Judge halts Douglas County (CO) school voucher program
August 13, 2011
National School Boards
A judge on Friday put a stop to Douglas County School District's
voucher program - at least for now - leaving hundreds of students who
had enrolled in private schools scrambling for alternatives as the new
school year is about to begin.
In a 68-page decision, Denver District Judge Michael A. Martinez
issued a permanent injunction of the Douglas County district's pilot
Choice Scholarship Program.
In June, the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for the
Separation of Church and State, and other Douglas County residents
filed a lawsuit against the district. In it, they said the voucher
program violates the state constitution because taxpayer money was
going to private and religious schools.
The group asked for an injunction to halt the program until the
broader legal questions are settled.
"The prospect of having millions of dollars of public school funding
diverted to private schools, many of which are religious and lie
outside of the Douglas County School District, creates a sufficient
basis to establish standing for taxpayers seeking to ensure lawful
spending of these funds," Martinez wrote in his ruling.
The lawsuit was filed in Denver because the State Board of Education
and the Colorado Department of Education, both located in the city,
are co-defendants in the suit.
Douglas County school officials said they will comply with the judge's
ruling as they continue to fight the issue in court.
"The court's ruling today limits the opportunity for Douglas County
parents to determine the best school fit for their children," school
board president John Carson said. "This ruling is not what the people
of Douglas County wanted or what we know is in the best interest of
304 enrolled in pilot
The ACLU issued a statement Friday, applauding Martinez's ruling.
"The court correctly recognized that it is unconstitutional for the
state to underwrite a child's religious education," said Mark
Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU of Colorado. "Families who
wish to send their children to a private school may do so, but not
with government funds that may only be used to provide a free public
education for Colorado's children."
The Douglas County school board voted in March to become the state's
first school district to implement a voucher system. The pilot program
allows up to 500 students already enrolled in Douglas County schools
to receive up to $4,575 toward tuition at a private school.
As of Friday, 304 students were enrolled in private schools using the
Douglas County stipend. Payments had been distributed on behalf of 265
of them totalling more than $300,000. District spokesman Randy Barber
said the installments were to be made in four payments.
He did not know whether the district would be reimbursed for students
who decide to switch from private schools back to the school district.
And what happens next is anyone's guess.
Parents of students enrolled in private schools now will have to
decide whether they want to shoulder the private- school tuition on
their own. Or they could put their kids back into the Douglas County
school system or home-school.
For parents like Diana Oakley, Friday's news was devastating. Her
13-year-old son, Nathan, has Asperger's syndrome, an autism-spectrum
She enrolled her son at Humanex Academy, a private school she said can
meet her son's needs. During a hearing last week in Martinez's
courtroom, she said she would likely have to home-school Nathan if the
voucher program were stopped, because the family can't afford the
school's $17,000 tuition.
But on the phone Friday, she said she and Nathan are showing up to
Humanex Academy for the first day of class Monday - regardless of the
"This is the most horrible thing ever," a frantic Oakley said, before
later calming down. "But we will prevail in this."
Helping students in flux
Douglas County School District said it would work with parents and
students enrolled in private schools to resolve issues related to
tuition already paid to private schools, and to find students seats in
Lynne Butler, a parent of three children who attend Douglas County
schools and a member of Taxpayers for Public Education, one of the
plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the district, said it would have
been wrong to divert tax money to private, religious schools.
"For every child who leaves our public schools, money is lost," Butler
said. "The school board needs to be focused on how to fix our public
schools in order to meet the needs of all students."