4 Groups Suing Douglas County School District Over Voucher Plan

Opponents Are ACLU, ACLU-Colorado, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Taxpayers For Public Education

Three civil liberties organizations plus an educational organization have filed two lawsuits challenging a school voucher plan adopted by the Douglas County School District.

One lawsuit was filed Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The other was filed Tuesday by Taxpayers for Public Education.

ACLU-Colorado director Mark Silverstein said the voucher plan violates the Colorado Constitution's religious liberty provisions, which bar the use of public funds for religious schools.

"We are asking the court to stop this misguided program before it goes any further," said Silverstein in a news release.

The district is offering up to 500 public school students a partial scholarship to go to one of the district’s partner private schools. Fourteen of the 19 schools the district is partnered with are religious institutions.

"We support a parent's right to choose," said Silverstein. "The issue is that they can't do so with taxpayer money."

"When a parent makes the choice about where to spend the educational dollars. there is not a constitutional problem with the U.S. Constitution," said Robert Ross, legal counsel for the Douglas County School District.

Ross said the district's voucher program mirrored a school district's program in Cleveland, which was also challenged. That district's court battle made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, he said, and the district won.

"We are confident that these reforms, that are in the best interest of our students, will win the day -- in our schools and in our courts," said Elizabeth Celania-Fagen, superintendent of the Douglas County School District.

The lawsuit filed by Taxpayers for Public Education contends the voucher system violates the Colorado Constitution as well as the Public School Finance Act.

Each applicant for the program had to be a Douglas County School District resident, currently attending a district school and had to be in the district for no less than one year.

The Choice Scholarship Pilot Program is designed to provide the district’s students with more educational opportunities, officials said. By providing many choices both within the district's traditional schools and through programs like this, the district said, it hopes to enable students to find educational programs that best fit their needs.

Douglas County officials said the program includes "rigorous accountability measures" and the district believes all students should be empowered to find their best educational fit.

"Our district has a tradition of innovation and excellence -- we will always provide opportunities that are in the best interests of our students," district officials said.

A group that has intervened in support of other school voucher programs across the country said it plans to get involved on behalf of the school district south of Denver.

"Within the next few days, the Institute for Justice will move to intervene in the case," said Michael Bindas, senior attorney for the group based in Arlington, Va.

The Douglas County program is similar to others that have survived court challenges, Bindas said. The program will be found constitutional, he added, because it is neutral on religion and leaves the choice of school up to the parents.

On Tuesday, the district said 21 vouchers were still available. A raffle is being held Wednesday to fill those slots as well as line up alternates in the event a student does not qualify.

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