Appeals court hears Douglas County school voucher case

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Months of preparation boiled down to one hour of impassioned arguments Monday as attorneys presented their case on Douglas County’s school voucher program to the Colorado Court of Appeals.

The three-judge panel will decide “in due course,” it said, but gave no indication when that might be.

Spectators filled the downtown Denver chambers to hear one side argue that the program will deplete public education and the other that it will expand educational choices for all.

“Through competition, all schools are made better,” said Eric Hall, an attorney who argued on behalf of the Douglas County School District.

The program was designed, he said, “to provide additional educational choice so that individual families can find the right educational program for their students.”

But opponents maintain the voucher program takes away from funds that should be directed to public schools, and instead benefits religious institutions. Opponents prevailed in a lower-court decision in August 2011, when a Denver District Court judge blocked the program.

The Denver judge ruled that the use of taxpayer money for private and religious educations violated the Colorado Constitution and school finance act.

The voucher, or choice scholarship, program launched by the Douglas County School Board in March 2011 allowed a limited number of students to use state-provided per-pupil funding to attend private schools.

While the idea of parental choice rings true, the method used by Douglas County violates the Colorado Constitution and is only the beginning, said attorneys for the opponents, who include parents Cindy Barnard and Jamie LaRue and the group Taxpayers for Public Education.

“Douglas County, if allowed to proceed with this program, will grow it to limits that, unless stopped, will operate to materially deplete the financing available to public schools,” attorney Matt McCarthy said.

The choice program, he said, would “leave other children behind, children who don’t have the resources to make the choice to go to schools whose tuition is much greater, in almost every instance, than the $4,500 that would be provided through the choice scholarship program.”

The program allowed up to 500 Douglas County students to receive up to $4,575 toward tuition at a private school. Parents footed the remainder of the bill.

School officials said the program was not specific to religious schools, but most of the participating institutions were religiously themed.

School board member Justin Williams, who attended Monday’s hearing, said he’s determined to see the program gain legal status. His five children, however, attend neighborhood public schools.

“I feel passionate about it because where a child goes to school should be the family’s decision,” he said. “We feel our neighborhood schools are the best fit for our family. But as much as it’s right for the Williams family, it doesn’t mean it’s right for everybody in Douglas County.”

Regardless of the appeals court’s ruling, both sides expect the case will move forward to the Colorado Supreme Court.

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