by Jack Minor
A recent Supreme court decision that critics say will embolden supporters of school vouchers could help the Douglas County school board’s plan to help pay tuition for students who choose to attend private schools.
On April 4, the US Supreme Court voted in a 5-4 ruling that opponents of an Arizona plan permitting individuals to designate $500 of their state income tax to private or religious schools had no basis to sue.
In the ruling, the court said that since individuals had the choice whether to redirect their own tax dollars to religious schools or not; individual taxpayers did not have standing to challenge the law.
The key difference revolved around a tax credit. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, stated, “A tax credit allows dissenting taxpayers to use their own funds in accordance with their own consciences.” The court further said that opponents were able to have the choice to contribute to a religious or secular school, any other charity, or not to contribute at all. Because it was a tax credit the government was not spending tax dollars on religious activity.
The court also said that opponents had a mistaken position “that all income is government property, even if it has not come into the tax collector’s hands.” The decision also said that all three branches of government have a duty to defend the Constitution.
Douglas County recently voted to begin a pilot program enabling up to 500 students to qualify for a tuition credit of up to $4,575 per year to attend private schools in the area. The program was approved following a November recall of the previous board last fall.
Part of the key provisions implementing the plan requires it to be renewed every year. The board estimates the program could actually save the district money. The voucher scholarship cost will be $2.29 million but when CSAP and other expenses associated with having 500 fewer students are figured in, the district could save a net of over $400,000.
John Carson, president of the Douglas County school board, said under the proposal any school that has been approved by the board would be eligible to receive the funds. This would include any private school provided they could demonstrate they would be able to offer a solid educational program and are financially sound. Qualifying schools would also have to comply with certain requirements established by the Colorado department of education.
The program is a pilot program for one year and they will be able to go back and make any necessary adjustments after the first year. Carson said he was excited about the new program and said he believed it would be a positive thing for the district. “More choice and competition is good for kids and we are attempting to do this in a fiscally responsible way.”
Regarding the decision, Carson said he felt the court was attempting to defer to local bodies to decide what would work best for them. Carson said their proposal did this and that “ultimately the choice of school would be up to the parents.”
In its ruling, the court stated the Arizona program could also result in savings by helping to “relieve the burden placed on Arizona’s public schools” and “the result could be an immediate and permanent cost savings for the state.” The court went on to say the value of the credit could be “far less than the average cost of educating an Arizona public school student.”