Legal challenge to school vouchers begins

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Four organizations filed two lawsuits against the Douglas County School District, challenging the district’s decision to deliver taxpayer money to private institutions.

The Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit June 21 in Denver District Court on behalf of parents and taxpayers within the Douglas County School District. The lawsuit asks for injunctive relief, a temporary stop, to the district’s plans to extend “school choice scholarships” to parents who wish to send their children to private schools.

If approved by the court, an order for injunctive relief would stop the district from launching its choice scholarship program until the conclusion of a lawsuit to put a stop to its plans to send taxpayer dollars to private institutions, said Jamie LaRue, the top plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The same day the LaRue lawsuit was filed against the school district, the Taxpayers for Public Education, a bipartisan organization, filed a similar suit in Denver District Court. The Taxpayers for Public Education say the district’s voucher program would harm Colorado public schools and families.

Their position mirrors that of the ACLU and the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which tapped into the district’s taxpayer base for its plaintiffs. The leading plaintiff in the case is LaRue, who is the director of the Douglas County Library District. LaRue and his wife, Suzanne, added their names to the list of plaintiffs as soon as they heard the ACLU was seeking plaintiffs in its case against the district, LaRue said.

He is aware his decision to place his name at the top of the list of plaintiffs could lead to some awkward moments in his capacity as a public figure but has been an outspoken opponent to the district’s decision to extend “choice scholarships” as part of its school-choice options.

The decision to divert taxpayer dollars to private institutions, most of which are religious schools, drove LaRue’s decision to join in the lawsuit.

“This is a profoundly mistaken policy decision, and this (lawsuit) is one of the few ways we have to stop it,” LaRue said. “If you don’t speak up for the public sector and our public systems, that silence would have kind of covered us and I don’t think I could live with myself.”

The Douglas County School District Board of Education on March 15 voted unanimously to approve school-option certificates, similar to school vouchers, in its school-choice proposal.

The decision earmarked a pilot program for public funding of a private education for up to 500 students in the 2011-2012 school year. In tandem with the decision to approve vouchers, the school board also approved a motion to create a school choice legal fund to defend its decision. The legal fund was set aside for donors interested in contributing toward legal costs related to the program, according to the board’s motion to establish the fund.

By the end of the 2010-2011 school year, the district had approved 495 school-choice scholarships, and within weeks opened a second round of applications for parents interested in taking their state-funded school dollars to a qualified “private-partner school.”

The day the lawsuits were filed, district officials issued a press release and announced a press conference to address the legal challenge ahead.

“The Douglas County School District is aware of the ACLU’s lawsuit regarding the Choice Scholarship Program,” the district says in its press release. “This program is just one of many choice programs available to Douglas County students. We continue to believe every student should be empowered to find their best educational fit, whether it is at one of our neighborhood schools, charter schools, or at one of our private-partner schools. We intentionally built this plan to include rigorous accountability measures that ensure a quality education for all students. Our District has a tradition of innovation and excellence — we will always provide opportunities that are in the best interests of our students.”