washington, D.C; and Adjunct professor of advanced constitutional law, Denver University, Sturm College of Law. He is author of 15 books and 90 scholarly journal articles.

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