Douglas County school board's elimination of vouchers elicits sharp response

By Marianne Goodland, ColoradoPolitics.com Updated: December 5, 2017 at 4:48 pm • Published: December 5, 2017 0
photo - CASTLE ROCK, CO - JUNE 29: The Colorado Supreme Court ruling the Douglas County School District's controversial school voucher program unconstitutional in a split ruling June 29, 2015 at The Supreme Court of the State of Colorado downtown Denver. (Photo By John Leyba/The Denver Post)
CASTLE ROCK, CO - JUNE 29: The Colorado Supreme Court ruling the Douglas County School District's controversial school voucher program unconstitutional in a split ruling June 29, 2015 at The Supreme Court of the State of Colorado downtown Denver. (Photo By John Leyba/The Denver Post)

Conservatives overnight Monday and into Tuesday made it clear: The decision by the Douglas County Board of Education to end its Choice Scholarship program was a setback for those who support educational vouchers and school choice.

But those who supported the board's decision were also out in force Monday night and into Tuesday on social media.

The board voted unanimously, 6-0, to cancel the controversial voucher program and a second program that also never got underway, as well as to direct the district's lawyers to end the legal fight that has kept the Choice Scholarship program tied up in the courts for the past six years.

The Choice program would have given up to 500 Douglas County students who have been enrolled in county public schools for one year a voucher, valued at around $5,000. That voucher could go to private schools, religious or secular, including schools not located in Douglas County.

The Choice program, authorized by a conservative majority board in March 2011, never went into effect. Within three months, Taxpayers for Public Education obtained an injunction from a Denver District Court judge blocking its implementation. Appeals took the lawsuit to the Colorado Supreme Court, which ruled the program unconstitutional, and then to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Last June, after ruling on a program from Missouri based on the same legal argument as Douglas County, the nation's highest court sent the case back to the Colorado Supreme Court to reconsider its decision. The appeal was going through another round of briefs, with one due from the district on Dec. 18.

Once the first program was tied up in the courts, the board tried again last year, launching the School Choice grant program, which would also provide vouchers, but only to secular schools. That earned the district two more lawsuits; another from Taxpayers for Public Education, and a lawsuit from an organization of religious schools claiming discrimination based on religious beliefs. That program also came under a district court injunction.

But Monday night belonged to those who had waited six years to see the original voucher program dismantled, and to those who bemoaned the program's end.

Within 40 minutes of the board's decision to rescind the program, Americans for Prosperity-Colorado issued a statement decrying the unanimous vote.

Jesse Mallory, AFP-Colorado's state director, called the board's action "disappointing although not surprising" and "a short-sighted decision over providing children with more opportunities for success. Since it's (sic) introduction, this program has been met with such stiff resistance by the teachers unions and special interests. The Board owes those students an explanation as to why they are limiting their educational opportunities in favor of the status quo."

Jim Earley, a parent and public school advocate in Jefferson County, shot back via Twitter that parents are a special interest group, and so are their kids.

George Brauchler, district attorney for the 18th Judicial District and a candidate for attorney general, predicted, without evidence, that the board would also bring back the union and end teacher performance standards.

The assertion has already partially been refuted by DougCo Board President David Ray, who told Colorado Politics a week ago that there was no interest in bringing back collective bargaining with the Douglas County Federation of Teachers. That relationship between the district and the union ended in 2012 when the then-conservative reform majority board ended the collective bargaining agreement. Most teachers now must negotiate their employment relationship with a superior, such as a school principal.

Ray called any effort to bring back collective bargaining a "false expectation. There's no desire for that," he said. "If we take care of our employees well, there's no need" for a union.

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