Colo. County School Board Ends Voucher Program At Issue In AU Court Challenge

While much press this week has understandably been devoted to the U.S. Supreme Court case involving a Colorado baker who cited his religious beliefs as justification for refusing to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, there was another noteworthy story developing in Colorado that has connections to the Supreme Court and religious freedom.

A county school board near Denver on Monday agreed to end a private school voucher program that Americans United has been challenging in court since 2011.

The Douglas County School Board unanimously agreed to not only end the “Choice Scholarship Program,” but also to end the district’s involvement in the resulting litigation – a move that could spell the end of a legal battle that began six years ago.

“It has always been my belief that public school funding is for public school education,” David Ray, president of the Douglas County School Board of Education, said in a statement to a Denver television station. “I respect every parent’s right to choose a public or private education for their child. However, as a public school system our taxpayers should expect us to spend solely on educating our 68,000 plus students who have chosen Douglas County schools.”

“Public funds should not be diverted to private schools, which are not accountable to the public,” board member Krista Holtzmann told the education blog Chalkbeat.

AU agrees – public dollars should fund public schools, which educate 90 percent of American children. Taxpayers can’t afford to fund two education systems, one private and one public.

Plus, the majority of private schools that receive taxpayer-funded vouchers are religious schools. While parents should always have the right to choose a private, religious education for their children, taxpayers should not be compelled to fund religious instruction that may conflict with their own beliefs. That’s why Colorado’s constitution has a no-aid provision that prevents public dollars from being used to fund religious education.

Public dollars should fund public schools, which educate 90 percent of American children.

When a pro-voucher faction took over Douglas County’s school board and passed a plan that made up to 500 students eligible to receive $4,575 each in taxpayer funds to attend private schools, AU and our allies at the American Civil Liberties Union, its Colorado branch and the law firm Arnold & Porter filed a lawsuit on behalf of local parents and taxpayers who objected to the plan.

We explained to the courts that Douglas County’s voucher scheme violated the state constitution and the residents’ religious freedom. The courts agreed with us: The Colorado Supreme Court struck down the program in 2015. The district appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court; this summer the high court sent the case back to the Colorado Supreme Court for further review.

Tired of their school board wasting resources on an unconstitutional private school voucher program, the voters ousted the pro-voucher faction in November and elected members who support public education. The race garnered national attention because it occurred amid the push by President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to expand federally funded vouchers.

On Monday, local residents showed up to the Douglas County School Board meeting in force, many of them carrying signs that proclaimed, “Stop Vouchers! DougCo voters have spoken!” The board complied.

How the board’s vote will affect the litigation remains to be seen. “The Colorado courts should dismiss the case as moot,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, AU’s associate legal director. “No more public funds should be spent on the defense of a program that has been repealed.”

Even as the new Douglas County school board does what’s best for its public education system, pro-voucher groups around the country are circling. Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group that supports vouchers, announced last week that it was spending “five figures” in an attempt to rally voucher proponents against the board’s pending decision and to monitor the board’s future actions.

AU will continue to fight against private school voucher schemes that divert desperately needed dollars away from public schools – in Douglas County and across the country. You can help by contacting your representatives in Congress and letting them know you support public schools.