In March 2011, the school board in Douglas County, Colo., voted 7-0 to implement a school voucher program. It was designed to provide concerned parents with 75 percent of the education money provided by the state for their children if the parents preferred to send their children to the private school of their choice.
The other 25 percent of the state funds would remain with the government schools even though the student for whom the funds were intended was not in attendance.
Structured this way, the voucher plan seemed like a win-win for both parties – the parents would be empowered to send their children to the school of their choice, and the government schools would still get paid by the state, even in cases where they didn’t have to teach.
But Americans United for Separation of Church and State found something it didn’t like: many took their children out of a government school and placed them in a Christian one. This, in the minds of AU, was no different than imposing special taxes for the targeted support of religion.
Writing for AU, Karen B. Ringen suggests that 21st century school choice programs are no different than 18th century special “assessments” for the particular support of religion, assessments which James Madison opposed. This comparison does not bear much analysis. Neither the state of Colorado nor Douglas County have imposed a tax designed to support one, many, or all religions. Instead, the governments collect income, property, and other taxes to cover the expense of educating Colorado’s school children, among other things. Douglas County then empowers parents to make choices about the education of their children. They can leave their children in the public schools or they can choose a private school that better serves the needs of their children. Parents may choose secular or religious private schools. This is a far cry from the special religious tax that Madison rightly decried.
Douglas County’s school choice program advances rather than undermines religious liberty. Government maximizes religious liberty when it minimizes its influence on religious choices. When parents decide how their children will be educated, they make an inescapably “religious” choice. Education, whether it is labeled “religious” or “secular,” rests upon foundational presuppositions – about the nature of reality, about right and wrong, and about how humans acquire knowledge. These foundations are, broadly speaking, “religious.” A “secular” public school is not neutral about these foundations, even though its presuppositions might be hidden. When the government pressures families to choose secular public education, it undermines their religious freedom. Empowering parents to make real choices about educating their children augments religious freedom. AU may not like the choices some parents are making, but it cannot plausibly contend that facilitating choice minimizes freedom.
In this sense, Madison is very much on the side of Douglas County in this dispute. In Madison’s own words: “The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.”
Douglas County is not forcing AU to support a religion with which it disagrees. Instead, it is enabling parents to educate their children in a manner consistent with their own religious convictions.