Court Upholds Nation’s First District-Run Vouchers

Published March 4, 2013

Coloradoans who sued to stop the nation’s first voucher program run by a school district will appeal to the state supreme court after an appeals court ruled 2-1 in favor of the program.

The Feb. 28 decision reversed a previous ruling against the program on grounds it sends state money to religious schools. The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled Douglas County School District’s voucher program does not violate constitutional prohibitions against government establishing religion.

The voucher program is “neutral toward private religious schools because it is open to all private schools,” wrote Judge Jerry Jones in the majority opinion. “No student is compelled to participate in the [voucher program] or, having been accepted to participate, to attend any particular participating private school. To the extent students would attend religious services, they would do so as a result of parents’ voluntary choices.”

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court used similar reasoning in upholding Ohio vouchers challenged on the same grounds. The Colorado court also ruled private citizens can’t sue to overrule how school boards use state funds.

‘A Range of Choices’
Just south of Denver, Douglas County is the third-largest school district in Colorado, its wealthiest, and academically highest-performing. Its school board will wait on the state supreme court’s decision before reopening the program, said board president John Carson. Before a coalition of local taxpayers, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other organizations sued the district, it had about 500 kids lined up to attend approved private schools for fall 2011. 

“We’re not doing this because we need to demonstrate substantial improvement, but because we believe it will make us even better and the kids in Douglas County will benefit,” Carson told School Reform News. He noted 10 percent of the district’s students are enrolled in charter schools, a homeschooling partnership, and a bevy of online education options: “This isn’t about one particular program; it’s about offering parents the entire range of choices in publicly funded education, and we don’t see why that should be controversial.”

Opponents argue school districts should only educate children in conventional public schools.

“The public wants the district to turn its attention to educating the majority, and not waste time and money on a program that will serve only a very few,” said Cindy Barnard in a statement. She is president of Taxpayers for Public Education, one of the groups suing to stop the program. SRN attempted to reach her and other TPE members, but none returned calls by publication.

Every Child Is Different
Becky Barnes, mother of an autistic child who had been granted one of Douglas County’s vouchers, said while her other two children attend and love their neighborhood public schools, this son needs a small and focused classroom, which he couldn’t get in public school.

“This would have given us the opportunity for him to be in a normal school setting with kids his own age,” she said.

While his voucher is in limbo, Barnes’ son is attending a Douglas County online school.

“When your kid comes home and you know they’re not fitting in and you want to give them another option, then you understand [the need for vouchers],” she said. “If your kid’s going to school, a normal child like my other children, you don’t.”

Local Politics
The school board made enemies by deciding not to renew its teachers union contract in 2012, instead opting to contract with teachers individually, said Ben DeGrow, a senior education policy analyst for the Independence Institute.

“[The union] sees the extra choice the board is giving parents as a lever [the union can use] to create discord and try to win back the school board,” he said. Four of the board’s seven seats are up for election this fall.

Barnard points to polls showing many Douglas County parents do not support the voucher program, but Carson notes “our school board has been reelected by wide margins in several consecutive elections.”

Douglas County parents often mistakenly believe vouchers take money from public schools, said Barnes, although the program actually increases public school coffers because each voucher is smaller than per-pupil state funding. 


Image courtesy of the Institute for Justice.