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Douglas County

School voucher program case dismissed by Colorado Supreme Court

Decision marks the end of a battle that started in 2011


The Colorado Supreme Court has ordered a controversial school voucher program case to be dismissed, according to a news release from the Douglas County School District. The decision was made Jan. 25, roughly six weeks after the Douglas County School Board voted to rescind the program.

“I am proud to be part of this monumental decision to end the Choice Scholarship Program,” Wendy Vogel, vice president of the school board, said in the release. “This program created huge divides in our community and did not have the support of many of our residents. Now we can focus on providing our schools with the resources needed to be successful.”

A majority board of reform-minded members first voted to approve the Choice Scholarship Program in 2011. Designed to accommodate 500 students, it allowed students' parents to use state-provided, per-pupil money toward tuition at private schools, including religiously affiliated institutions.

Taxpayers for Public Education — a Colorado-based, nonprofit organization that advocates for a strong public education system, its website says — subsequently filed a lawsuit against the district to stop the voucher program. A Denver judge halted the program that same year, but in 2013, a state appeals court reversed that decision. The state's top court in June 2015 issued a ruling saying using public funds for religious schooling was illegal.

The district filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court in September 2015. In June of this year, the school voucher program got another look from the Colorado Supreme Court following a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on a similar case in Missouri. In the case Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, a Missouri church sued after being denied state funding for a preschool playground because the Missouri state Constitution forbids financially supporting a religious institution.

On June 26, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the state's original decision violated the U.S. Constitution's protection of the free exercise of religion by excluding churches from state programs with a secular intent.

As a result of the ruling in Missouri, the court sent back to the Colorado Supreme Court the case known as Taxpayers for Public Education v. Douglas County School District, which was tied up in court for roughly seven months.

The president of Taxpayers for Public Education released a statement following the Colorado Supreme Court's decision.

"We are very pleased with the Court's decision and that the misuse of public school funds to pay for private education in Douglas County is over,” Cindy Barnard said in a Jan. 26 news release. “The dismissal of the appeal, together with the election of a new anti-voucher slate of School Board members in the Douglas County School District, ensures that the district's focus will now turn to using public dollars to strengthen public schools.”

In the Nov. 7 school board election, voters elected four anti-reform candidates — Krista Holtzmann, Kevin Leung, Anthony Graziano and Christina Ciancio-Schor — who outwardly opposed the voucher program throughout their campaigns. They filled the seats of four reform-minded members, signaling a change in a majority board that espoused policies that, to many people, caused an exodus of teachers in recent years.

At a special meeting on Dec. 4, the new board voted to rescind the Choice Scholarship Program.


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