The Real Story of Caprock Academy

Caprock AcademyA student at Caprock Academy of Grand Junction, Colorado, shaved her head to show solidarity with a friend fighting cancer. On that part of the story, everyone agrees.

Then, as the story goes in many popular accounts, the school callously kicked the student out of school, relenting only after media exposure and nationwide outrage forced it to. That part of the story is false.

Those interested in the real story—and that seems to be very few people indeed—may read on. Part of the real story is how irresponsible reporting fed a despicable witch hunt.

True, part of the real story is how a young charter school wrote an ill-planned dress and hair code and then substantially botched a public-relations crisis.

Let us begin with Caprock’s rules. Caprock has an extensive and rigorous dress code. It states, for example, “Clothing should not be excessively tight, or body hugging.” Although the school doesn’t require official uniforms, it does require uniform dress, specifying even the color and type of clothing that may be worn at school. The section on hair reads:

Ladies’ Hair: Should be neatly combed or styled. No shaved heads. Hair accessories must be red, white, navy, black or brown. Neat barrettes, headbands and “scrunchies” are permissible. Hair should not be arranged or colored so as to draw undue attention to the student. Hair must be natural looking and conservative in its color. Radical changes in hair color during the school year are unacceptable.

Personally I think this is overly demanding; if a girl wants to die her hair bright orange, I have no problem with that. But it’s not my school, and, within reason and within Constitutional limits (it is a government-funded school, after all), I think Caprock should be able to formulate its own policies.

The intent behind the “no shaved heads” rule seems to be to prevent shocking or gang-like behavior. Surely I do do not need to point out that head shaving is also part of the ritualistic practices of some very nasty sorts of people (hence the term “skin heads”).

But the rule does not adequately take into account the fact that people can shave their heads for perfectly reasonable reasons—as to undergo cancer treatment or to support a friend with cancer.

The rule book does take this into account to a degree. The rules (of which I have a copy) explicitly mention the concern with gangs—and they also explicitly allow for “medical or religious” exemptions:

Apparel advertising tobacco, alcohol, illegal substances, and/or offensive slogans are not acceptable attire at school- sponsored activities. Clothes making statements with sexual innuendoes are not allowed. The wearing of clothing, jewelry, or a style of grooming that is identified with membership in a gang will not be tolerated in school or at any school-sponsored activity. Apparel that interferes with or endangers self or others while participating in school or school sponsored-activities is not allowed. Dress will not be worn that causes or is likely to cause disruption of the educational process. The final decision as to the safety or unsuitability of the clothing, hair or jewelry will be left up to the Deans of Students. Anyone who cannot follow the dress code for medical or religious reasons should contact the Headmaster.

As has been correctly reported, the school issued a waiver to the student in question on precisely these grounds. The problem is that the rule’s default position is to allow no shaved heads; the default position should be that a “religious or medical” condition is presumed in cases of shaved heads (I mean, it’s not like there’s a racist “skin head” problem among young Grand Junction girls). The school should change its rules to explicitly allow for religious and medical exceptions, sans waiver. [March 27 Update: After more consideration, I think the school should add the following line to its rules: “Exceptions to this dress code may be made for bonafide religious, medical, or humanitarian reasons, as evaluated by the headmaster, acting headmaster, or school administrators.”]

It might come as a surprise to many reading about the story to learn that the mother of the student in question is quite supportive of Caprock—although she sensibly argues the school should tweak its rules. Yesterday that woman, Jamie Renfro, posted the following on Facebook:

I would just like to say, from the bottom of our hearts…thank you! We never expected any of the support that we have received regarding Kamryn and Delaney. We are pleased with the decision that our school made to let Kamryn back in school today. She got up, got ready, and held her head high as she walked into her classroom this morning. To say her dad and I are proud, is a total understatement. Nate and I are so humbled from the outpouring of love and support from family, friends, and strangers. Our goal was just to get the shaved head policy at Kamryn’s school revised, and let her back in the classroom. That goal is on it’s way to being reached, with a meeting by the board being held this evening, as well as an invitation for Kamryn to return to school today. At no point during this ordeal was Kamryn’s school not supportive of her decision, nor show compassion…they just made a decision to enforce their dress code, which we were asking to be changed. They responded to all of our requests, and have treated us with nothing but respect the whole time. Now that we have seen just how much 2 little girls can change the world and touch so many hearts, we are asking for all of this attention to embrace awareness of childhood cancer. There are so many blessings that have come to light for our family the past couple of days, and we would like to use this as a platform, along with our best of friends…Delaney and Wendy, to remind everyone that Delaney is still in the fight of her life, and needs as much love, support and prayers as she can get. Thank you! Love, prayers, and hugs from the Renfro’s

Contrary to various media reports, at no point did Caprock try to deny the student a waiver. [January 27 Update: On Sunday, March 23, Jamie Renfro claimed that “the school” forbade her daughter to return to school until she grew her hair out. It is unclear to me whom Renfro contacted or what those parties discussed. On Monday the school’s administrators announced the exemption hearing; it is unclear to me when precisely they reached the decision to hold a hearing. See the notes below.] Indeed, as Renfro points out, the school was consistently supportive of the student. What the school did do is follow its stated policies and pursue a waiver.

Following is the statement that Caprock sent out March 24:

It has come to our attention that reports have been circulating concerning a Caprock Academy student who has shaved her head to show solidarity with a friend who is fighting cancer. Caprock Academy does have a detailed dress code policy, which was created to promote safety, uniformity, and a non-distracting environment for the school’s students. Under this policy, shaved heads are not permitted. Exceptions, however, are sometimes made under exigent and extraordinary circumstances. While we cannot discuss the specifics of this situation, the Caprock Academy Board of Directors is calling a special meeting March 25, 2014, at 6:00 PM. The Board is expected to discuss this matter in executive session (discussions concerning individual students are conducted in executive session). We expect the Board will vote regarding a waiver of the policy following that executive session.

Catherine M. Norton Breman,
President and Chair of
Caprock Academy, Board of Directors

Although inanrtful, Breman’s remarks distinctly point to the waiver process already underway.

Unfortunately, various “journalists” quoted Breman out of context.

For example, a New York Daily News story from yesterday quoted included only this much: “In a statement released Monday, administrators said ‘shaved heads are not permitted.'” Okay, but the statement also discusses the exception waiver. Such “creative editing” is simply bad journalism. (The News‘s opening paragraph also wrongly implies that the school relented only in response to national outrage.)

Likewise, a story in USA Today quotes only part of Breman’s remarks, ignoring the part about the exception process already underway.

There is a lesson here for consumers of media: Do not assume that the story told by newspaper is the complete (or even an accurate) story, even if it appears in one of the most prestigious papers in the world. It is said that “half the truth is a great lie,” and the reporters for the New York Daily News and USA Today (among others) told only half the truth.

Thankfully, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel has been basically responsible in its reporting; see a first and second article there.

It is worth relating Caprock’s second statement, released yesterday:

Compassion and selfless acts of courage are to be commended and encouraged – in children and in adults -and we apologize that our policies and following our process for exceptions to those policies has, in any way, suggested that supporting any one’s but particularly a child’s, brave fight against cancer is anything less than an extraordinary cause worthy of our highest regard.

The Caprock Academy Board of Directors held a special meeting tonight to discuss a waiver to the dress code policy per the parents’ request. The Caprock Academy Board of Directors voted to approve the waiver to the dress code policy.

Although Caprock needs to tweak its policies, nothing the school did justifies the seething rage directed at the school by swarms of social media personalities. Some people literally called the school to threaten its teachers and the teachers’ children. Such behavior is reprehensible. Shame on the people conducting themselves in such a way, and shame on the “journalists” who are irresponsibly fanning the flames of this witch hunt.

To summarize, Caprock acted within the constraints of its written policies to expeditiously grant an exception to the girl who shaved her head for a good cause. This incident illustrates the need for Caprock to tweak its policies so that, in religious or medical cases, a waiver is not required. That is obvious.

Unlike almost all of the critics of Caprock, I actually know something about the school. Someone I know teaches there, and my nephew goes there. I have been to his basketball games at the school. I have seen his hand-written letters and heard his reviews of his classroom exercises that assure me he is getting a good-quality education.

Caprock certainly deserves criticism over its ill-thought-out rules, and it should fix its rules as quickly as possible. Caprock also deserves praise for acting quickly to grant an exception to its big-hearted student and for offering an exceptional-quality education to its students. As always, a sense of context goes a long way.

5:22 pm Update: As the Denver Post notes, the girl with cancer at the base of this story, Delaney Clements, is receiving care at Children’s Hospital. That facility has treated a number of children whom I personally know, and it is excellent. Please donate now.

Contra Amendment 66 Supporters, CO Doesn’t Lag in Education Spending

According to supporters of Amendment 66, Colorado “isn’t keeping up” with education spending relative to “nearby states.” But these supporters have a funny idea of which states are “nearby” and which are not. They also use a dubious “adjustment” for “regional cost differences.”

When you look at actual per-pupil spending, Colorado spends more than do most other “nearby” states. Read my entire article over at Complete Colorado.

Of course, in this article I address only one tiny sliver of the debate over Amendment 66. Even if Colorado spent radically less per pupil on government-run schools, that would hardly count as a reason to spend more money on them. That’s a discussion for another day. But, at a minimum, I figured, those advocating higher taxes for government-run schools ought not use misleading statistics to make their case.

A Conversation with State Senator Nancy Spence

Last week I saw State Senator Nancy Spence at an Independence Institute event. She agreed to sit down for a video interview. Mostly we discussed “public” education and Colorado politics.

Obviously I don’t always agree with Spence—and there are quite a few tough questions I did not ask during this interview—yet I appreciate Spence’s long-standing commitment to Colorado politics. I wish her well as she leaves the legislature and begins new projects.

Free Market Arguments Against Vouchers

This past weekend I attended the Free Minds Film Festival in Colorado Springs, and it was fantastic. Among the great documentaries we saw wasThe Cartel, a film by Bob Bowden about the shocking corruption in the New Jersey government schools.

I spoke on a panel following the film with Bowdon and Ben DeGrow.Following are my remarks. (I believe the organizers of the film fest will publish video of the entire panel.)

Listeners might be confused as to why I oppose vouchers and yet support tax credits and charter schools (as interim reforms). I think any political reform needs to pass a two-part test.

1. Does the reform expand or weaken protections of individual rights? Liberty activists should support reforms that obviously expand individual rights and oppose reforms that obviously weaken them. If a reform is neutral with respect to individual rights, then move to the second test.

2. Does a reform improve results? If so, support it. Remember that we’ve already decided the reform does not further weaken individual rights. If a reform strengthens individual rights, it necessarily improves results; the moral is the practical.

In light of that test, I’ll briefly review the three sorts of reforms.

A charter school does not increase taxes levied. Instead, it offers families and educators a means to escape some of the worst problems of the teachers’ unions and political education controls. So I think charters pass the second test.

A tax credit, as I’ve reviewed before, threatens to bring new political controls to nominally private schools. For that reason tax credits may weaken individual rights, which is why I’ve always been nervous about them. On the other hand, a tax credit would not increase net taxes levied, while it would offer tax payers significantly more choice in how to spend their education-directed dollars.

A voucher program suffers two problems. It brings new controls to nominally private schools, and it also forces some taxpayers to finance religious institutions against their will, in violation of their freedom of conscience. So I think vouchers clearly fail the first test.

In watching Bowdon’s film, I realized that charter schools and vouchers largely end up in the same place: schools still controlled by politicians but with significantly greater parental control. But there are two important differences. First, charter schools simply cannot be religious in nature. Second, there is no confusion about charter schools being “private.” The proponents of vouchers explicitly call schools “private” which receive voucher funds, and that destroys the very distinction between political force and the genuinely free market.

I think the best set of interim reforms, then, consists of charter schools in conjunction with universal tax credits in which tax payers are restricted to giving their forcibly confiscated funds to charter schools. I also think charter schools should be very easy to start, with clear and simple rules and evaluations. This expands the options of parents and expands the choice of those footing the bill, but it retains the important distinction between government-financed education and free-market education.

In a free market, people without children may decide whether to contribute their funds to education, and if so in what way and in what amount. Parents, educators, and voluntary organizations bear responsibility for organizing and financing education. By the standards of free markets and individual rights, that remains the ultimate goal. A free market is the only system in which “education choice” fully becomes reality.

Another Look at Education Tax Credits

Earlier this year Michael LaFerrara advocated education tax credits in an article for the Objective Standard. I criticized a number of his important assumptions. He responded. So that would seem to put me back at bat.

As much as I appreciate LaFerrara’s enthusiasm for tax credits and for trying to move education in a better direction, I continue to think he overstates the potential of tax credits for advancing liberty, understates their inevitable problems, and fundamentally misunderstands the alternative.

My Position

LaFerrara claims I initially “leaned in favor of an education tax credit plan,” then “moved in the opposite direction,” concluding that “tax credits… must be rejected.” That’s not quite right.

In the February 4 article I coauthored with my dad Linn, we built on the idea of “choice” in education. We progressed from vouchers to tax credits for parents, then to more-ambitious universal tax credits.

Then we concluded that real choice consistent with individual rights means leaving people free to spend their resources however they want, consistent with other people’s rights. We wrote that even a tax credit plan “falls short of the standard of individual rights and free markets, for it requires people to direct a portion of their resources to schools. Real liberty means people can spend their earnings however they wish, whether for schools, medical research, a new business, or a trip to the Bahamas.” (Note that parents do have a responsibility, and a legally enforceable one at that, to provide for their children’s intellectual development; however, Laferrara goes far afield in attempting to link this to possible “standardized testing.”)

In my June 18 reply to LaFerrara, I did not conclude that tax credits “must be rejected;” as LaFerrara notes, I wrote, “There might be other good reasons for promoting universal tax credits for education, but tax credits will not eliminate government controls over education spending.”

If it seems like I’m taking an ambiguous position on tax credits, it’s because I am. My position is this. Because tax credits fundamentally presume the government’s authority to forcibly transfer wealth for education, I do not believe they are worth the investment of resources necessary to achieve them. At best, tax credits threaten to muddy the ideological waters.

Am I going to morally condemn people who advocate tax credits? No. Am I going to help finance their campaigns? No. Will I endorse and vote for a decent tax-credit proposal? Yes. Am I going to point out the inherent and potential problems with tax credits? Yes. Doing so keeps the debate focussed on the fundamental issue of individual rights, and it helps ensure that, if a tax credit proposal comes about, it will be a relatively better sort.

Principles and Incrementalism

On one hand, LaFerrara suggests I want to achieve the “ideal of free market education… in a single sweeping transformation”; on the other hand he claims I support “a much more subdued reform agenda” than tax credits. Neither claim is accurate.

Advocating the complete separation of school and state may be called many things, but I do not think “subdued” makes the list. I regard the agenda as rather ambitious.

But ambitious, principled reforms can (usually) only be achieved incrementally. Contrary to popular myth, there is no inherent clash between principles and incrementalism. The enemy is unprincipled incrementalism.

In the modern American context, any deep reform of education must be achieved over a span of many years. I advocate, primarily, making the intellectual case that individual rights (including rights to one’s own wealth) apply in the field of education. This involves many concrete political strategies, including fighting tax hikes for education, phasing in means testing (with lower taxes), and supporting real market alternatives. I do not advocate merely making a few marginal reforms and then giving up, as LaFerrara seems to assume, but instead systematically building on previous reforms until attaining a completely free market in education.

Tax credits in any sort of ambitious form could only be achieved through a long-term political battle as well. But my worry is that the fight for tax credits will ultimately undermine real liberty in education, precisely because they entrench the notion that government properly forces wealth transfers.

LaFerrara, then, basically misunderstands my position when he claims I seem “content to stop well short of taking the political offensive.” I’m all about taking the political offensive! (I do not personally want to spend my life specifically on reforming education, though I’m pleased to spend some of my time doing that and supporting the efforts of others.) I simply wish to avoid mistaking the “political offensive” for a circular firing squad (i.e., a strategy that ultimately undermines rather than achieves individual rights and economic liberty).

Because LaFerrara confuses the relationship between principles and incrementalism, he misattributes to me positions I do not hold, and he advocates one policy that clearly violates rights. He suggests that, by the logic of my argument, I should also oppose such “incremental” reforms as Health Savings accounts and a flat[ter] tax. But that’s just not so: I advocate both those reforms precisely because they unambiguously move us toward liberty. But LaFerrara also throws mandatory savings accounts in the mix of allegedly “incremental ‘free market reforms'” — even though those unambiguously move us in the direction of greater statism.

The essential in evaluating a political proposal is not whether it is incremental or far-reaching or whether it is implemented slowly or quickly. Those are contextual and strategic matters. The essential is whether it in fact advances individual rights.

So do tax credits advance individual rights? I think the answer is yes, because at least they expand the individual’s control over his own resources. But they still mandate the money be spent in a very narrow way (for education). The real risk is that tax credits will become yet another tool for Republicans to basically argue, “Forced wealth transfers? Of course I’m for that! I advocate a massive welfare state! Only I do want individuals to have a bit more choice within the context of the government setting the basic terms.”

The Inherent Controls of Tax Credits

LaFerrara’s basic case is this: “Once the choice of how their education dollars can be spent is relegated to the taxpayer, we will be closer to the day when it will be politically feasible to question why he or she must be forced to pay any government-mandated sum.”

I think that could be the case, so long as advocates of tax credits keep focused on the underlying principles. (I note merely that practically all conservatives who advocate tax credits systematically ignore those principles.) If the advocates of tax credits treat them as a means toward achieving liberty, rather than an alternative way to forcibly redistribute wealth, then they may well do some good ultimately.

Unfortunately, LaFerrara largely misunderstands my point about the inherent controls of tax credits. The whole premise of tax credits is that politicians will force you to finance education, only you get much more leeway in how to do that. But obviously there will be limits. As I’ve pointed out, tax credits for “My Family’s Vacation to Disneyland” or “The School for Satanism and the Occult” or “The School for Shopping at the Mall” would be politically rejected. What is allowable and what is forbidden will depend on how a particular tax credit proposal works itself out in a legislature and court system. I predict that any actual tax credit system will in fact place very tight controls on how the money is spent.

LaFerrara points out that free-market elements of the economy routinely fall under increased political controls, too. But this misses the fundamental difference. In the market segment, the default is that the individual owns his own resources, and the government then overrides his rights for some alleged greater good. With tax credits, the default is that the individual does not own the resources in question, and the government is merely setting limits on how to allocate the government’s money. With tax credits, the default and the inexorable condition is control.

The idea that that an actual legislature would institute a universal tax credit program with absolutely no controls is pie-in-the-sky, rationalistic, detached-from-reality, utopian thinking.

If you think advocating tax credits will open people’s minds to the idea that they actually own their own wealth, then I wish you well in that endeavor. But, in the interim, let’s recognize tax credits for what they are: political controls on how people spend their money.


Anonymous published the following comment on August 20, 2011 at 10:24 AM:

Hi Ari,

An amendment to abolish Federal, taxation collection and taxation expenditure, for education purposes.

An amendment to abolish State, taxation collection and taxation expenditure, for education purposes.

Ari, when and where are you collecting signatures?

When will your Representatives present these measures?



Mike LaFerrara posted the following comment on August 21, 2011 at 5:24 AM:


I appreciate your attention to this subject. Most of what you’ve said here I have already answered in my 8/11/11 post, and I refer the reader to that:

But, let me state that we are in complete agreement in regard to principled incrementalism. There is no confusion in my mind about “the relationship between principles and incrementalism”. That was the main point of my recent essay. However, people who agree on basic principles can differ widely on their application to practice – ex. personal accounts within SS.

Yes, they are government-enforced savings. But, what we have today is forced redistribution backed only by hollow promises of old-age benefits, rescindable at any time by congress ( At least the taxpayer would have possession of, and a right to, his/her own money, rather than the politicians. I consider SS personal accounts to be a step toward individual rights, especially property rights – preferably without, but even with, basic investment controls. They can be advocated as a step in the phase-out process. Personal SS accounts are consistent with your statement that “tax credits advance individual rights … because at least they expand the individual’s control over his own resources.” Incremental reforms must certainly be anchored to explicitly proclaimed principles, lest we advance statism. On that we agree. As I’ve said before, I have yet to see an education tax credit program that meets the test of (free market) principled incrementalism – certainly not ones advocated by conservatives and Republicans!

This brings me to my “misunderstandings” about your positions. Any assumptions I’ve made are rooted in my analysis of things you wrote. Without going into too many details, let me just say in my defense that, as you acknowledge, your tax credit position is ambiguous. I’m still not clear on exactly where you come down on them. Your strenuous objections in your last piece seemed to preclude any support for tax credits, yet now you say you’d support “a decent tax-credit proposal”. Here we seem to agree again: A properly structured tax credit program would be a step in the right direction. What would a “decent proposal” include, in you view? Otherwise, I think you confuse “misunderstandings” with disagreement, such as on the issue of “inherent controls of tax credits”. If – and I can’t resist repeating myself here – “a universal tax credit program with absolutely no controls is pie-in-the-sky, rationalistic, detached-from-reality, utopian thinking”, then how on earth can anyone believe that “an actual legislature would [ever] institute” the complete separation of education and state?

By the way, what do you mean by “phasing in means testing (with lower taxes)” as one of “many concrete political strategies”?

Best to all,
Mike “Zemack” LaFerrara

Do CO Vouchers Pass the Constitutional and Moral Test?

Douglas County passed a voucher program, prompting a (predictable) lawsuit from the ACLU. The Institute for Justice (IJ) has intervened on behalf of the school district. And the Independence Institute of Golden has taken up a public-relations campaign for the voucher program.

The first question is this: does this or any voucher program in Colorado pass Constitutional muster?

The First Amendment of the federal Constitution states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” As I’ve summarized, the Supreme Court has ruled that the establishment clause does not rule out vouchers for religious institutions; in certain circumstances they are permitted.

My own view is that there should be an absolute prohibition of any tax funding of any religious group, whether or not the First Amendment requires that. Forcing people to finance religious organizations violates their freedom of speech and economic liberty. (Of course, I oppose forced wealth transfers per se.) But let us grant that the federal Constitution (as now interpreted) does not invalidate the voucher program in question.

The more important language comes from Article IX, Section 7 of the Colorado Constitution:

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…

This is the the most clear, absolutist language I can imagine. It prohibits tax funding of any religious group.

Ah, but you see, that language does not actually mean what is says, so we may simply ignore it. At least that is the upshot of IJ’s position:

IJ Senior Attorney Dick Komer said, “This challenge to Douglas County’s innovative program will fail for one principal reason: It is parents — and not government officials — who are deciding what school a child attends. No educational money will be spent at any school through this program — be it secular or religious — without a parent making that free and independent choice. The provision of the Colorado Constitution on which the opponents of school choice rely has already been interpreted by the Colorado Supreme Court and the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to permit Colorado students to use state-provided financial assistance at religious schools, so long as the program is religiously neutral (meaning it doesn’t favor or disfavor religion) and the choice is made by the students and their families. Those who challenge school choice always disparage the key role played by the parents in selecting the schools their children will attend, but the Institute for Justice will defend the parents’ rights to choose the best available education for their children.”

I have not reviewed the legal decisions invoked by Komer. But the Colorado Constitution does not say that school districts can subsidize religious institutions so long as it’s done indirectly through a citizen-directed voucher. Whether or not the courts will allow it, directing vouchers to religious schools obviously violates the Colorado Constitution, and any other reading is convenient legal fiction.

Whether the relevant section of the Colorado Constitution was badly motivated is beside the point legally speaking. We can’t just ignore Constitutional provisions because we don’t like them. Instead, the proper move for those who dislike the provision is to seek its repeal.

That said, a few years ago Rob Boston questioned whether the prohibition of religious subsidies arose from anti-Catholic bigotry, as its opponents allege.

I have not looked deeply into the historical question, because frankly it doesn’t much matter to me. Is the Colorado language inherently biased? No, it is not. It does not target one faith, but rather prohibits tax subsidies of all faiths.

The relevant moral question is this: does the prohibition of tax subsidies for religious institutions protect rights or violate them? The obvious answer is that it protects people’s rights. People have the right to control their own resources. They have the freedom of conscience, which entails the freedom of speech, which entails the right not to support ideas they oppose. People have the right not to finance religious organizations if they don’t want to, and it is wrong to try to force them to.

Now, as I have argued, it is also wrong to force people to subsidize nonreligious ideas they oppose, such as the environmental indoctrination so prevalent in today’s “public” schools. But the solution to that problem is not to universalize the rights violations! Instead, we should seek to protect individual rights across the board. (See also my article,“Rethinking Education Tax Credits.”)

On the PR front, the Independence Institute (II) has released a video to the effect that the voucher funds are useful to students and their families. Well, the same could be argued for the recipients of any subsidy.

While the II and IJ talk about “choice,” they forget about the most fundamental choice involved here: the choice of how to spend one’s resources. Outside that context, we’re merely discussing some alleged “freedom to choose” how to spend other people’s money.

Now, Douglas County could start a voucher program that excluded religious schools. But that would also generate some problems. What if a basically religious school nevertheless claims to be secular or nonreligious? Why should religious schools be punted from the program, but not, say, the Al Gore School for Environmental Propaganda, or the Che Guevara School for Socialism?

Vouchers must go in one of two directions. Either they must be neutral to ideology, in which case they force taxpayers to finance institutions they may find abhorrent. Or they must discriminate on the basis of ideology, which is not obviously better.

The third option is to forget about vouchers and focus on establishing real, free-market education.


Anonymous commented on July 19, 2011 at 3:02 PM
Hi Ari,

I always thought vouchers as my first step to accomplishing your challenge of creating a free market for education. I figure the competition will create clear winners. These winners will produce educated students, efficiently. Ultimately these better schools will dominate the market. Maybe, just maybe a sensible body of representatives will recognize this success of a nearly free market and take the final plunge. They will say, hey, this is so stream lined and affordable, citizens should just pay for this themselves. We hereby no longer collect or expend revenue for education. I fear the current system moves us the exact opposite direct. Education becomes more bloated and expensive. Government subsidy or insurance are the only way to “fund” education.

Please explain why my first step is not an acceptable first step to free market education. Also please provide your first step. Certainly blogging is a nano start but what type of legislation, (even if it is legislation that deregulates), would you like to see?



Anonymous commented on July 19, 2011 at 3:09 PM
Hi Ari,

I forgot to mention this point in my previous post. It is regarding a different area so a separate post may be appropriate. The Colorado Constitution uses the word “sectarian” 3 times when refereeing to prohibited education. I did a quick search on sectarian and there is much disagreement to the actual meaning. Many believe it is not just religion. For example Denver Green School would be considered sectarian when compared to alternate definitions of sectarian. Any education other than core may be sectarian?



Why Rosen is Wrong about Vouchers

Does the U.S. Constitution support the Douglas County voucher program?

Ed Quillen and Ben DeGrow have fought it out on the origins of the so-called “Blaine Amendments,” which inspired Article IX, Section 7 of the Colorado Constitution prohibiting tax funding of religious institutions.

But here my purpose is not to try to sort out that history; as I’ve written,“Those who do not like that language [about tax funding], it seems to me, should seek to repeal it rather than ignore it.” Nor is my main goal here to discuss the propriety of vouchers, which I’ve done before.

Instead, I want to determine whether the U.S. Constitution trumps the Colorado Constitution in legalizing vouchers within the state. It does not.

This morning on 850 KOA, Mike Rosen offered the following argument. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”) does not rule out voucher programs that direct tax money to religious schools, so long as the government does not favor certain religious schools and makes the program available to a general class of citizen. Therefore, argued Rosen, the First Amendment trumps Colorado’s Article IX, Section 7, rendering vouchers legally permissible within Colorado.

But Rosen’s logic is faulty. The Supreme Court merely ruled (or so I understand) that a voucher program does not necessarily violate the First Amendment; whether a voucher program violates a state constitution is another question entirely.

The only way Douglas County’s voucher program could be tossed out federally is if it were deemed to violate some aspect of the federal constitution. Nobody is arguing that. (I think a good case can be made that forcibly redirecting funds to religious institutions does violate the establishment clause, but I don’t get a legal say in such matters.)

But the U.S. Constitution’s relatively weak establishment clause does not prohibit states from enacting stronger rules. The proper test is as follows: Does the voucher program violate the establishment clause? If no, then does it violate the Colorado Constitution? If yes, then it is invalid. (I predict the Colorado Supreme Court will side with the ACLU in this case, and I think it will be right to do so.)

Only if Article IX, Section 7 were ruled to violate the U.S. Constitution would the latter trump the former. To my knowledge, nobody has proposed a plausible case that that is so.

Contrast the case of vouchers with that of the campaign laws. I have argued that Colorado’s campaign laws violate our rights of free speech as protected by the First Amendment. Therefore, the Colorado laws, though part of the state constitution, should be invalidated by trumping federal law.

But, unless Article IX, Section 7 also violates the First Amendment — and I don’t see how it could — then it constitutes the deciding law.

As I have suggested, the legal dispute aside, vouchers in fact violate people’s basic rights of economic liberty and freedom of conscience. It is wrong to force someone to finance any religious institution against his will. And until conservatives recognize that basic point, they will at best dawdle at the edges of education reform, and they most likely they will further entrench the core injustices of “public” education.


Rob commented June 28, 2011 at 1:10 PM
I’m glad to see this discussion of the so-called “Blaine Amendments” and the potential impact of vouchers on the separation of church and state.

Oklahoma’s Constitution has a similar clause – Article 2 Section 5 – which was the target of a potential state question in this year’s session of the legislature, as it is viewed by religious conservatives as an impediment to getting their hands on tax money, primarily through the Governor’s Office of Faith-based Initiatives.

For this reason it has been near and dear to the hearts of supporters of the separation of church and state here in Oklahoma, and I was dismayed to see it coming under attack when word of SJR23 got out at the local AU chapter’s legislative preview in January.

So much so that I posted at the blog of the Coalition for Secular Government on the possibility that this could be the opening round in a campaign to put ALL religious establishment clauses in state constitutions to the ballot.

While I’m glad to see that this has not happened – yet – I don’t think it can be ruled out and caution supporters of church/state separation to remain vigilant.

While clauses in state constitutions specifically targeting religious funding – a la the “Blaine” Amendment – may be relatively recent, religious establishment clauses predate the Constitution itself and are a crucial backup to the First Amendment. I’m sure you already know that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom inspired the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Rob commented June 28, 2011 at 1:57 PM
Quillen’s piece is EXCELLENT!

DeGrow makes some good points but basically drops context.

I am dismayed at the news from Florida! Obviously I need to catch up on what’s going on here.

Individual Rights and Vouchers

Recently Colorado’s Douglas County instituted a small voucher programredirecting tax money to parents and then, in some cases, to religious schools.

Today the American Civil Liberties Union announced it was joining a lawsuit against the program, declaring it “threatens church-state separation and public education.”

The Independence Institute fired back claiming the voucher program promotes “parental choice and educational freedom.” Moreover, the group claims, the state constitutional prohibition of spending tax money on religious schools stems from “anti-Catholic bigotry.”

Regardless of the motives for the measure, in fact Article IX, Section 7 of the Colorado Constitution states the following:

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…

I cannot imagine more clear constitutional language: Douglas County may not direct tax funds to religious schools. Those who do not like that language, it seems to me, should seek to repeal it rather than ignore it.

I suppose one could (implausibly) argue that, by sending the money through parents first, it is not the government itself spending the money on religious schools. But the county knowingly approved religious schools for participation in the program.

Or one could argue that Colorado’s language violates the U.S. Constitution, though that seems to me a rather difficult case to make — especially for conservatives who typically militate against “judicial activism.”

But let us for now set aside the legal question, and focus on the more fundamental question of rights.

Do religious schools, in fact, have a right to forcibly seize wealth from those unwilling to pay it, through the governmental agencies of Douglas County? For those who believe in property rights and economic liberty, the obvious answer is “no.” People have the right to fund religious schools, or not to fund them, according to their own conscience.

Of course, the same point could be made about existing government schools, such as the Denver Green School which propagandizes children about environmentalism, akin to a religion. It is as much a rights violation to force people to fund an environmentalist school as a Christian school. But, about that, the ACLU will utter not a peep.

As I have suggested, if we take economic liberty and freedom of conscience seriously, there is ultimately only one way to protect people’s rights: separate school and state.


Anonymous commented June 26, 2011 at 9:07 AM
Separate school and state, I like that.
Education is valuable and desired therefore there is no justification for State intervention or interference. The free market can and will beautifully deliver relevant and efficient education.

A question to all separation of Church and State, pro state education folks. Why do you think it is okay to confiscate taxes from religious folks and use them for your secular Darwin schools?

No more Federal or State funding for education.


Ben DeGrow commented June 29, 2011 at 3:26 PM
“Do religious schools, in fact, have a right to forcibly seize wealth from those unwilling to pay it, through the governmental agencies of Douglas County? For those who believe in property rights and economic liberty, the obvious answer is ‘no.’ People have the right to fund religious schools, or not to fund them, according to their own conscience.”

Of course not, but that’s clearly not what is happening in Douglas County. Parents are directing dollars to schools — with a neutral opportunity to select religious or non-religious institutions — based on their free and independent choice. That’s where the Blaine Amendment and your argument fall down.

Ari commented June 30, 2011 at 10:20 AM
Ben, Is it not obvious that some of the tax dollars the parents are “directing… based on their free and independent choice” are forcibly seized from other taxpayers? What about their “free and independent choice?” That, I think, is where your argument falls down. -Ari

Rethinking Education Tax Credits

Should advocates of free markets and economic liberty promote such reforms as charter schools, vouchers, and tax credits for education?

In an article for the Objective Standard — and a follow-up reply to critics— Michael LaFerrara argues that vouchers threaten to subject nominally private schools to government controls, whereas tax credits promise to “reduce government involvement in education immediately and lay the groundwork to eliminate it over time.”

LaFerrara grants that choice among government-run schools (such as the charter system) “may yield small improvements in the short term,” but without achieving long-term advances in liberty. I am somewhat more enthusiastic about charter schools; Colorado has done reasonably well under a robust system of choice among traditional “public” schools and charter alternatives. Two of my second-cousins attend a good charter school north of Denver, and I’ve been impressed by the Ridgeview Classical School in Fort Collins. However, such reforms apparently haven’t helped to improve Colorado’s worst schools. Do either vouchers or tax credits offer hope for more fundamental reform?

LaFerrara opposes vouchers for the basic reason that they act as government subsidies. Vouchers pass from the hands of taxpayers, to the government, then to parents for use in schools of their choice. This creates two major problems. First, it leads to more government controls of nominally private schools. As LaFerrara summarizes, “Whoever pays the bill ultimately has the power to set the terms” — and he gives concrete examples of how precisely this has happened with voucher programs. Second, vouchers entrench the welfare element of government education by forcibly transferring money to lower-income parents.

To LaFerrara, the key distinction of tax credits — and he promotes a robust reform allowing anyone who pays taxes for education to direct their money to the education of any child — is that the person earning the money spends it, and it never passes through the government. For this reason, he argues, tax credits do not inherently threaten market schools with more government controls, nor do they entrench forced wealth transfers.

However, I remain unpersuaded that a tax credit proposal such as LaFerrara proposes would remain immune from onerous government controls. Notably, the article from the Alliance for the Separation of School and State that LaFerrara cites favorably and extensively in his original article claims that “the drawbacks of vouchers are also inherent in universal tax credits.” This is an issue I’ve wrestled with; one of the first articles I wrote for my web page criticized vouchers and tax credits,whereas an article I coauthored earlier this year more seriously entertains the potential for tax credits even while acknowledging their drawbacks.

The fundamental weakness of LaFerrara’s argument is that, with tax credits, the government continues to forcibly transfer people’s money to education. Yes, you can choose either to pay taxes to standard “public” schools or redirect that money to the educational activities of your choice. True, under a tax credit system such as LaFerrara describes, the money goes directly from its earner to an educational activity, rather than first pass through the government. But still the person who earns that money is forced by law to transfer it to education, one way or another. You could not, for instance, spend that money on your own (noneducational) business, a vacation, or your retirement plan.

Thus, even though a tax credit does not funnel that money through the government, it still extends the government’s claims over that money. In a very real sense, the government continues to claim ownership of the funds in question. The difference is that, rather than forcibly seize those funds directly, the government directs those who earn the funds how to spend them (within broad limits). The money is not fundamentally owned by the person who earns it.

In his critical letter, Steve Plafker raises the possibility of parents spending “their” education money on going to the movies and sporting events. We can extend the examples: what about Disney Land? What about schools that teach Satanism or Islamic Jihad? LaFerrara replies, “[U]nder my proposed tax-credit program, parents would be within their rights to treat money spent on a child’s trip to a movie — or any other activity they regard as educational — as an educational expense.”

But there is simply no way a law such as LaFerrara describes would ever pass. Because tax credits in fact recognize government claims to the money in question, tax credits would inevitably extend government controls over the use of that money. Government would define acceptable uses of the funds, and the notion that a tax credit program could encompass a School for Watching Cartoons or a School of Islamic Jihad or a School for Christian Fundamentalism is a fantasy.

Consider also the rampant corruption a totally uncontrolled tax credit system would promote. Here is a hypothetical. A parent could claim the entire tax deduction, start a “school” that consists of watching free online cartoons, and then pay himself a “salary” for the entire portion of the tax credit. Again, it is simply a fantasy that a law allowing such a thing could ever pass.

A tax credit system may not threaten as severe of controls over nominally private schools, but certainly it would bring government guidance for the spending of those funds. There might be other good reasons for promoting universal tax credits for education, but tax credits will not eliminate government controls over education spending.

What, then, does real education reform look like? Advocates of liberty in education must protect and expand the liberties of homeschoolers and private schools. They must check runaway spending on government education and seek to disempower the teachers’ unions.

Beyond that, the basic effort must be educational and ideological. That is, people must advocate real liberty in education, including the individual freedom to choose not to fund any educational activity. (Please keep four salient points in mind. First, currently the government forces people without children to fund education. Second, in a truly free market, many people would willingly contribute huge sums of money to education. Third, parents who do not provide their children with a basic education, as with parents who do not provide adequate nutrition, may be charged with child abuse. But, forth, many parents could ably educate their children for much less than they’re forced to pay in taxes for education.) As LaFerrara recognizes, a truly free market in education remains a distant ideal. But we cannot move closer to that ideal without advocating the fundamental principles of liberty and individual rights.

Insofar as tax credits further entrench the principle that government may force people to spend their earnings on other people’s education, they hinder, rather than hasten, the movement toward true freedom in education.


RussK commented June 18, 2011 at 3:39 PM
I enjoyed LaFerrara’s article in The Objective Standard very much, but, likewise, I was hesitant concerning the tax credit solution. Ever since I was introduced to the voucher versus tax credit debate–going back to the beginnings of the Florida voucher system–I have always been more open to tax credits; however, there is much that makes it a problematic solution for both freedom and education, of which you point out in your article. Simply put, the government will continue to define education, whether the money flows through vouchers or tax credits. Just as the Florida voucher system brought standardized testing to private schools, it is just as likely a tax credit system would do the same. Furthermore, on a more economic level, tax credits can have a negative or inflationary market effect, whether housing, green energy, or, in the future, education. Freedom and proper education should be promoted through principle. Flooding education with tax credits, the use of which would be defined by the government, would only skirt the issue of freedom and how to educate a child, as well as further destroy what is left of private education.

Brian T. Schwartz commented June 19, 2011 at 9:44 AM
For what it’s worth, Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute (& author of “Market Education, The Unknown History”) has a working paper titled “Do Vouchers and Tax Credits Increase Private School Regulation?”

“School voucher and education tax credit programs have proliferated in the United States over the past two decades. Advocates have argued that they will enable families to become active consumers in a free and competitive education marketplace, but some fear that these programs may in fact bring with them a heavy regulatory burden that could stifle market forces. Until now, there has been no systematic, empirical investigation of that concern. The present paper aims to shed light on the issue by quantifying the regulations imposed on private schools both within and outside school choice programs, and then analyzing them with descriptive statistics and regression analyses. The results are tested for robustness to alternative ways of quantifying private school regulation, and to alternative regression models, and the question of causality is addressed. The study concludes that vouchers, but not tax credits, impose a substantial and statistically significant additional regulatory burden on participating private schools.”

The PDF is here:

Anonymous commented June 19, 2011 at 11:13 AM
Reminds me a similar argument. Should we support or oppose tax loopholes? Some Libertarians claim tax loopholes are mini bits of freedom. I say we abolish all tax loopholes in favor of a much reduced tax rate for every producer.

Regarding charters and the destruction of private school? Reminds me of a conversation I had with 3 senior citizen limited government folks. I suggested vouchers and they about flipped. They said government control follows government money. I simply said, don’t accept the money if you don’t want it. Secondly, government education monopoly will destroy the private market eventually anyways.

At the end of the day, The Feds need to be completely removed from education. State education should be minimalized and county may fund some schools however there is absolutely no reason why education cannot be totally privatized. Sure some will not educate in the tradition of current standards. Put them to work, oh yea we also have to abolish child labor laws.

Go to Khan Academy if you do not believe me. Free, non government education is here. It is waiting for the Statist to get out of the way.


Anonymous commented June 20, 2011 at 8:11 AM
More to the point,

So long as there is taxation for education, vouchers should be the norm. What better way to illustrate the benefits of choice and competition.

To ignore vouchers is to protect status quo. Status quo is the destruction of humanity.


Ari commented June 20, 2011 at 9:42 AM
The alternate view, Jeff, is that taxation for education is the status quo, and vouchers are a meaningless variation of that.

Anonymous commented June 20, 2011 at 10:10 AM

I see vouchers as an argument against education taxation. Many small schools will result, ultimately destroying the government monopoly.


mike250 commented June 21, 2011 at 8:56 PM
quite the opposite, the vouchers will just result in a greater monopoly. its just a pragmatic approach and I think education philosophy comes first.