Voucher Opponents Cheer Colorado Court Decision

Published September 1, 2004

Voucher opponents hailed a June 28 decision by the Colorado Supreme Court striking down a new state program that would have given parents of low-achieving, high-poverty students the opportunity to get their children out of low-performing public schools and into qualified private schools using a $4,500 voucher. By 2007, some 20,000 students could have participated in the program, including many from the Denver Public Schools, where spending exceeds $9,000 per pupil.

Patsy Hill, a Denver mother of two, found the court’s decision “horrible” for children like hers in Colorado.

“It’s just absurd for parents to not have a choice of where to send their children to school, especially those who aren’t getting a good education in the public schools,” said Hill. “This decision–by one vote–shows that not enough people are taking the future of our children seriously.”

State Representative Nancy Spence (R-Centennial) pointed out that the voucher law, which she sponsored, was aimed at helping children who live in poor neighborhoods and are not being served by a good public school. She noted the dropout rate for minorities in Denver’s public schools is one of the highest in the nation.

In a 4-3 decision, the state court ruled the Opportunity Contract Pilot Program violated the “local control” provision of the Colorado constitution, which requires elected school boards to have “control of instruction in the public schools in their respective districts.” Although the majority opinion admitted the constitution provided no connection between control of instruction and control of locally raised tax dollars, the court nevertheless ruled the Pilot Program unconstitutional because it would use local funds.

“This is a tremendous victory for children, parents, and public education,” said Ron Brady, president of the Colorado Education Association, which provided legal counsel for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

“Vouchers drain precious resources from public schools, burdening the schools with the impossible task of doing more with less,” said Jeffrey Sinensky, general counsel of the American Jewish Committee, which “applauded” the court’s decision.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, also hailed what he called “a great victory for public schools and the taxpayers.” A similar sentiment was expressed by Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way Foundation. National Education Association President Reg Weaver announced the teacher union was “pleased” with the ruling, while his counterpart with the American Federation of Teachers, Edward J. McElroy, found the decision “heartening.”

Justice Rebecca Kourlis dissented strongly from the majority’s ruling. She was joined by Justices Nancy Rice and Nathan Coats.

“Because the school district loses no control whatsoever over the education provided in its public schools, but merely loses some revenue that it would otherwise have,” argued Kourlis, “I do not view the program as unconstitutional.”

Spence said the ruling would not discourage her or the program’s supporters. She said the court’s concern would be addressed in the upcoming legislative session so the program could resume.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Hillman (R-Burlington) agreed, saying the remedy is fairly simple, given that the remaining legal arguments of voucher opponents are “weak” and “rooted in anti-religious bigotry.”

“A pilot program can be funded purely from the state dollars, leaving local revenues untouched,” he said, “thereby adhering to the constitutional road map constructed by the majority’s decision.”

George A. Clowes ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.

For more information …

The June 28, 2004 ruling of the Colorado Supreme Court in Case #03SA364, Owens v. Colorado Congress of Parents, is available online at http://www.courts.state.co.us/supct/opinions/2003/03SA364.doc.