On Nov. 7 thousands of elections took place, representing close to 40 percent of the U.S. population. From city council seats, to mayor positions in Atlanta, Boston and a half-dozen other cities, to the question of expanding Medicaid in Maine, the prices of prescription drugs in Ohio, and even whether New York should hold a constitutional convention, it was a busy and important day in American politics.
Of special interest were the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia. Many believe these two fiercely contested elections will augur the political future and make-up of America.
Less noticeable than the rest, but perhaps of even more consequence, was a local school board election in Douglas County, Colo.
The race for the four open seats in this inconspicuous county in Colorado had the potential to alter the future of school choice in America.
Because of this, union committees and political groups spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to sway the election in their interest, and education commentators, former school board members and even a Catholic archbishop penned columns, each arguing his or her case why voters should support or oppose candidates who advocate for school choice. As one education journal commented, this had become “the biggest little election you’ve never heard of.”
In American politics, where electioneering and campaign spending for national and state elections usually reach ridiculous levels, school board races often go unnoticed. But the story of the Douglas County School Board election warns us to not ignore or downplay local elections, because every single election has consequences. In this case, the consequences were constitutional.
In March 2011, the Douglas County School Board created the Pilot Choice Scholarship Program, which at the time was the first district-created comprehensive private school choice program in America. The program was designed to give 500 students from the Douglas County School District tuition vouchers to attend 21 participating private and faith-based schools.
Shortly after its proposal, the program was challenged in court under Colorado’s Blaine clause. Found in the state constitution of Colorado and 37 other states, Blaine clauses prohibit state funds to be used on faith-based institutions, including private schools founded by churches. These arcane pieces of legislation have a long and complicated history that goes back a century-and-a-half, and there’s strong evidence religious discrimination played a key role in their origination.
The case went from the Denver District Court to the Colorado Court of Appeals and eventually the Colorado Supreme Court, where the school voucher program was finally shut down in a plurality ruling, largely due to the state’s Blaine clause — even though the program allowed for both secular and religious private schools to participate in it. Earlier this year, Douglas County raised the stakes and took the case to the national level, filing a writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court and appealing reconsideration for the state court’s ruling.
At heart, the appeal questions the constitutionality of the so-called “Blaine Amendments.” The argument goes that, by excluding faith-based schools from public grants and scholarships, Blaine clauses violate the religious protections enshrined in the First Amendment.
The Supreme Court decided not to rule on the Douglas County case but sent it back to the Colorado Supreme Court for reconsideration. The justices deferred the decision in light of their recent 7-2 ruling on Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, a similar case where the court ruled it unconstitutional to exclude a church from public benefits, namely a grant for playground resurfacing, simply because of religious beliefs.
With the case decision handed back to Douglas County, the power to press the Colorado Supreme Court for reconsideration fell once again into the hands of the district school board.
And this is where the school board election suddenly became so important: One seat on the Douglas County School Board could be the deciding vote to drop the Douglas County case and end the future of school choice for faith-based schools in Colorado.
Nationally, the Douglas County School Board also holds the cards to direct legal conversation regarding Blaine clause rulings in 37 other state constitutions. Failure to remove the Blaine clause and religious discrimination in Colorado could establish a guiding legal precedent, which would prohibit faith-based educational choice across the entire U.S.
This deciding moment for education in America came down to one single school board race in Douglas County, Colo.
As a nonpartisan organization committed to equipping Christians to cast informed votes in every election of consequence, My Faith Votes distributed 25,000 voter’s guides across Douglas County. We decided to do this because this one election would not only affect the school district’s 67,000 students, but millions of students across America.
In 2017, nearly half of America’s 1,000 largest school districts have held or will hold elections. Those elected school board members will represent over 10 million students throughout 34 states in the U.S. Yet local school board elections are notorious for low voter turnout — often just 5 or 10 percent of Americans within the voting districts show up to the polls.
No matter how small or insignificant it might seem, every election has consequences. We can’t keep skipping our school board elections — for the future of our own children and of millions across the nation.
• Jason Yates is the CEO of My Faith Votes.