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Colorado Court Halts School Voucher Program

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Interesting.  Here’s the Cato Institute take on the Colorado voucher decision (via Colorado Court Halts School Voucher Program).  Those with good memories will recognize Andrew Coulson as the author of a Union Leader opinion piece in support of the voucher bill when it was in the Legislature last spring.  You’ll see he tries to create the same distinction all voucher advocates do between vouchers and “education tax credits” such as we have here in New Hampshire.  Don’t believe it.


Last Friday, a Colorado District Court halted the new and unique Douglas County school voucher program with a permanent injunction. School choice legislation is a little like the Field of Dreams: pass it, and they will sue–and we all know who “they” are. So there’s a tendency to dismiss legal setbacks for the choice movement as purely the result of self-serving monopolists exploiting bad laws or partisan, activist judges. There are certainly cases that fall into that category, but this Colorado ruling isn’t one of them.

Oh, the self-serving monopolists and opponents of educational freedom are no doubt cheering it, but the ruling does not read like the work of a rube or an ideologue, and not all of the state constitutional provisions on which it was based can be dismissed as outdated examples of religious bigotry. The state’s “compelled support” clause, in particular, seems to uphold a fundamentally American idea: that it is wrong to coerce people to pay for the propagation of ideas that they disbelieve. Thomas Jefferson, in his Virginia Declaration of Religious Freedom, called this: “tyranny.”

Obviously, conventional public schools have been a source of such coercion for a very long time–everyone has to pay for the public schools, despite profound objections they may have to the way those schools teach history, literature, government, biology, or sex education. That’s why we’ve had “school wars” as long as we’ve had government schools. And obviously vouchers offer the advantage of giving parents a much wider range of educational options for their children than do the one-size-fits few public schools. But despite this advantage, vouchers require all taxpayers to fund every kind of schooling, including types of instruction that might violate some taxpayers’ most deeply held convictions. That’s a recipe for continued social conflict over what is taught.

If there were no alternative to vouchers for providing school choice, perhaps it would make sense to have a debate over which freedoms should take precedence: the freedom of choice of families or the freedom of conscience of taxpayers–and then to sacrifice whichever one was deemed less worthy. But there is an alternative, and it does not require anyone to be compelled to support any particular type of instruction. I discuss this alternative, education tax credits, in a recent Huffington Post op-ed.

Update: As per Andrew’s request, below, I’ve added his entire post.


  1. Dear Bill,

    Thank you for linking to my piece on the Colorado ruling. I wonder, though, why you implicitly encourage your readers to accept the part that you’ve quoted (which I assume you like) while explicitly exhorting them to reject the part that you omitted (which you clearly don’t)? Personally, I encourage folks to look at the whole thing, follow its link to my summary of the relevant U.S. Supreme Court case, and draw their own conclusions based on the evidence and arguments. []

    I seem to recall reading somewhere that, like me, you came out of the computer software industry. I carried with me into the field of education policy all the same standards of reason and empiricism that served me well as a software engineer, so I’m always open to contrary evidence and to counterarguments. If you’d like to make the case for your seemingly arbitrary selectivity regarding my post, I’d be happy to discuss it with you.

    Best wishes,

    Andrew Coulson
    Director, Center for Educational Freedom
    Cato Institute
    Author: Market Education: The Unknown History.

    • Bill Duncan says:


      I’ll update to quote the whole thing. I just quoted the beginning because, well, it was the beginning.

      And, yes, you’re right, I’m a computer guy. The thing I’ve learned about engineers – and libertarians! – is that the debate never ends. I do always enjoy it and the people. It’s challenging and engaging. But once you stipulate that the market trumps the commonwealth, we’re in never-never land.

      In the case of vouchers vs. tax credits, yes, I get it. The courts have often seen the legal distinction you would like them to see. But educationally and policy-wise, there’s no difference – that’s public money funding the “choice” to attend private schools. And, in the New Hampshire case and many others, it’s without accountability for educational results. But…parents can vote with their feet, right? Please.

      So, I do understand why you would seek to distinguish in the public debate between vouchers and tax credits but I don’t think, as you do, that privatizing our public education system is good future. So the rest is details.



  2. Dear Bill,

    Clearly you have strongly held positions on education policy. Have you written anywhere on your site about the reasons you hold these views?

    Personally, I don’t make the a priori stipulation that you ascribe to me. I didn’t enter this field with any policy assumptions. I entered it only with a question: what educational arrangements can best fulfill our shared educational ideals as well as our individual educational needs. My first approach to investigating that question was to spend four years studying education systems throughout history, from classical Greece to the present. Since then, I’ve reviewed the worldwide modern scientific research comparing alternative school governance and funding systems.

    In all this study, I haven’t been searching for an alternative to public education, I’ve been searching for the best _implementation_ of it. There is a crucial distinction between the _ideals_ of public education and the _institution_ of public schooling. Anyone who genuinely cares about those ideals has a duty to seek the best means of advancing them–not to just blindly accept the mid-19th century system bequeathed to us by Horace Mann and James Carter, eloquent and often well-meaning though they were.

    As for whether donations under education tax credit programs are “public money,” I’m happy for now to simply point out that all three courts that have taken up this question–in Illinois, Arizona, the U.S. Supreme Court–concluded that they are not. And just as the Colorado anti-voucher ruling cannot be dismissed as patently foolish or biased, neither can the three supportive tax credit rulings.

    But I participated in enough C++ project design meetings not to want to focus on definitions. There is a real, incontrovertible difference between vouchers/public schools and tax credits that has nothing to do with contentious definitions. Tax credits not only extend choice to parents, they extend freedom of conscience to taxpayers. Unlike vouchers, and unlike public schooling, tax credit programs do not compel people to support types of instruction that violate their convictions. That compulsion has equally incontrovertibly been the cause of endless social conflict in the U.S. and abroad. Avoiding the use of this socially divisive compulsion is one of the ways in which tax credit programs better advance the ideals of public education than does the status quo district school system.


    • Bill Duncan says:


      Ok. I withdraw any characterization of your own positions. The policy proposals themselves are the issue anyway. Moving public assets from public schools to unaccountable private schools in the form of vouchers or tax credits looks like privatization to me. And using the vocabulary of monopoly vs. competition looks like a free market framework that I feel is misapplied to our public education system. All those proposals are about dismantling, not improving, public education. (The exception is some inner-city programs where vouchers are used alongside school-improvement strategies.) The result of large scale privatization would be not an improved education system but no system at all.

      The programs are small scale now and I don’t think they will achieve scale, but the debate is a rear-guard activity, distracting from working on our public education system.



      • Bill,
        You describe your policy convictions clearly, but I’m still curious as why you hold them—the evidence, the methods, the chain of reasoning?

        Education systems are bridges to the future, crossed by millions of students. In a very real sense, children’s lives depend on them. And as with physical bridges, they can and do fail when they are poorly designed—sometimes with disastrous consequences. As a result, I feel a constant pressure to study the broadest range of evidence, to use the most rigorous methods, and to draw the most rational conclusions when seeking to inform and affect the education policy debate.

        After working in this field for nearly twenty years, I have yet to come across any such sound, empirical basis for the views you espouse. And publicly espousing education policy views without a systematic foundation in reason and evidence is like building a bridge over a chasm with no knowledge of civil engineering… then encouraging hordes of children to walk across it.

        Hence my curiosity as to why you hold these views, and hold them so strongly as to publicly advocate for them.


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