DENVER - The Colorado Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a case that could decide the future of district-run school voucher programs in the state.
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 chose religious schools, the Denver Post reported.
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 last year, the Colorado Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the voucher program.
Before the state's high court Wednesday, 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.
But the ACLU’s McCarthy said how the district ran the voucher program was anything but straightforward.
For the purposes of obtaining state per-pupil educational funding, Douglas County created a public charter school, which existed only on paper, and enrolled students in the non-existent charter school, McCarthy said. But the students would really attend the 23 private schools.
"The charter school is a mirage. It has no classrooms, it has no principal, it has no text books," he told the court. "Unless they claim these students as part of the pupil count, they couldn't claim the [state] money."
The voucher program was never launched. Opponents obtained a court order blocking its operation until the legal battle is settled.