Judge halts newest version of Douglas County School District voucher program

Staff report
Posted 8/2/16

Judge Michael Martinez of the 2nd Judicial District stopped the Douglas County School District's school voucher program Aug. 3.

Martinez granted the injunction filed by Taxpayers for Public …

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Judge halts newest version of Douglas County School District voucher program

Posted

Judge Michael Martinez of the 2nd Judicial District stopped the Douglas County School District's school voucher program Aug. 3.

Martinez granted the injunction filed by Taxpayers for Public Education, a group, that according to its website, is a Colorado-based, bipartisan organization made up of taxpayers and parents of children enrolled in public schools.

Martinez found that the School Choice Grant Program was fundamentally the same as its predecessor, the Choice Scholarship Program, and that it is covered by the same injunction that halted the earlier version of the program.

The judge rejected the school district's argument that the injunction against the DCSD voucher program applied only to religious schools. He held that the Colorado Supreme Court's order "applied to all private schools."

Martinez agreed with the plaintiffs that the School Choice Grant Program is "in actuality a mere revision of the (Choice Scholarship Program)."

"While we respect Judge Martinez, we disagree with his decision," said baord member Doug Benevento.

Benevento said the district is exploring options for an appeal.

Cindy Barnard, president of Taxpayers for Public Education, applauded the decision.

"This is a victory for public schools in Douglas County and across Colorado," she said. "The DCSD voucher program hurts public school children because every dollar used in the voucher program is a dollar taken away from public schools."

School board members who support the voucher program could not be immediately reached for comment.

The voucher dispute dates to 2011, when the school board approved the Choice Scholarship Program. Designed to accommodate 500 students, it allowed students' parents to use state-provided, per-pupil money toward tuition at private schools, including religiously affiliated institutions.

Taxpayers for Public Education subsequently filed a lawsuit against the district to stop it. A Denver judge halted the program that same year, but in 2013, a state appeals court reversed that decision. The state's top court in June 2015 issued a ruling saying using public funds for religious schooling was illegal.

The district filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court in September 2015 and is waiting to hear if the court will take the case.

Benevento said the court will be ruling on another case involving the Blaine ammendment in October and he expects no decision will be made on the Douglas County case until after that ruling.

In March, the school board amended the original voucher program to prohibit money from being used at religious schools and renamed it the School Choice Grant program. And in April, three families sued for an injunction to allow the program to be used for religious institutions until the constitutionality of the voucher program was decided.

They argued the exclusion of religious options from the program violates the Free Exercise, Establishment, Equal Protection and Free Speech clauses of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Due Process Clause, which guarantees the fundamental right of parents to control and direct their children's education and upbringing.

As of June 10, the deadline for applications, six students had signed up to participate.

"I am saddened and disappointed that parents and students will not have this educational option available to them," said Board Vice-President Judy Reynolds.

Board member David Ray said while at this point he wasn't sure what would happen to these students, past practice has been to allow students to return to their previous school of enrollment.

"While this news may be disappointing for these students, I am greatly relieved," Ray said. "We have many pressing issues in our district, and trying to push forward a voucher program only detracts from where our energies should be placed. I hope we can put to rest the "litigation frenzy" that this has created. We desperately need to focus efforts on restoring our public school system to a state of excellence."

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