Colorado’s highest court on Monday struck down a voucher program that allowed parents in a conservative suburban school district to use taxpayer dollars to send their children to private schools.
The split decision to throw out the voucher program in Douglas County, Colorado’s third-largest school district, was a blow to conservative education advocates and those who want to redefine public education to funnel tax dollars directly to families who then choose the type of schooling they want for their children.
The state’s Supreme Court ruled against the district’s voucher program, which was passed in 2011, saying it violated a plank of the State Constitution that explicitly prevents public money from going to schools “controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatsoever.”
“This stark constitutional provision makes one thing clear,” Colorado’s chief justice, Nancy E. Rice, wrote in the court’s opinion. “A school district may not aid religious schools.”
The ruling’s immediate effect will be to prevent the district from giving vouchers to families to send their children to any private school, including secular ones. The court’s decision will also stop other school districts around Colorado from pursuing similar voucher programs.
School officials in Douglas County, just south of Denver, signaled that the district would appeal the case directly to the United States Supreme Court, with the hopes of weakening laws here and in other states that block public money from flowing to religious schools. More than a decade ago, the federal Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution could not prohibit the use of public vouchers to pay for religious schools in Cleveland.
Douglas County’s voucher program, called the Choice Scholarship Pilot Program, created 500 scholarships of about $4,570 each. The funds could have gone to any of 23 district-approved “private school partners” — 16 of which were religious.
The vouchers were at the heart of a series of conservative reforms that have transformed Douglas County into an educational battleground in recent years, pitting teachers’ unions, civil liberties groups and liberal parents against conservative families, a majority conservative school board and a group backed by the billionaire conservative Koch brothers.
In addition to vouchers, Douglas County’s school board has embraced merit-based teacher pay and charter schools. Conservative supporters say the policies have put the district in the vanguard of school reforms. Opponents say the efforts are chipping away at pillars of public education and have made Douglas County a hostile place for teachers.
With the court’s decision on Monday, the state’s largest teachers’ union claimed victory. “We’re incredibly gratified that the state’s Supreme Court recognized that public dollars should stay in public schools,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association.
Many states are moving forward with programs that allow families to apply public money toward private school tuition. According to the American Federation for Children, a nonprofit group that supports school vouchers, there are now 46 programs in 23 states and Washington, D.C. They include tax credit scholarships, in which private individuals or companies can earn tax credits for donating to scholarship funds, and education savings accounts that allow families to use tax dollars to pay for a range of educational services, including private schools, tutors and home schoolingmaterials.
In Colorado, opponents challenged the vouchers soon after they were approved, halting the program as the lawsuit moved through the court system. Civil liberties groups that hailed Monday’s ruling said it drew a clear border between public money and private faith.
“Parents are free to send their children to private religious schools if they wish, but the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed today that taxpayers should not be forced to pay for it,” read a statement by Mark Silverstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, which represented some of the challengers.