State Court Says Voucher Law Violates Colorado Constitution

Colorado's school voucher law violates provisions of the state constitution and may not be implemented, a state court has held.

District Judge Joseph E. Meyer III ruled Dec. 3 that the program runs afoul of a section of the state constitution that requires local school boards to maintain significant control over funding of district schools.

Americans United praised the ruling, saying it will prevent Colorado school districts from being forced to implement voucher plans. The program was slated to take effect this year. Billed as a "pilot project," it was to be limited to 11 districts, but many critics said they believe the effort would be the first step toward a statewide voucher plan.

Last spring, Americans United along with the ACLU of Colorado, the National Education Association and other public interest groups brought suit against the school voucher law on a number of state constitutional grounds. The groups represented Colorado parents, clergy and taxpayers.

"Local school boards should not be placed under a state-issued mandate to fund religious or other private schools," said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. "State lawmakers and pro-voucher lobbying groups were so bent on ramming a statewide voucher system into law that they overlooked the legitimate interests of local school officials. This ruling reinforces the state constitutional right of local school boards to maintain control over funding of public education."

Lynn added that the ruling was also a victory for those concerned about state funding of sectarian schools.

"Religious pressure groups are working overtime to do away with public schools in favor of religious schools supported by public financing," Lynn said.

The voucher law, called the Colorado Opportunity Contract Pilot Program, requires 11 school districts to participate and allows others to join. The vouchers for tuition at religious and other private schools were to be available to low-income students who attend public schools deemed "unsatisfactory" in at least one academic area.

Judge Meyer wrote in Colorado PTA v. Owens that he saw "no way to interpret the voucher program statute in a way that does not run afoul of the principle of local control embodied in" the state constitution.

Voucher advocates in the state, including Gov. Bill Owens, vowed to appeal and insisted that the program would move forward.

Plans were well under way to begin implementing the program.The Denver Post reported that 447 private schools had applied to begin receiving vouchers worth about $4,500 per student but only 272 were approved by state officials. It was unclear what grounds officials used to make the decisions.

The lawsuit did not charge that the voucher law violates the church-state provisions of the Colorado Constitution. That issue might be looked at in a separate legal action if Meyer's ruling is overturned on appeal.