Colorado Supreme Court rules Douglas County School District school voucher is unconstitutional

Choice Scholarship Pilot Program offered $4,575

DENVER - The Colorado Supreme Court has ruled that Douglas County's school voucher program is unconstitutional.

Taxpayers for Public Education originally sued the Douglas County School District in 2011, contending that DougCo's voucher system violated the Colorado Constitution and the Public School Finance Act. 

The court issued a ruling Monday, reversing the Colorado Court of Appeals' previous decision that upheld the voucher program. It also ordered the Court of Appeals to return the case to the original, trial court so that an order permanently enjoining the Choice Scholarship Pilot Program (CSP) can be reinstated.

Specifically, Monday's ruling states that CSP violated article IX, section 7 of the Colorado Constitution. That section reads: 

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; nor shall any grant or donation of land, money or other personal property, ever be made by the state, or any such public corporation to any church, or for any sectarian purpose.

A majority of the schools involved in the 2011 program were religious in nature. 

The Supreme Court was also asked to determine if the voucher system violated the Public School Finance Act, because the original trial court determined that the voucher program violated that law. In that question, however, the Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Appeals that the petitioners did not have standing to challenge the program under that act. 

Still, the program will be blocked due to the constitutionality ruling. 

Douglas County School District estimated Monday that their fight to defend the program has cost over $1 million so far, all from private donors. They also said they are considering an appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States.

-- Legal battle --

The legal battle began in 2011 when a newly elected conservative Douglas County school board introduced a pilot voucher program that offered up to 500 students $4,575 in state funds for tuition at private schools. Of the 23 private schools accepted into the program, 16 were religious and 14 were outside Douglas County. More than nine in 10 students taking part selected religious schools, our partners at the Denver Post reported.

School officials said the Choice Scholarship Pilot Program was designed to provide the district's students with more educational opportunities.

Opponents won a Denver district court decision in 2011, arguing it was unconstitutional for the Choice Scholarship Program to provide public education funds to private religious schools. But in 2013, the Colorado Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the voucher program. Again, the Colorado Supreme Court reversed the appeals court ruling, essentially ruling that the program is unconstitutional.

The voucher program was never launched. Opponents obtained a court order blocking its operation until the legal battle is settled.

-- Colorado Supreme Court case --

Last December, both sides argued their case in front of the Colorado Supreme Court.

Opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union, pointed to language in the Colorado constitution prohibiting public money from supporting a school "controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatsoever."

"Public school funds are intended for public education," said attorney Michael McCarthy, representing the ACLU.

"We have…undisputed factual evidence that these schools are controlled by churches and sectarian denominations," added attorney Matthew Douglas, representing  opponents Taxpayers for Public Education.

Yet James Lyons, an attorney for the Douglas County Board of Education, said the voucher plan has a lawful and noble goal, "This program is designed to aid students."

The real issue, Lyons said, is "who decides where this money goes," the district or the parents?

"In this case, parents make the decision," he said.

Parents "are simply being given the choice here to take…public money that is available to them and use it as they see fit," Lyons added.

Parents making the choice on where their children go to school "breaks the link" between public funding and makes it private funding, Lyons said.

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